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  • Marriage and Illness: How to Find Your Way By Learning to Grieve Together

“I just don’t understand why you can’t clean the garage,” Kevin declares one afternoon. He’s in a mood. We both are.

I’m experiencing a bad “flare up.” That’s what we call it in the autoimmune disease community when our bodies attack us. Mine is losing the battle right now, and yet the meds I currently take are pretty little liars. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, this medication makes me believe I can do anything without consequence.

I’ve returned to doing things I normally don’t. I strip and stain old furniture. I stay up until the wee hours of the morning, painting and repainting my dining-room walls. I redecorate our laundry room, of all places. It was a little too cutesy for itself, with a laundry-line themed wallpaper border: shirts, pants, a denim dress, all billowing in the laundry-line breeze.

I don’t actually remove the cutesy border. I just paint over it. I mask it enough to make it seem like an improvement. If the paint peels in the slightest, or if you look close enough, you’ll notice the ugly underneath.

A Major Side Effect of Illness—Relational Conflict

But in the midst of this surge of energy, I’m weary from one of suffering’s major side-effects—relational conflict. My marriage is currently in a flare-up. Mostly, Kevin and I treat each other well. We’re polite to each other. But when the clock strikes midnight and the mask slips off, we’re all cinder. There’s no Ella here.

I fear I’ve become something my husband doesn’t want. He can’t possibly be married to a sick wife. I think he needs me to the clean the garage to prove that I am that bouncy bride he married almost twenty years ago. A clean garage is evidence that this isn’t actually happening.

Kevin and I try not to let our new reality become us. We attempt to hold it apart and examine it carefully. We make efforts to get mad at the suffering, not at each other. But we can’t seem to separate from it, especially the illness part, because this part happens not just to me, but inside of me. I’m not the wife I once was. I don’t have the energy to stay up past 8:00 p.m. to hang with Kevin. Every time we try to sit down for a date night, we end up talking about my health and about how we need to adjust as a family because of it. Then, we typically end our dates by slamming doors. We let the sun go down on our anger. Our emotions are skyscrapers, high and looming. Our grief is a sunburn, blazing hot. Our pain is a zombie, refusing to stay buried.

We love each other deeply. We’re best friends. We are committed to each other before God, for the long haul. But if our marriage is a letter, we aren’t an H, holding hands as equals. We’re not an A, leaning on one another. We’re not even a T, one carrying the other. If anything, we’re a V. Each of us is going in different directions. Both of us trying to escape where we now find ourselves

Name Your Pain

The night of our youngest son’s preschool graduation, there is a massive double rainbow in the sky. Moved by this tremendous mile marker for our boy who has struggled developmentally, Kevin and I finally, really talk to each other. We name our anger. We name our pain. We talk about the infection in our relationship.

Our individual cups of lament, at last, become one shared drink. We stop cursing imprecations at each other and finally work to get angry at the evil in this world, at the disappointment of illness, at the sadness of loss and grief. We champion each other. We begin to bring each other home again.

We don’t agree on everything. We don’t do it perfectly. We don’t do it without losing our cool. But with the ongoing help of a counselor, we decide that our goal is not constant agreement. Our goal is a mutual foundation of respect and support.

Gary Chapman's Seeds of Love
Get more — Free! e-booklet — Gary Chapman's, Seeds of Love

Changing our Conflict

We begin to work on the way we have conflict because that matters as much as what we debate. During our counseling sessions, we take time to listen to each other’s laments, actively. We repeat them back to one another. We listen again.

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We create a family calendar so that our schedules are no longer in competition. We begin to work together as a unit. We schedule regular date nights. Some are wins. Some aren’t. But on our dates, we make some important discoveries. Kevin realizes that he needs adventure and Sabbath, and so begins an annual trek of the Colorado Trail. I remember that I love learning, so back to graduate school I go. We empower each other to practice the work of self-care, soul-care—which matters during hard days.

Slowly, we become Hs again, next to each other, holding hands. Slowly, we uncover deep wounds, old wounds, old imprecations—and we help each other bandage them. Slowly, we bless each other in place of the old curses. And eventually, we clean the garage together. All of it, simple and basic. All of it, love.

In her handbook on loss, author Anne Lamott writes, “The incalculable gift of grief is that it gives you back yourself.” For us, the gift of this season, as rough, tumble, and imperfect as it’s been is that it’s forced us to reexamine and reinvest in our marriage. I would never wish pain upon my family. But without pain, without my illness, we would have probably gone through marriage being fine. We would have gotten by. But our façade would have eventually crumbled to the ground. Thankfully, painful seasons don’t allow for masquerading.

Keep Doing the Hard Work

Kevin and I are still at work in our marriage. We are learning that forgiveness is costly, and yet we choose to forgive each other again and again. I’m grateful to be doing this good, hard work with him at my side.

If you’re currently experiencing relational conflict, I know how heartbreaking, draining, frustrating, and lonely-making it feels. For you, I am praying that God is especially near, answering your laments with his loving consolation. May you find strength to release your imprecations to him….

If you feel alone in your relational conflict, rest assured. Jesus, will carry you home.

In seasons of illness or loss—like Kevin and I experienced—sometimes you need to go back to marriage basics. Here are some practical steps towards finding hope in times of lament:

  1. Lament is a crying out to God. Spend some time with your spouse and/or a marriage therapist, lamenting the losses, the hurts, the grief in your marriage. Sometimes we want to bottle these up, but God allows his children to speak openly and honestly to him. Consider praying aloud some of the laments from scripture; use biblical words to guide you.
  2. Schedule a calendar meeting once a week. Make sure it is separate from your date night, romantic/intimate time, or playful time. This is simply a time to make sure you are both on the same page and to negotiate priorities if necessary.
  3. Plan a life-giving time together—a time of recreation, or celebration, a date night, or a quiet night in. There is no perfect model for this—just do something that is meaningful for the two of you as a couple, and that helps increase your intimacy. It’s okay if some of these occasions are better than others. Dating your spouse after a season of hardship takes practice. But this is not the time for conflict or for a calendar. Give yourself permission to have fun with each other.
  4. Seek out and support each other’s times of Sabbath rest, self-care and soul care.
  5. Fill up each other’s emotional banks, so that when hardship arises, you aren’t withdrawing from a deficit, but have enough emotional currency to get through it. Then be sure to refill after a tough season.
  6. Nurture each other regularly-through prayer, love languages, kindness. This seems simple, but kindness goes a long way.
  7. Schedule “meta-conversations”—“Hey can we find a time to talk about who is going to clean the garage? It’s really been bothering me, but I don’t want to stress you out. So when would be a good time to connect about that?” Then, when you talk, be sure not to escalate—take a break if you need to—and keep the topic on the one item. Don’t digress into old arguments or divert to other topics.

None of these bullet points are entirely profound or even new, but they are the basic ingredients to making it through seasons of lament. You can find hope on the other side.

Aubrey Sampson is the author of The Louder Song (NavPress, 2019) and Overcomer (Zondervan, 2015). A speaker and church planter, Aubrey is the director of discipleship and equipping at Renewal Church in the Chicago area. Find out more at aubreysampson.com and @aubsamp.