Migraine as the Scapegoat in Divorce
Last updated: August 2021
Married migraineurs have the same challenges as every other relationship but the condition is frequently weaponized as the sole cause for blame when things go wrong.
Offering advice on long-term relationships
When it comes to long-term relationships, I believe that most issues can be addressed, as long as both partners are willing to put forth the effort. Migraine can present a hefty challenge, to be sure, but if each person wants to find a way around and through the difficulties, it can be done. Indeed, I wrote a number of articles on this very topic a few years ago offering advice and guidance on how to carve out time together; navigate intimacy; and maintain focus on marriage when migraine is chronic for one partner. At the time, I was making that effort; and gathering information from a marriage therapist to improve my own 20+ year marriage.
My husband was already gone
I should’ve seen the writing on the wall when my then-husband refused to come with me to couples counseling or follow through on any of the advice the therapist was offering. We were verging on being empty nesters and I thought it would be good for us to focus on one another and strengthen our connection. Looking back, he was already checked out and not interested in making the required effort. But, I was so certain of our future and keeping our family intact that I didn’t properly evaluate his behavior.
What were his reasons?
When I discovered his infidelity, wrapped up like a shiny bow around a midlife crisis, he denied that the affair was of any consequence. He pointed instead entirely to my migraine condition as the cause for our marriage ending. Just weeks after celebrating our 21st anniversary at a fancy hotel and spa, here he was, informing me that our marriage had been "over for years." He said he was tired of caring for me and that we no longer had anything in common.
A self-proclaimed caretaking hero
While it’s true in the early years of our marriage he had been more than attentive (running errands, helping me file for disability), I eventually grew to dislike the dynamic of asking anything of him. It didn't feel healthy and seemed to create a power imbalance. In reality, it had been more than a decade since he did so much as to bring me an ice pack or a ginger ale. I had become quite self-sufficient in handling my condition. Still, I believe he held tightly to an outdated narrative to claim the title of exhausted, caretaking hero in an attempt to justify his actions to whoever would listen.
Key to successful relationships? Communication
Communicating about emotions was not his strong suit. He had difficulty articulating his feelings and handling mine. I plead with him for years to prioritize improving his skills in this area, but he never did. How tiring for both of us when he’d repeatedly ask “How are you feeling?” and my answer could rarely be “I’m fine.” He didn't seem interested in, or capable of, fielding an answer of any depth and I desperately wanted to connect on a deeper emotional level but that never came to fruition. I'm exceedingly communicative and emotive so I eventually turned to friends and other family members for the emotional support I needed. This dynamic led to our becoming less than connected.
Even though he knew I had frequent and severe migraine attacks before we married, I felt terrible guilt over the way the condition impacted him. When our kids were younger and he had to step in for me as a parent, it was unbearable to behold. I didn’t want to inconvenience him with an illness that wasn’t his fault so I bent over backward the other way to encourage him to embrace himself and his own life. If I couldn’t join him socially with friends, I would tell him to go without me. I was fine on my own (I am an introvert, he is an extrovert). I encouraged him wholeheartedly to pursue a sport that became a time and self-consuming obsession. I thought it was healthy for me to support him in creating a full life where the migraine was not at all a focus. The problem was, the life he created didn’t include me in any way.
Challenges not unique to migraine
Of course, the dynamic in which we landed is not unique to couples in long-term relationships (regardless of whether or not migraine is a factor). Indeed, after decades of time together, many couples struggle to find or maintain common interests beyond their children (and I would argue family is a very worthy common interest!). Frequently partners struggle to communicate effectively and/or express emotions. Often one partner is an extrovert and the other an introvert. There are of course many ways to address and resolve all of these issues if the desire to make the effort is there.
Chronic migraine presented a unique challenge when it came to how to communicate about and support one another day in and day out. In those and countless other ways, we both could have improved our marriage and been better partners for each other. And that’s just it. There are countless reasons our marriage ended. While migraine was a major factor, it was certainly not the only, or even the primary, issue.
It's about choosing to make the effort
On the day he claimed our marriage had been over for years, I was shocked and confounded. But now I think I understand what he meant. He chose to stop making the effort in our relationship, at some point and for some reason, years earlier. For him, our marriage was over then. But because he didn't let me know there was an issue until years later, it then was too late to solve. So I blindly continued forth believing our marriage was intact, and kept heartily making the effort to better our relationship. My point is, none of this has anything to do with migraine. This is how many relationships end; when one person decides to stop trying.
When migraine is weaponized
When our exes point to migraine as the sole reason the relationship ended, it is akin to weaponizing an already painful condition against us on their way out the door. It is an easy way to avoid taking any blame for the myriad of other issues at play. Without a doubt, some marriages involving migraine do crumble under the weight of a dynamic where one person is doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to caretaking.
Countless other marriages that do and do not include a chronic migraineur stand the test of time because both partners have a true desire to remain married; they work at communicating well, enjoy spending time together, and continue to strive to learn from and with one another, understanding that marriage is about dedication, commitment, love, intimacy, respect, communication, choice, and effort.
Has migraine impacted your long-term relationship? Do you feel your condition has been used against you?
Do you have a migraine toolbox for when an attack hits?
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