The Mighty Logo

To the Husbands and Wives Who Feel 'Less Than' Since Becoming Chronically Ill

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

So what exactly does “for worse” mean? You know, in that famous phrase “For better or worse” that many of us get to say? Many of us go through difficult times in our marriage, but we don’t always feel like the rough times are actually the “worse.” If I were to ask you what “or worse” meant, many of you would say things like cancer, death, bankruptcy and other life-changing events. But what if “or worse” creeps up on you? Would you recognize it? And, what if it’s only “or worse” for one of you? Is that even possible?

When I first started dating my husband in December of 2009, he had more energy than anyone I’d ever met. He was always on the move — calling someone to plan the next event, going on a vacation, working, going to dinner, going to the lake, coaching little league. I mean, the man was never still. His idea of relaxing was hanging out with a bunch of friends at a cookout, anywhere — the lake, your house, his house, the park — wherever. This man showed me what it was like to make it a priority to actively pursue happiness in the little nuances of life.  

In 2012, he suffered a back injury at work. It turned out to be significant. He was physically incapable of doing nearly everything other than walking, sitting and sleeping. It was finally determined that he would need surgery, and looked forward to it, hoping to get back to his life. But since then, he has experienced the highs and lows that come with major injuries — a period of small improvements, giving him a glimpse of healing, followed by a gradual decline to feeling worse than before the surgery. About a year later he underwent another, more extensive surgery to repair what the first surgery didn’t correct. This time they put rods and screws in his back. I had never seen a person in as much pain as he was in immediately following that surgery.  

I don’t live in chronic pain, so I can’t even begin to understand it. But I do know that some days, hours and minutes are worse than others for him. Some days he’ll feel like driving to the lake so the boys can fish — some days he doesn’t. Some days he feels like going to work — some days he doesn’t. One of the biggest problems with his pain (besides the pain, of course) is that it’s completely unpredictable.  We don’t go out of town for long weekends anymore because of his very real fear of being in pain the entire time, even if he feels “fine” the day we would leave. In fact, we plan very little. If he’s feeling OK, and we can get a plan for the kids within 30 minutes, we’ll go to dinner and/or the movies. I cherish these moments, because they offer me a glimpse of our not-so-distant past together, and hope (even if it’s inflated) of what our future could be like. But the next day, he’ll be in so much pain that he spends hours on the couch, because it hurts to breathe. And it’s then that I’m reminded that his pain is probably going to get “worse.”

I have experienced my husband’s confidence level going from the verge of “cocky” when I met him to almost non-existent today. He apologizes constantly for not feeling like participating in life. He feels like he has nothing to contribute. Before the injury, he did the cooking and cleaning (including the laundry!). Now, he apologizes when he sees me folding clothes. Yet, he still does these things on the days he feels “OK.” And I would even say he probably still does more housework than the average man. I’m extremely grateful for that.  

I’m not the least bit disappointed in him. In fact, I’m constantly inspired by his ability to put on a smile that masks the pain that I know never really goes away. I once heard him tell the doctor that on a scale one to 10, with 10 being the worst pain he’s ever experienced, his pain level on a “good day” is a five to six. What?! Who can function like that?  

So now our weekends are generally spent at home. I miss doing the things we used to do. I miss hanging out with our friends, going to the lake, taking road trips with (and without) the kids. But, I also love my husband. Unconditionally. Without fail. 

My point is this — “for worse” wasn’t the back injury. It wasn’t even the two surgeries that followed. “For worse” for my husband has been the change to his attitude. Although he is no less of a man to me or our children, I think he feels like he’s less than he once was. He is either in too much pain to participate, or, if he does feel like participating, he is constant fearful of the pain bearing down on him in the midst of an activity. He wants so badly to be an “active” participant in our lives and our kids’ lives. So when he can’t, he apologizes. Repeatedly. He wants constant reassurance that we all still love him as much as we did “before.” And unfortunately, I don’t know that there’s anything any of us can do or say to convince him he is still the amazing husband, father, provider, and Christian that he was “before” — he’s just different.  

man kissing woman on black background
Lori and her husband (photo by Travis Evans).

Red is different from blue. It doesn’t mean red is better than blue, or vice versa — it just means they’re different. The pain has made him live his life differently, and I think he interprets “differently” as worse. His health is worse, yes. But he, at his core, is not worse. He is different. Our marriage is not worse. It’s different. His parenting is not worse. It’s different. He was red and now he’s blue. So what’s “or worse” for me? It’s trying to convince him that this isn’t “or worse” for us. This is just different.

To my husband and others dealing with a chronic health condition, don’t let the world convince you that your physical limitations make you “less than.” All they do are determine the path you take to your awesomeness. I think my husband is the same smart (genius, actually), loving, handsome, sexy, strong, passionate, amazing man he was before his injury — he just now has to find different avenues to live his life. My job is to help him pave the new path to achieve his awesomeness — our path, which we will pave together, to our goals. And this is our “for better.”

Originally published: May 4, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home