John Gottmann, a psychologist at the University of Washington wrote a book called, “The Relationship Cure.” In it are strategies for strengthening marriages and other relationships. But Dr. Gottmann is a well known expert on marriage so that emphasis of the book is there. I have read a number of his books and know that one of the things he talks about quite frequently are perpetual problems. 69% of marital arguments are never resolved. And it’s not so much that happy couples need to resolve them as they need to cope with them together.

My maternal grandparents had a long marriage of 60 years. I wish I could say that it was a happy one but it was not. They had a number of perpetual conflicts but one I distinctly remember is the fight they had about a photo that my grandmother had taken with the Hawaiian entertainer, Don Ho. They took separate vacations by the time they were in their 60’s. My grandmother would frequently visit Hawaii to see their daughter, Judy and her family. My grandmother loved Don Ho’s shows. Apparently, he used to invite the grandmothers in the audience to take a photo with him. My grandmother, who was one of the most star struck people I’ve known, of course got the photo op. But she wouldn’t show the photo to my grandfather. I don’t know how many times I heard them yell at each other over some stupid photo. Like my grandmother would have an affair with Don Ho! But the argument was not about the photo. It was about some deeper issue that they were not able to manage. But because they were of a generation, a social class, and a religion that didn’t divorce, they stayed together for many unhappy years.

John and I have been together for nearly 27 years and we have our share of perpetual arguments. And conflict is part of any close relationship. It is to be expected and to be dealt with. But never in a million years would I expect to have a perpetual argument about a plant part, more specifically soursop leaves. Soursop is a fruting tree indigenous to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. I first became aware of the soursop when I was visiting one of my best friends, Cheryl, for her mother’s funeral. Cheryl’s parents were both immigrants from Trinidad. Cheryl’s Uncle Norbert, a retired ichthyologist with more than a passing visual and vocal resemblance to Harry Belafonte, first told me about soursop ice cream. It is as I understand, an acquired taste.

Many years passed and I didn’t think again about soursop. Then I was diagnosed with cancer in late May of 2012. I had my first surgery scheduled for June 27th of the same year. One day, shortly after my diagnosis, John came home with a plastic bag of leaves. One of his co-workers had learned of my breast cancer and told John that tea made from soursop leaves would shrink my tumor. In fact, he thought it would help shrink my tumor even prior to surgery, which was scheduled for a couple of weeks later.

My husband is a software engineer for Disney Internet. The co-worker who gave him the leaves also had a high tech background. He was also rather eccentric, priding himself on storing his container of almond butter upside down so that the oil was easier to stir into it and it would remain creamier. I know this sounds snarky, because it is, but my mother taught me the same practical tip about peanut butter when I was a girl, with about 1/100th of the fanfare.

John brought home the leaves with instructions to make tea. I told him, “I’m not drinking that. Your co-worker is not a physician. He’s an engineer. And he’s weird.”

Okay, so that was not the best way to handle the situation but I was overwhelmed with information, trying to be the best patient that I could be, and the soursop leaf suggestion just seemed surreal to me. Go away, surreality. I need less of you. I am swimming in this cancer Hell hole as fast as I can. I don’t need any Salvador Dali in my life right now. My reality is spinning and melting enough as it is. Now, since it was so important to John I did a literature search on the use of soursop in cancer treatment. There was no evidence to support its use that I could find and some suggestion that it could be harmful. I considered his request considered, albeit in my own feisty way and ruled out for reasonable reasons.

As you might imagine, John was none too pleased with my response. He told me, “You only trust people with credentials.” Seriously? He said this as if it were a bad thing. Months later, he changed his criticism to, “You are so Western in your thinking.” I replied, “I believe that natural substances can be potentially very powerful for good or ill. I want to see an expert not just take advice from anyone. And by the way, you know I see a naturopathic oncologist and a practitioner of oriental medicine IN ADDITION to conventional oncologists, right?”

The argument comes back from time to time without resolution. I invited John to my last two psychologist visits as we work to transition from a crisis managing couple to a different sort of life together. The kind of  life that includes the possibility of cancer and has already included past cancer. We are still dealing with the aftermath.

The soursop leaf debacle was discussed during the last session we had together. John explained why it was so important to him. He said, “I wanted to cure Elizabeth’s cancer.” John clarified that he did not think that he was a physician or that he had more expertise than my physicians. But he, as my husband, wanted to “help” in a way that was “curing” my cancer. It was important that I understand this. I had no idea. It makes no logical sense to me. Why would John be expected to “cure” my cancer. There is no cure for breast cancer. And if there were, it would not only be known by John and another software engineer. In fact, it probably WOULDN’T be known by a couple of high tech guys.

But John is my husband who loves me dearly. I know that when he is scared, he is not always “reasonable”, in fact he can be downright romantic and sometimes nearly magical in his thinking when things gets really emotionally tough. And guess what? I am not the paragon of reason at all times. I get scared, feel out of control, and have my own little irrational dance that I do.

I don’t know what it is like to be a spouse of someone with cancer. I hope never to have this experience. But I know that it is important for me to try to understand my husband’s experience. This way we can cope with the conflict of the soursop leaves, which is really conflict about neither of us having control over the disease of cancer.