Sometimes couples are faced with problems they do not anticipate. One such issue is that of chronic illness. A chronic illness is a medical condition that lasts for a long time, sometimes for the rest of someone's life. Chronic illnesses include conditions like diabetes, arthritis, and cancer, among many others. Chronic illnesses may appear quickly or gradually, and they are often unexpected. As a couple, be informed about the illness you are facing. Seek out information from your doctor and from 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 spouse's chronic illness is difficult, it does not have to be a wholly negative experience. The Family: A Proclamation to the World reminds us that "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation" (¶ 7). Several things can be done to help spouses fulfill their "solemn responsibility to love and care for each other" (¶ 6), even in the face of chronic illness. In fact, as spouses work to handle this trial together, their marriage relationship may even be strengthened.7
It can be difficult to adapt to a spouse's chronic illness. Sometimes the condition calls for changes to life plans for the future, and often it calls for changes to your everyday lives. Your spouse may no longer be able to work outside the home, or to participate fully in household chores. Adjustments may be required to your spouse's diet or sleeping patterns. Your spouse may need to adhere to a strict medications or treatment regiment, and may require frequent doctors' visits to check his or her health. As you are faced with such changes and adjustments, it is normal to feel fear, pain, and anxiety about the situation. Don't feel ashamed if you experience these emotions. 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 their fears and concerns.11 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 with one another, you can both learn how best to help each other.5 Relying on each other for emotional support can strengthen your relationship7. Talking out your worries may help you overcome feelings of hopelessness.9 However, the illness should not become the focus of your relationship. Talking too much about the illness can make it more difficult to cope.9
Although it is okay to express negative emotions at times, try to be positive and optimistic in your interactions with your spouse.3 Your positive attitude can encourage him or her. 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 about the illness, 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 your spouse's treatments, take over some of your spouse's household tasks, or just be available for your spouse to talk to on a hard day. When you are helping in ways such as these, it can be easier to stay positive because you know you are actively doing what you can to make your spouse's life better.7
Chronic illness can trigger some painful emotions in you and your spouse. If you or your spouse are really struggling to cope with the situation, you may consider seeking professional help.7 A counselor or therapist can help you better handle your emotions and new responsibilities. You may also consider joining a support group for others with family chronic illness. Speaking with others who are facing challenges similar to your own can help you feel less isolated.
Talking about the illness together 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 from discussing the issue.13 Sometimes your spouse may just need you to listen to him or her vent her frustrations. Reassuring your spouse of your love for them can be comforting at these times.5 Remember to talk about topics besides the chronic illness.9 Talking about your relationship with each other may be especially helpful during this time.2
Handle the Situation Together
When husbands and wives tackle the illness together, it can be easier to keep a positive outlook.4 Couples who know they are going through this as a team may be less stressed and worried. Remember to take time for your relationship. Realize that the illness may affect your relationship with each other. If you discuss what influence the illness may have on your marriage, you will be able to anticipate and prepare for difficulties you may face.1 Keeping your marriage relationship strong can help you better cope with the disease.3 You can do this through small acts such as spending a few minutes together each day, or by going out together on dates.7
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 his or her ability can help your spouse feel useful.3, 6 Be careful not to be overprotective of your spouse, but to keep him or her as an equal partner in your relationship. Allow your spouse to play a role in decision making about the illness and family life. Also allow him or her some independence, if possible. Allow him or her to do the things for him or herself that can be managed.
Support From Friends and Family
Remember that you are not in this alone. The Proclamation reminds us that "extended families should lend support when needed" (¶ 7). Your friends and members of your faith community also stand by to give you their support. Turning to your friends and family for their help and support can strengthen you and your spouse, and help you to handle the situation.3 Sometimes your 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 some time for yourself. Stay involved in outside activities, even if you are just attending your children's sports games or going to church socials.7 Keep in touch with family and friends. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. 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.
- Acitelli, L., & Badr, H. (2005). My illness or our illness? Attending to the relationship when one partner is ill. Couples coping with stress: Emerging perspectives on dyadic coping (pp. 121-136). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.
- Badr, H., & Acitelli, L. K. (2005). Dyadic adjustment in chronic illness: Does relationship talk matter? Journal of Family Psychology, 19(3), 465-469.
- Badr, H., & Carmack Taylor, C. L. (2008). Effects of relationship maintenance on psychological distress and dyadic adjustment among couples coping with lung cancer. Health Psychology, 27(5), 616-627.
- Berg, C., Wiebe, D., Butner, J., Bloor, L., Bradstreet, C., Upchurch, R., et al. (2008). Collaborative coping and daily mood in couples dealing with prostate cancer. Psychology and Aging, 23(3), 505-516.
- Fekete, E., Stephens, M., Mickelson, K., & Druley, J. (2007). Couples' support provision during illness: The role of perceived emotional responsiveness. Families, Systems, & Health, 25(2), 204-217.
- Fergus, K. D., Gray, R. E., Ritch, M. I., Labrecque, M., & Phillips, C. (2002). Active consideration: Conceptualizing patient-provided support for spouse caregivers in the context of prostate cancer.Qualitative Health Research, 12, 492-514.
- Gordon, P., & Perrone, K. (2004). When spouses become caregivers: Counseling implications for younger couples. Journal of Rehabilitation, 70(2), 27-32.
- Hinnen, C., Ranchor, A., Baas, P., Sanderman, R., & Hagedoorn, M. (2009). Partner support and distress in women with breast cancer: The role of patients' awareness of support and level of mastery. Psychology & Health, 24(4), 439-455.
- Kershaw, T., Mood, D., Newth, G., Ronis, D., Sanda, M., Vaishampayan, U., et al. (2008). Longitudinal analysis of a model to predict quality of life in prostate cancer patients and their spouses. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 36(2), 117-128.
- Langer, S. L., Brown, J. D., & Surjala, K. L. (2009). Intrapersonal and interpersonal consequences of protective buffering among cancer patients and caregivers. Cancer, 115(S18), 4311-4325.
- Manne, S., & Badr, H. (2008). Intimacy and relationship processes in couples' psychosocial adaptation to cancer. Cancer, 112(11,Suppl), 2541-2555
- Manne, S., Norton, T., Ostroff, J., Winkel, G., Fox, K., & Grana, G. (2007). Protective buffering and psychological distress among couples coping with breast cancer: The moderating role of relationship satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(3), 380-388.
- Rolland, J. S. (1994). In sickness and in health: The impact of illness on couples' relationships.Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 20(4), 327-347.