The 2020 movie Supernova is about love, unavoidable tragedy, and forgiveness. It’s also about a problem we will all face, one way or another.
Two men, Tusker (played by Stanley Tucci) and Sam (played by Colin Firth) have been in a loving committed relationship for over 20 years, and now Tusker has early-onset dementia. Tusker knows that before long he will no longer be himself, and he wants to do something about that before it’s too late.
This is the crisis of the movie, and it’s where you and I come in. Sam discovers that Tusker has created a plan to kill himself one night soon. Sam will be at a concert, so there will be no way for any blame to settle on Sam. Tusker has left a taped message for Sam to hear when he gets back that night. But Sam finds the tape and the lethal drugs, and he’s devastated and furious.
Let’s look at this from the point of view of how to have a healthy relationship, since this incident almost blew Tusker and Sam apart.
One point I need to get out of the way first. I think people have an absolute right to do what they want with their bodies. And so I certainly think that someone in Tusker’s situation—someone facing certain decline and death—has a right to take their own life before they are stuck living a life not worth living. And when and how this is done is their choice.
You may disagree, but this first point is a premise of this whole piece.
The question, then, isn’t whether Tusker had the right to kill himself before he drifted into helpless decline. It’s whether he had the right to do so unilaterally. Without any notice or consultation with Sam.
Now here’s where the dilemma becomes tragic. Sam knew that Tusker was drifting out to sea. But he was committed to caring for Tusker for as long as Tusker lived. He wanted to do that. By Tusker taking his own life he’d be depriving Sam of an honor and a duty and a gift of love.
So if Tusker didn’t try to kill himself unilaterally, depriving Sam of the power to have any say in it, there is a chance that Sam would somehow prevent Tusker from doing the very thing he most needed and wanted to do. And so Tusker would have to deal their relationship a terrible blow in order to get his last wish met.
The movie, being a movie, had as happy an ending as something like this can have. Sam was horribly upset with Tusker for planning to do what he was planning to do without consulting Sam. Tusker was horribly upset at the thought that he would no longer be able to carry out his plan.
And as you might suspect they used power move after power move to try to get what they wanted. Guilt manipulation, threats, emotional storms. And of course Tusker’s unilateral plan was itself a power move.
None of this made things any better. So the happy ending came about by movie magic. Sam suddenly “got it.” He said to Tusker, “I just want to be there with you.” And we’re given to believe they were together at the end.
In real life? I’m not so optimistic. I’ve seen what happens all too often.
The person in Tusker’s position just kills himself or herself. The partner may or may not understand but feels abandoned anyway. It’s not the suicide. It’s the way of going about it that leaves the survivor with feeling like an afterthought.
Or the person in Tusker’s position doesn’t kill himself or herself. And is deprived of what they need to do to take care of themselves, that last measure of autonomy. Instead their last moments are part of a story of control.
May I make a suggestion for how to handle something like this?
Whether it has to do with end-of-life situations or other huge situations heavy with emotion, remember that whatever can be done with power moves can be done much better without power moves.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Start with a FRAME. That way your partner is oriented. And that way your talking will feel less like a power move. If I have to listen to you say a bunch of stuff and I don’t know the frame, it will feel more and more like a power move with every 30 seconds.
You could say, “You know my health situation. Well, there’s something I need that’s really important to me. I want to talk to you so we can find a way to make it work for you. As you know...” And what you’ll be doing here is folding in your understanding of your partner’s needs and feelings as you present your needs and feelings.
2. Then, to focus things in, you say something like, “How can we make this work?”
3. Your partner will have a lot to say and, we hope, many questions. Give them time to get used to what you’ve said. Take their responses as an attempt to adjust to this new reality.
4. Understand that initially they’ll be saying that what they need is for you not to need what you need. Say, “Okay, I get that. But let’s explore. Given what I need, what would you need to be okay with that?”
The point is that you are exploring your needs with each other. Trying to achieve the intimacy that comes with knowing what your partner wants and why. This is how solutions come into being and how power struggles—and tragedies—are avoided.
For all the help you could possibly need with this, check out Why Couples Fight, which could really have been called, Why Couples Have Trouble Getting Their Needs Met with Each Other, and What to Do about It.