Part 1 of 2 “Marriage is work”. It’s a common expression used to remind people that the union isn’t always an easy one. A big challenge that many couples face is when one or both mates are diagnosed with a chronic illness. Cancer, heart disease diabetes, lupus, and arthritis are just some of the illnesses that can test a couple’s love and commitment to each another. It can be difficult for spouses to stay connected when one’s symptoms are uncontrollable, and their ability to do the things that both mates have become accustomed to becomes unpredictable. In fact, research has shown that 75% of marriages affected by chronic illness end in divorce.
However, being diagnosed with an illness doesn’t mean that the end of a marriage is inevitable. Actually, if these new challenges are navigated consciously and carefully, a couple can become even closer and stronger than they were before the diagnosis.
During my five-year marriage, most of my debilitating health problems went undiagnosed. Yet, much like my diagnoses, my understanding of how to balance illness with married life didn’t come until after the marriage was over. Even so, I would like to share what I’ve learned with others. Here are five suggestions that show that chronic illness doesn’t have to be the end of a couple’s journey, instead, it can be a beautiful new chapter:
1. Go to therapy or widen your support system.
With any health condition, there are a multitude of emotions that come along with it. Feelings like fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, or even resentment can be a daily battle whether a person is newly diagnosed, or has been dealing with their illness for years. While good communication is important, consistently expressing these feelings to your spouse and only your spouse can lead them to feeling overwhelmed and even resentful themselves. Don’t rely on your mate to be 100% of your support system. Therapy is a good way to sort through these tough emotions and learn healthy thought patterns that will allow adjusting to new limitations to be a smoother transition. Also, sharing feelings with a trusted friend or family member can help to take some of the emotional load off of one’s mate, and can even open the way for advice and fresh perspectives on how to cope with the changes. In reality, the healthier mate will have their own emotions to work through also, so therapy or a supportive network is recommended for them as well.
2. Communicate regularly and in a healthy way.
Even though leaning on others is important, and having self-control not to release all negative thoughts upon one’s mate is wise, healthy communication is still key to being able to keep a relationship strong through the effects of sickness. In a peaceful setting, when both mates are calm, and in the right headspace for productive dialogue, honestly discuss topics like bodily changes and how the illness is impacting both spouses emotionally, socially, and economically. To get the most out of these discussions, it’s important that neither mate blames the other for the difficulties that are being experienced, and that neither person reacts too rashly or harshly to the honest feedback from the other. This will ensure that both mates feel safe to have these hard conversations in the future. It will also ensure the couple maintains the mindset that they’re working as a team against the illness, and not against each other.
3. Have a day where you don’t talk about the illness.
It may seem like I’m contradicting myself here, but remember, the ongoing theme within all of these suggestions is balance. In all contexts, we all need breaks. Adults take breaks from work and children take breaks from school based on the idea that taking time to decompress and enjoy life will allow them to return to their tasks with renewed energy and commitment. This same logic can be applied with couples that are enduring chronic illness. It’s so easy for a person to allow their illness to become their identity, which can cause their mate to lose sight of the qualities and characteristics that attracted them in the first place. Whether it’s one day a week, one day a month, or another reasonable spacing of time, a couple should schedule to take time away from talking about the illness. This is a great opportunity to restore some of the fun and emotional intimacy that may have diminished due to focusing on health concerns. Play a board game together, cook together, or watch a movie and discuss your favorite scenes. Whatever you do, save talk about medication side effects and upcoming appointments for another day.
4. Find the balance between doing things together and enjoying things separately.
One of the hard truths about becoming chronically ill, is that it usually limits a person from doing some of the things that they could do b