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Traditional wedding vows ask us to consider the possibility of sickness and to promise to uphold our commitment in the face of it. Nevertheless, we don’t typically embark upon married life expecting that our spouse will suffer a serious or chronic illness.
But the reality is that many couples are forced to cope with a life-altering medical condition. If you’re one of those couples, you know that understanding the impact this can have on your relationship is key in adjusting to such an enormous challenge.
Although this adjustment takes time (on both the practical and emotional levels), and although the process often involves a myriad of complex emotions (for instance, anger, helplessness, depression), the more you can realistically and non-judgmentally look at your reactions to your spouse’s “new normal,” the more you can successfully cope.
In light of that, it’s wise to consider five areas where caregivers of chronically-ill partners commonly report feeling a major emotional disruption.
1) Sense of loss
Depending on the nature of the condition, the partner struggling with illness may change in subtle and, sometimes, profound ways. The relationship that you previously relied upon may feel so foreign that it almost seems inaccessible to you.
However irrational, it’s common to experience anger toward the person who has the illness (which then may cause you to feel guilty). This is all part of grieving the loss of what once was a marriage you thought you knew quite well.
2) Shifting roles
Very often we are drawn to a life-partner whose way of navigating the world complements our own. For instance, someone who is timid and insecure may find him/herself with a partner who exudes confidence; someone who is highly emotional and spontaneous might be drawn to a more rational-minded planner; the natural caregiver may feel most at home with a partner who longs to be the subject of solicitous attention.
An illness can suddenly upend these roles and tip the balance that once grounded you in your relationship. The take-charge person may now find him/herself in an overly dependent position; the planner may have to relinquish control; and the caregiver may now be the one who needs to be cared for. Such changes can be daunting, disruptive, and disorienting.
We all like to believe we’re in control of our lives. Indeed, in many areas, we do have control. But when a significant illness strikes, the notion of absolute control is starkly revealed as an illusion.
And when an illness interferes with one’s ability to work, financial uncertainty can become a preoccupation instead of a passing thought.
All too often, individuals married to a chronically-ill spouse confuse self-care with selfishness. They mistakenly believe they shouldn’t ever focus on themselves and, if they do experience moments of joy, they tend to feel great waves of guilt over it. (“How can I enjoy this moment if she’s stuck at home? What’s wrong with me?”)
You probably already know that fighting something makes it all the more firmly entrenched, so battling the guilty voice in your head with defensive statements might make it yell louder. Self-kindness begins with understanding where the guilt-inducing thoughts come from, and then just letting them go.
5) Balancing empathy with limit-setting
No matter how even-keeled your mate may have been before the diagnosis, being forced to accept the reality of a serious illness will likely cause your partner to experience dramatic—sometimes unsettling—shifts in mood. And sometimes those mood shifts may be directed at you.
One moment s/he may be extremely grateful for your help, only to push you away or lash out in anger or resentment a moment later (and keep in mind that helplessness often masquerades as anger). It will be important to try not to take your spouse’s emotional ups-and-downs personally (I know this is much easier said than done).
This is where empathy comes in. Remember that your partner is adjusting to this traumatic life change and is coping with fear and uncertainty. S/he may not even realize the impact the behavior is having on you. That doesn’t mean you should become a proverbial punching-bag, though. It will be important to practice setting limits where appropriate, while still empathizing with the fact that your mate is reeling from the loss of life as s/he knew it.
You can adapt—start with understanding
The impact of a significant or ongoing health crisis can dramatically change the shape of your marriage or relationship. Some couples report that their relationship has become stronger because of an illness, whereas others continue to stumble under considerable stress. Gaining an understanding of the different ways in which this situation can impact you, your partner and your relationship is an important first step in adapting to this major life upheaval.
Wishing you and your relationship all the best,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Image courtesy of vitasamb2001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)