When Chronic Disease Enters Your Marriage
There is never a convenient time to be diagnosed with a chronic disease. Diagnoses are often difficult, confusing, provoke countless questions, and present unimaginable disruptions to a couple’s typical routines. Finding ways to manage the lengthy journey of healing and coping with this unfortunate circumstance is key to success in your health and in your marriage.
“When I envisioned what I would be like as a wife, I pictured a perfectly kept home with dinner ready each night. I pictured laundry neatly folded and put away. I pictured vacations and outings. Letting go of the way I thought things would be has been a slow and painful process. However, we are getting there. We could choose to let my illnesses break us or we could grow closer together. I will continuously choose the latter each and every time.”Reanna Mathis; Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
Reanna Mathis is a public advocate for chronic health difficulties online. She is a wife, stay-at-home mom, and has found purpose in the pain of her chronic illness by staying active in her writing.
What is a Chronic Illness?
What is a chronic illness and how does it really impact marriages?
Because chronic conditions may sound like a rare circumstance, you may be surprised to learn that nearly HALF of all Americans cope with a chronic ailment. This is a large and drastic number especially as we learn of the unique difficulties these couples are prone to face.
“Chronic diseases are defined broadly as conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.“Centers For Disease Control and Prevention
Emily Williams, a wife, mom, and chronic refractory migraine sufferer, shares her story openly online. She is transparent with the ways her chronic condition impacts her marriage and encourages many fellow chronic illness sufferers in their health and relational journeys.
“…so this is what our vows meant “in sickness and in health”— not just when you get a cold or are running a fever. But the kind of sickness that takes your soul and drastically changes the person you once were… the person that your husband had married. Our wedding vows were being stretched to the ultimate limit during these four years of utter hell. I remember having a conversation one day about how we had never imagined that the “in sickness and in health” portion of our vows would occur at such a young age. We had both assumed that portion of our marriage would take place much later in life, when we were closer to death.“Emily Williams; Chronic Refractory Migraine
How to Cope With Your Chronic Illness
The first days following large news from your doctor impact everyone differently. You may feel numb, emotional, angry, distressed, or any combination of the list. One of the most common reactions to a difficult chronic diagnosis is often grief. Though grief is frequently associated with loss, many overlook that we can grieve loss of normalcy in our lives as well.
Harvard Health lists several great steps to keep in mind after discovering your ailment:
- Get informed.
“The more you know about your condition, the better equipped you’ll be to understand what’s happening and why. First, direct questions to your doctor or nurse. If you want to do more in-depth research, ask them about trusted sources of medical information on the web.”
- Get involved.
“Take responsibility for your care, and don’t leave everything to your doctor. One way to do this is to listen to your body and track its changes. Ex: If you have hypertension, learn to check your blood pressure. This kind of home monitoring lets you spot potentially harmful changes before they bloom into real trouble.”
- Get a team.
“Doctors don’t have all the answers. Seek out the real experts. A nurse might be a better resource for helping you stop smoking or start exercising. You’ll get the best nutrition information from a dietitian.” Try out several specialists, ask all the questions, and don’t be afraid to seek out another health professional if you have any hesitations at all with your current practitioner.
- Get ‘big picture’ serious.
“Part of the treatment for almost any chronic condition involves lifestyle changes. You know the ones we mean — stopping smoking, losing weight, exercising more, and shifting to healthier eating habits. Although these steps are sometimes relegated to the back burner, they shouldn’t be. The people who make such changes are more likely to successfully manage a chronic condition than those who don’t. Investing the time and energy to make healthy changes usually pays handsome dividends, ranging from feeling better to living longer.”
- Get community.
“The lifestyle changes you make to ease a chronic condition such as high cholesterol or heart disease are good for almost everyone. Instead of going it alone, invite family members or friends to join in.” This can be a great way to implement healthy habits in your home and to build a bond with your spouse!
- Get organized.
“Remembering to take one pill a day is tough; managing 10 or more is daunting. Knowing about the drugs you take — why you take them, how best to take them, and what problems to watch out for — is as important as learning about your condition. Talking with your doctor, nurse, or a pharmacist can put drug information into perspective.”
- Get aware.
“Dark, dreary moods plague a third or more of people with chronic diseases. Depression can keep you from taking important medications, seeing your doctor when you need to, or pursuing healthy habits. Read up on the signs of depression. Let your doctor know if you think you’re depressed or heading in that direction.” Mental health is SO important for you, your marriage, and even your health. It has huge impacts on all three areas. Need help? Read more about mental health awareness so you can be informed.
When Your Spouse is Diagnosed With A Chronic Disease
The average divorce rate in the United States currently sits around 40%. However, the divorce rate for couples facing a diagnosis of a chronic condition that plagues their everyday life is upwards of 70%. This statistic is exceptionally sobering, but your story CAN be one of great success if you allow it to be.
Here are a few tips from fellow chronic illness conquerors!
- Get communicative.
While your spouse may not be willing to process their thoughts verbally right away, it is really good for you to set the tone early that you ARE a safe place for them. Communicating verbally that you are willing to be emotionally available creates the expectation that transparency is okay even when both of you are unsure of the future. Tough circumstances have the potential to drive you and your sweetie closer together or further apart. The outcome depends on you.
- Get spacious.
Once you’ve communicated that you are readily available to help your spouse process this massive change, let your actions follow by creating space for conversations as they arise. If your spouse prefers to be with their thoughts alone first, create space away from responsibilities and the loud voices of kiddos. Your spouse will appreciate you catering to their preferred method of processing during these early days. You know your spouse better than anyone! Serve their grief as best as you can, just as you would want them to do for you.
- Get self-care.
Now that you’ve swallowed your own fear for a few minutes, hours, or even days, it’s time for you to give yourself some support. Hopefully your spouse has been appreciative of the ways you’ve made space for their emotions and will return the favor for yours, but it is also important you find some ways to achieve self-care on your own too. Exercising, calling a friend, seeing a therapist, or even a short walk once the kids are in bed are great ways to give yourself some time to self-soothe and process this diagnosis on your own.
- Get practicing.
Chronic illness is…chronic. The symptoms and effects on daily life are often quite inconvenient which is why these conditions can take such a toll on marriages. Knowing this, the importance of empathy in your marriage still remains. The Gottman Institute’s research proves massive benefits to showing compassion, empathy, and curiosity in long-term relationships. Compassion shows concern. Empathy shows understanding. Curiosity shows interest. All will provide more trust and positive outcomes in your upcoming conversations.
- Get prioritizing.
You had to have guessed we might say this. This makes the list for good reason though! Now, more than ever, you will be leaning on your marriage. It is important to keep filling up your love buckets so that the stress of this season does not empty them too low. Your marriage deserves the maintenance! Even though health is now high on your “to-do list” make sure you keep each other as high on your priority scale as possible. Seriously, don’t underestimate the power of having FUN together! Plan the date night. Do something new. Be silly! I promise, it will pay off.
Conclusion & Resources
“I am learning to live in compassion and understanding. I want to remember that I am not the only one struggling in this relationship and that we can turn to each other instead of against each other. This was not the way life was supposed to go. This was not what I imagined my marriage to look like. I can wholeheartedly say he probably thinks the same thing.”Reanna Mathis; Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
Chronic illness changes everything. It is okay to grieve with your spouse over the way you had once hoped things would be. The truth is, the picturesque future you desire is still possible. This image just may look different than you once imagined.