Sometimes couples are faced with problems they do not anticipate. One such is chronic illness. A chronic illness is a medical condition that lasts for a long time, sometimes for the rest of someone’s life. They include conditions like diabetes, arthritis, and cancer, among many others, may appear quickly or gradually, and are often unexpected. As a couple, be informed about the illness you are facing. Seek information from your doctor and reputable medical websites. Organizations may exist to help those with your spouse’s chronic illness. Learning about the condition will help you know what to expect. Although facing a chronic illness is difficult, it does not have to be wholly negative. The Family: A Proclamation to the World reminds us that “Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.” Several things can be done to help spouses fulfill their “solemn responsibility to love and care for each other,” even in the face of chronic illness. In fact, as spouses work to handle this trial together, their marriage relationship may even be strengthened.
It can be difficult to adapt to a spouse’s chronic illness. Sometimes the condition calls for changes to life plans, and often for changes to everyday lives. Your spouse may no longer be able to work outside the home, or participate fully in household chores. Adjustments may be required to diet or sleeping patterns. Your spouse may need to adhere to a strict medications or treatment regimen, and may require frequent doctors’ visits. As you are faced with such changes and adjustments, it is normal to feel fear, pain, and anxiety. Don’t feel ashamed if you experience these. When faced with the challenge of chronic illness, spouses often try to shield each other from the reality of the illness by not speaking openly of fears and concerns. It may not be wise to share all your worries with your spouse. However, not discussing things gives the illness too much power. It becomes the “third party” in a relationship–the elephant in the room. Openness about true feelings is important. By discussing your needs, you can both learn how best to help each other. Relying on each other for emotional support can strengthen your relationship. Talking out your worries may help you overcome feelings of hopelessness. However, the illness should not become the focus of your relationship. Talking too much about the illness can make it more difficult to cope.
Although it is okay to express negative emotions at times, try to be positive and optimistic with your spouse. Your positive attitude can encourage. Do not force yourself to be positive all the time; your spouse will sense it if you are hiding deeper emotions. However, though it is hard, if you keep a positive outlook, you will have an easier time coping, and your spouse may find your optimism encouraging.
There are some things you can do to foster a positive attitude. It may not be possible for your spouse’s condition to be cured or fully controlled. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, make small goals that you can achieve. For example, although you cannot cure the illness, you may be able to assist with treatments, take over some household tasks, or just be available to talk to on a hard day. When you are helping in such ways, it can be easier to stay positive because you know you are actively doing what you can to make your spouse’s life better.
Chronic illness can trigger some painful emotions. If you or your spouse are really struggling to cope, you may consider seeking professional help. A counselor or therapist can help you better handle your emotions and new responsibilities. You may also consider joining a support group. Speaking with others who are facing challenges similar to your own can help you feel less isolated.
Talking about the illness requires balance. Be considerate of your spouse’s needs and feelings. Understand that sometimes one of you will need to talk about the illness, when the other needs a break. Sometimes your spouse may just need you to listen to them vent. Reassuring your spouse of your love can be comforting. Remember to talk about topics besides the illness. Talking about your relationship may be especially helpful.
Handle the Situation Together
When husbands and wives tackle the illness together, it can be easier to keep a positive outlook. Couples who know they are going through this as a team may be less stressed and worried. Realize that the illness may affect your relationship. If you discuss what influence the illness may have, you will be able to anticipate and prepare for difficulties. Keeping your marriage strong can help you better cope with the disease. You can do this through small acts such as spending a few minutes together each day, or by going on dates.
Depending on the severity of the illness, your spouse may not be able to participate in household tasks as much as in the past. However, continuing to let your spouse take part in tasks within their ability can help them feel useful. Be careful not to be overprotective, but to keep him or her as an equal partner. Allow your spouse to play a role in decision making. Also allow some independence, if possible. Allow them to do the things for themself that can be managed.
Support From Friends and Family
Remember you are not in this alone. The Proclamation reminds us that “Extended families should lend support when needed.” Your friends and members of your faith community also stand by to give support. Turning to friends and family for help and support can strengthen you and your spouse, and help you to handle the situation. Sometimes family members might not be sure what they can do to help, although they want to be of assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask them to help with specific tasks or challenges you are facing.
Take Care of Yourself
Even as you care for your spouse, make sure to take time for yourself. Stay involved in outside activities, even if you are just attending your children’s sports games or going to church socials. Keep in touch with family and friends. Remember that your emotions and your needs are still valid, even if sometimes you need to put your spouse’s needs first.
Written by Shelece McAllister, Research Assistant, and edited by Susanne Olsen Roper and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
Coping with the Chronic Illness of a Spouse is adapted from the website Forever Families