When Chronic Illness Enters Your Marriage

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Remember standing at the altar on your wedding day reciting your marriage vows?  To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish ’till death do us part?

Most of us look back with fondness on our wedding day and remember it as a beautiful event.  We speak our vows with heartfelt commitment determined that we will honor them no matter what happens in life.

Very few couples actually give “the sickness” part of their vows much thought.  And why would they?  When you’re young and in love, you feel like you’ve got the world by its tail.  No one actually thinks they’re going to get sick down the road.  But the truth is, illness can happen to anyone at any time.  And when it does happen, it will test a marriage like few other things can.

Many are aware of the disheartening statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce.  That number jumps to 75% when chronic illness of some type is present. It’s not difficult to understand why.  Living with chronic illness (or being married to someone who is ill) can be exhausting in every sense of the word.

There are never-ending physical symptoms to address, treat, manage and endure.  Moods fluctuate, tempers flare, patience runs short and guilt often sets in.  Costly medications, new treatments not covered by insurance and a laundry list of assistive devices to help in the activities of daily living can all drain precious financial resources.

So what do the 25% of “chronic couples” who stay married know that the other 75% don’t?

If I had to wager a guess, it would be this: marriage is a commitment.  They understand that marriage is a pledge or a promise to walk through life with someone regardless of health conditions.

Is the commitment to your marriage wavering?  Are you feeling so burdened by chronic illness that you believe walking away would be easier?

Here are ten strategies for renewing your commitment today:

See your spouse as a person, not the disease.  Remember that the person you fell in love with is still there even if chronic illness has taken a physical or emotional toll.  Start viewing the chronic illness as something to be tackled together as a team.

Get more — Free! e-book — Les & Leslie Parrott's, The Good Fight

Educate yourself on the illness.  Nothing shows care and concern more than when the well spouse takes the time to educate him/herself on all aspects of the illness.  Having the same knowledge base from which to make decisions has a unifying effect.

Change your vocabulary.  Facing and dealing with chronic illness has never been limited to just the chronic partner.  Chronic illness always affects both parties in a marriage.  Use the words “we” and “our” when talking about the illness.  Notice your level of connectedness and how your emotional intimacy grows.

Enlist help — lots of it!  Committed couples know they can’t possibly meet one another’s every need. There are simply things pertaining to illness that you are either not qualified to do or resent doing.  Enlist the help of family, friends, or professionals to relieve you of some of the care-giving responsibilities.

Practice empathy.  It’s never easy having a chronic illness. I t’s also not easy being the spouse of someone with a chronic illness.  Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see things from their perspective.  Remember, you’re a team.

Be patient with each other.  Living with chronic illness is both a journey and a process.  If arguments or flare-ups happen, extend loads of grace towards each other. We are all works in progress and no one is perfect.

Get over your pride.  People who have a difficult time asking for help or being vulnerable risk alienating others. Both parties need to work through any feelings of guilt, shame or resentment around the illness so that walls of self-protection do not develop.

Ask tough questions.  “What one thing could I believe, accept or commit to doing that would significantly make a difference in the quality of our marriage?” or “How am I letting the chronic illness intrude on our marriage?”  Commitment means asking hard questions and then acting decisively on the answers.

Make a plan.  Creating mutual goals and action steps is good for your marriage.  It gives you a future-oriented perspective and a “can do” attitude when you both work together for something you want.  Be creative in your goals…they can be anything.

Remind yourself that divorce is not an option.  When you close the door to certain options such as divorce, your mind won’t “go there” when stress or difficulties arise.  Close the door to divorce and keep it shut.

Copyright © 2010 by Helena Madsen, used with permission

Helena Madsen is a happily married wife, mother, counselor and writer who lives with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy.  She is the founder of www.ChronicMarriage.com, an online community and coaching practice dedicated to helping couples with chronic illness build extraordinary marriages.

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