The 24-hour news cycle feeds us a constant barrage of soundbites and sensationalized headlines designed to capture our shrinking attention spans and trigger a viral response. If you’re not careful, your well-meaning quest to be less uninformed can lead you astray. That happened to me last week when I came across this quote online attributed to Dr. Phil from one of his recent episodes about an interabled couple’s relationship issues.
“100 out of 100 relationships that involve caregiving fail.” — Dr. Phil⠀⠀⠀⠀
My initial reaction mirrored many of the responses I have seen online: The comment smacked of ignorant ableism and discounted so many of the awesome relationships I have experienced firsthand in the 15 years since I became a C3-4 quadriplegic. My wife Claire and I have been together for almost five years and are coming up on our first wedding anniversary in a couple months. Through our advocacy on both the local and national levels, we’ve met hundreds of other couples who defy the faulty logic in that statement, so I fired off an Instagram post of my own full of righteous indignation with the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted.
As expected — and let’s be honest, kind of hoped-for — my outrage hit the echo chamber online and was compounded on my various feeds, garnering more likes, comments and shares than damn near any of my previous posts this year. But it wasn’t more than a few minutes later that something didn’t sit right with me. I hadn’t actually watched the episode in question. I’d never paid much attention to Dr. Phil, but what I had seen made it hard to imagine how he could justify such a blatantly obtuse idea.
The Episode was About Codependence
The next morning, I jumped over to his website and watched the episode for myself. I saw the couple, Harley and Bailey, in a deeply enmeshed and codependent relationship, which started innocently enough but succumbed to the slippery slope where things start drifting incrementally into unhealthy territory and suddenly they were in over their heads before they knew it. I’ve had those relationships, especially early on after my injury.
Like Bailey, I remember being frustrated and insecure with my lack of independence early on, and I took that out on the people closest to me. I loathed the idea of needing help at all, but I didn’t want to bring in outside help, so it bred this weird way I tested all my relationships on an almost daily basis, in an impossible push-and-pull that Dr. Phil deftly points out to Bailey who ultimately agrees.
My lack of acceptance and negative attitude played a major role in the failings of my first few romantic relationships after my injury, and it stretched my immediate family to its breaking point. It wasn’t until I came to terms with my lack of independence and started to look for solutions that my life, and all of my relationships, finally began to change. That’s why most of the episode was focused on Bailey’s need to come to terms with his situation and start moving forward.
Caregiver or Partner is Not a Black-and-White Choice
Given that back story, the portion of the show where I — and so many others — took offense took on a whole different meaning. It started with Dr. Phil’s posing a black-and-white choice between caregiver and partner/lover. He wasn’t saying that Harley needed to pick one role or the other — he was highlighting the importance of finding balance in the giving and receiving of care between partners and getting outside help. He chose to frame it the way he did because it was probably what Harley and Bailey needed to hear in order to help them see that their current situation was not sustainable.
He never actually said that every relationship “that involves caregiving” will fail, he said “100 out of 100 times this won’t work,” in reference to the unhealthy dynamic on display between Harley and Bailey. He followed this up by bringing on another couple who highlighted the importance of placing the priority on the partnership/lover aspect of the relationship and making caregiving role a distant second. His decision to juxtapose these two segments is further evidence that he understands caregiver relationships can work in the right circumstances.
The overall message I took away was that, like all relationships, interabled partnerships are complex and the caregiving aspect adds a wrinkle that requires a delicate balance for each and every couple to find. Because despite what I said in my social media posts, caregiving remains an issue Claire and I continue to struggle with. I’ve had a team of caregivers covering varying amounts of our day from the beginning of our relationship, and it’s been a constant effort to find the balance between asking for help and having our own time together.
A big part of the reason our relationship works so well is because we’ve worked hard on accepting our limitations and the need for help. Through a commitment to constant communication, and a willingness to allow ourselves to be unflinchingly human with one another, we have built a system that minimizes my issues with needing care, allows her the freedom she needs to feel like my wife first, and gives us both the safety to speak up when that balance starts to shift toward unhealthy territory. It’s something we will have to continually fine-tune as we move forward in our life together. It’s that same work that Dr. Phil was pushing Bailey and Harley to undertake to save their relationship.
A Meaningful Conversation
Taken in its entirety, I think Dr. Phil’s show was rooted in good intentions, and his comment may have been a clumsy choice of words that was then taken out of context. The show was about the unhealthy dynamic of a single relationship, and some harsh words were used to try to get through to the couple involved. Without that context, it’s easy to take that one comment and turn it into the ignorant potshot that easily riled the masses.
Thankfully, the effects of this viral incident have been overwhelmingly positive. It sparked a meaningful conversation that has highlighted the beautiful spectrum of how interabled couples make their relationships work, which was exactly what the show was about anyways.
It also showed me how easy it is to get caught up in the mob and the importance of doing a little homework before jumping onto the virtual bandwagon of viral posts in the future. So, for that, I’d like to say thank you to Dr. Phil for getting both dialogues going.
Here is the clip most people in our community responded to:
And here is the clip that came next in the sequence: