Living with your partner’s chronic illness presents many challenges. Knowing how to meet those challenges is a learning process in itself.
“Sickness” often conjures up visions of a cough and cold, asthma, broken bones, or aches and pains related to old age. But what happens when your spouse is diagnosed with a chronic disease such as cancer, and this illness causes a shift in the dynamics of your relationship?
Chronic illnesses can affect both partners in many different ways and on many different levels. It can drastically affect the couple’s financial life, strain their emotional bond, and alter their intimate relationship.
Both partners will usually go through different stages when learning to cope with a chronic illness.
The spouse who has just been diagnosed with a particular health condition may feel many things – scared, vulnerable, sad, and confused. He or she may even feel disappointed with his or her body or may feel that this situation is unfair; causing him or her to feel angry at themselves and those they love. Many chronically-ill people also suffer from guilt. They may feel guilty for not being able to contribute to the financial, emotional, and intimacy needs of their spouse as they once could.
The healthy partner on the other hand, is likely to feel helpless for not being able to cure the person with the chronic illness and feel depressed over the loss of the normal life once enjoyed with their spouse. The healthy spouse may also become angry at the situation, and feel like this is not what he or she signed up for. In addition to this, caring for a chronically ill partner can be overwhelming. Sometimes the healthy spouse may think of themselves as weak for not being able to handle everything on their own. They may also feel abandoned by the sick spouse, or feel that their needs are no longer being met, and this can lead to resentment and more guilt.
These feelings are just part of the coping process and there is no definite time limit on the coping process. Everybody’s process of coming to terms with and accepting a chronic illness is different.
Dealing with your partner’s illness
Chronic illnesses can ultimately test a marriage and the love between partners because most couples are unprepared to cope with a partner’s long-term illness.
The two most important things that you can do to cope with your partner’s illness is to empathise with what they are going through and to practise a greater level of communication.
Talk about your feelings with each other. This will strengthen your bond and also help prevent simple misunderstandings from becoming major issues. In addition, open dialogue can help lessen feelings of guilt or shame that each of you may harbour. By listening to each other’s feelings, you are acknowledging them in a healthy way and then releasing them from thought.
Once you have mastered the communication skill, form new plans to move forward with your lives. Discuss openly about all aspects of your marriage – how to handle the illness, how to handle the finances, how to handle the care of children or other family members, how to handle intimacy, how to handle letting go of the past, how to handle new needs created by the chronic illness, and how to fulfil old needs.
Another important coping tool is knowledge. When living with a long-term illness, you will find that knowledge is power. Work with the doctors to understand more about the condition and its treatments. The more you find out about this chronic condition, the more both of you will feel in control and the less frightening it becomes.
Adjusting to living with a chronic illness takes a little time, patience, support – as well as the willingness to learn and participate. Be patient and supportive of each other in the trying times ahead. Let your partner have the necessary independence as and when they need it. Dealing with such an unexpected challenge can bring about an inner resilience that both partners may not have known they had before. Remember, you are not alone in the struggle.