Chronic Illness in Your Marriage: How to Improve Your Communication
edited: Sunday, October 11, 2009
By Lisa J Copen
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Sunday, October 11, 2009
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We naturally share about our aches and pains with our spouse when we are chronically ill, but how much talk is too much before our spouse grows weary of hearin about a problem he can't fix?
"I feel like there are thumb tacks in my bed!" I say to my husband as he crawls into the other side of our bed. "I know there is nothing there, but I just feel bruised all over."
"I'm sorry," he offers with a sympathetic voice, but there is little else he can do.
"I feel a little nauseous tonight too," I respond. "I wonder if I should eat some crackers or something. . . or if that would just upset my stomach more. It has to be the medications. It will probably pass soon." Before I can finish my sentence he is already asleep.
For many of us, our spouse is our best friend. If our relationship is good, we want to share our feelings with them. Even if our relationship is hurting, we feel that by explaining our pain, our spouse may sympathize and be more loving toward us.
We don't want to be a burden and share about every ache and pain we experience. What a boring one-sided conversation that would be! But when we are hurting, we have a desire for those who are closest to us to validate our pain. By talking about what invisible pain feels like, it somehow has the ability to make it real . It's not just "in our head."
Galatians 6:2 tells us "Carry each others burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." At some point we must carry these burdens to the Lord, as well as a close friend, rather than just count on our spouse to carry the burden of listening about each ache.
Although your spouse may not be suffering from a physical ailment, there are still many losses that he is grieving. For example, it is an emotional thing to watch someone you love be in pain and not be able to fix it. He may be suffering as he watches you lose the ability to do things you love. He likely misses the couple outings you once took together when you could do physically active events, whether it was skiing, or just taking long walks together on the beach. He may be frustrated that even his hugs can cause you to wince. Counselors have found that there are three major areas where marriages suffer: money, time and physical intimacy.
When it comes to chronic illness in a marriage, it's not unusual to have all three of these be influential in problems you are experiencing. Chronic illness adds a weighty burden to each of these. How can we learn to "share our burdens" within our marriage, yet also know when to not dish out our burdens one after the other onto our spouse?
<b>Be a team with your spouse</b>
Remember that the "team" is you and your spouse up against the illness. The illness is the third party, not your spouse. Yes, you will often feel that your spouse is the spectator in your life as you go through the ups and downs of your illness, but make him a part of fighting this battle with you in a way that he is most comfortable.
Ask your spouse if you can share some information about your illness so he has a better idea of what you are going through, but don't overwhelm him. If he is willing to attend a few doctors appointments with you, let him, and give him time to ask the doctor his own questions. For example, giving him a brochure may be better than handing him a 250-page book. If he listens to podcasts, find some that would be beneficial for him to listen to. Acknowledge that there may be role or responsibility shifts in the marriage due to the illness. Be open about what you are struggling with and where you need help. For example, if you can no longer scrub that bathroom but, let him know before the grime gets out of hand.
Connie Kennemer lives with multiple sclerosis and she candidly shares that struggle that it can be to find the right balance and word. "I am not as mobile as I used to be and I often ask more of my husband such as 'Can you work at home this afternoon?' or 'Why do you have to go to another meeting?' How much should he accommodate me because my body is changing? He doesn't always know when to stop and encourage me to try things myself. This is a constant challenge."
<b>Have reasonable expectations</b>
It is quite common that we end up marrying someone who has the opposite personality style as we do. You may want to talk about your illness a great deal and read books of information on it. You may sign up for all the support group meetings to have a chance to talk about it and make new friends that you have your illness in common with. If your spouse doesn't read the books or want to accompany you to your meetings, remember that it is not because he doesn't care, but likely because he is dealing with the diagnosis in his own way within his own personality style.
On the other hand, maybe you take things as they come and don't want to get on the internet and read every detail about the symptoms you may have. Your spouse may wonder why you aren't more interested in finding out how to best treat (and even cure) this disease. He may go as far as to accuse you of being in denial about your illness. He may want to see you be more passionate about being healed than you are. A wonderful book that will help you smooth out some of your communication is "Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti" by Bill and Pam Farrell.
<b>Have information about your illness available for when he is ready</b>
If you are having a conversation and you want to explain more about how you are feeling, or details about the illness itself, you may want to have books with sticky notes on the pages you think he's find most helpful. Or bookmark pages you can read together and then discuss. Connie says, "After ten years of living with MS, I am past the whiney stage, but Rex sometimes holds back; that's when I need to ask him more questions about his feelings."
<b>Be creative in sharing about the embarrassing parts of chronic illness</b>
If your illness is going to cause you to be in the bathroom during eighty percent of the events you attend together, you need to let your spouse know that this is part of the disease. Health organizations have brochures on symptoms. You can say, "I'm dealing with some personal matters of this illness right now; I don't really want to talk about them yet, but they're in this brochure if you're wondering." Avoid sharing every detail if you can.
<b>Find other effective outlets for when you need to vent</b>
"I realized that I held onto all of my frustrations of pain during the day and then 'threw' them at my husband as he came in the door," shares Cheryl, who lives with chronic fatigue syndrome. "My actions set the tone for our entire evening and even though I felt better, he felt worse, and it lasted all night. He was beginning to dread coming home at night."
Cheryl began to put aside the last two hours of her day to spend time writing in her journal, praying and doing something she enjoyed that calmed her. "Writing in my journal gave me the chance to express my frustrations, and then prayer really began to minimize the negativity too. My husband quickly noticed a difference and it's made our relationship so much stronger."
<b>Find some ways to get involved in your community or a special hobby</b>
What else do you have going on in your life, other than your illness? It's easy to be overwhelmed with doctor's appointments and just maintaining our illness, but it can result in a pretty dull life. Even if you have limited energy, do something you've always wanted to do that doesn't have a deadline. Put together memory albums for your grandchildren, clean out just one drawer, find a new craft or hobby, volunteer to be on a prayer chain. Soon you will find that your illness actually is the last thing you want to talk about when you have had such more interesting events in your day.
So. . . How much is too much? It's different for each person and each marriage relationship. Learn to look at your situation objectively. How many times are you bringing up your illness? How are you benefiting from talking about it more than necessary? Do you need understanding? Validation? Perhaps you need actual physical help with tasks. Ask yourself if talking about your illness could be a way of getting your spouse's attention, and this seems to be the only thing he responds to? Regardless of whether it is attention, acknowledgment or understanding, how can you get this from God instead? How is it negatively affecting your life or those around you?
And then take a moment to really ask yourself "Is there a better, more creative way that I can create intimacy with my spouse, other than just complaining about each ache and pain? What activities can I still share that could help us grow closer together?"
And then when you want to share about your pain, send up a prayer to the Lord beforehand: <i>"Lord, I don't want to burden anyone else with something they can't fix, and I really need a hug from you right now. I know how much my spouse cares about me; please give me the wisdom to know when to ask for help and comfort from him/her and when to come only to You and ask you to fulfill all of my emotional needs."</i>
You will find more articles and overall support while living with chronic illness visit Rest Ministries and subscribe to <a target="_blank" href="http://tinyurl.com/yfynan7">fresh content</a> and be entered for our monthly giveaway. Lisa Copen is the director of Rest Ministries, author of <a target="_blank" href="http://beyondcasseroles.com">"Beyond Casseroles: </a>505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend" and founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week.