Traditional marriages start out with both partners promising to stay together in sickness and in health. During this beautiful moment, you never think or dream that you could be confronted with challenges. How to cope and find hope when reality hits us hard is one of the biggest challenges we face. Illness can create stress in a marriage or in any other relationship. The illness affects not only the patient, but their partner as well.Although we intend to keep our promise and support our partner until the end, sometimes we may feel like we want to leave.
Whether you decide to fight or to give up on your relationship, a chronic illness doesn’t necessarily mean life is over. Some people live a relatively normal life with a chronic illness. Some others may not have the same chance. You and your partner will change, without a doubt, but the question is how you and your partner will accept it and stay close to each other.
This is the time when people need support from their families, friends, and most of all, their partners. By giving up control to people who are close to the relationship and letting them help you and your partner, you can both concentrate on dealing with the sickness and finding the best balance between taking care of yourselves and others. It’s no surprise that research on marital satisfaction and quality of life shows that social support is an important factor in coping with sickness.
How are partners affected by their spouse’s illness?
- Uncertainty and worry about the future.
- Depression and/or anxiety, stress.
- Sleep problems.
- Financial difficulties.
- Inability to maintain social functioning due to the demanding caretaking role.
- Dissatisfaction with their relationship.
From the partner’s point of view, you may think that this is not what you signed up for. You worry for the present and for the future and you experience stress. It is true that you are the primary caregiver for someone with a chronic illness; you have to be aware that you can suffer from your own issues related to the stress that you are taking on. You must make sure that you give yourself a time out, practice self-care, and allow yourself to feel well. Also, it is important that you and your partner openly discuss everything and express your thoughts so that each one of you knows what to expect from the other. Let’s look at the most common topics couples discuss when an illness comes to the surface.
With every chronic illness comes grief for both partners. Sometimes, partners are afraid of expressing their own emotions or grieving in their own way for fear of hurting each other. It is important that partners do not isolate into themselves just to protect each other, but instead join together and maintain a strong bond that will protect them both. Couples should be open in communicating all kinds of feelings, including grief. Each partner should hear and feel heard.
Couples who adapt to the challenges of life and can accept change are happier and have a deeper connection. The easiest way for partners to adapt is to appreciate the change and learn how to solve problems together. When grief is processed and there is the recognition that the sickness affects both partners, couples can begin to problem-solve. This means using the appropriate resources and social support to complete your necessary everyday tasks without being overwhelmed. At the same time, the partners will understand that their experience will bring more to it than just loss. Both partners should take advantage of this challenge and find ways to reconnect with one another both sexually and emotionally. Sharing time together is most important for experiencing the positive sides of a relationship.
Tips for partners.
Couples need to accept what is being lost because of the illness, and at the same time, focus on the present. It is important for partners to understand what they can do together and what they can do separately. Furthermore, partners should retain a sense of control and balance in their relationships. Both partners should create a list of everything that needs doing, then divide up the tasks. It is also important to include the ill partner to whatever extent is possible and set boundaries around caregiving in order for the ill partner not to slip into a passive role.
6 simple ways to care for your relationship when you have an illness.
- Be honest with each other and express your thoughts and emotions in an open, safe, and loving manner.
- Remind yourselves that you are both on the same team and you don’t have to withdraw inside yourselves to protect each other. Cooperation is key.
- Be responsible for your own emotions.
- Plan how to maintain emotional and physical health every day.
- Remind your partner that you love each other and appreciate the support.
- Seek relationship coaching.
Relationship coaching for those enduring illness.
Many couples struggle with managing the challenges of illness without help. Relationship or marriage coaching can help couples cope with the stress and challenges of an illness. The methods are similar to those employed in any other kind of relationship coaching: interpreting emotional conflicts, understanding behaviors, and encouraging positive change. Through the skills acquired in relationship coaching, partners will be able to deal with their challenges more productively. Let’s look at the most common modes of relationship and marriage coaching.
Behavioral relationship coaching.
Behavioral relationship coaching is based on the belief that a couple’s behaviors contribute to the outcome, and it has been used successfully for couples struggling with substance abuse. Indeed, issues in the relationship can contribute to a cycle that may sustain or aggravate substance use. Based on this belief, relationship coaches work to teach communication and problem solving skills and behavioral exchange. By improving and maintaining a healthy relationship, couples can expect a better outcome.
Emotionally-focused relationship coaching.
This type of relationship coaching is based on communication, action, and reaction. It is believed that such relationships are dynamic and reciprocal and especially in couples dealing with illness, partners’ interactions may be affected, resulting in changes in the relationship. The coach helps each partner recognize and escape dysfunctional behaviors and help them listen to and understand each other. Furthermore, the coach helps them recognize the need for attachment while maintaining a sense of independence as partners create an emotional relationship based on safety and comfort.
Cognitive behavioral-based relationship coaching.
This type of coaching is similar to behavioral relationship coaching with the added feature that this relationship coaching not only addresses behaviors in a couple’s relationship, but also thought processes and emotions. Partners will learn new skills and practice them though homework assignments, and coaches will help them discover new positive ways of communication that will improve their relationship.
Gottman method-based relationship coaching.
Through Gottman method-based relationship coaching, partners can develop more positive and fewer negative expressions of conflict, helping them handle conflicts in a positive and gentle way, eliminating defense, criticism, and withdrawal.
Psychodynamic relationship coaching.
Psychodynamic relationship coaching is based on the belief that couples treat each other in ways that are influenced by childhood experiences. One of the goals of this type of coaching is to help partners acknowledge feelings and responses related to their past from feelings and responses about each other.
Systemic relationship coaching.
Systemic relationship coaching examines couples’ dysfunctional rules and roles. The coach helps partners understand how habitual patterns shape how each partner acts in the relationship. Systemic relationship coaching can help partners negotiate roles and make more flexible plans, especially when a serious illness reverses their roles.
The integrative approach is one of the most common approaches to relationship coaching. The coach combines a variety of techniques and utilizes both emotional and behavioral strategies.
The power of the couple.
Unfortunately, during hard times and challenges, partners may fall into passivity, believing that there is nothing they can do to change things. Instead of maintaining a healthy relationship based on growing together, they struggle to survive their everyday tasks. Most of these couples will end up miserable and in divorce. On the other hand, partners who find meaning in these challenging times find the will and the way to grow closer together, building a stronger bond, increasing their satisfaction in their relationship and increasing their chances of staying together.
By looking at the problems and the challenges that arise in marriage as the couple’s problems rather than one partner’s problems, we strengthen our connection. Moreover, when we look at ourselves as friends instead of adversaries and work as a team rather than as individuals, we are less likely to complain about our relationship and more likely to feel satisfied with what we become.
By choosing to stay close to our partner and reassure and soothe them in the midst of a difficult situation like a protracted illness, we choose the path to unconditionally loving them, and at the same time, sacrifice a part of ourselves for the person who has entrusted their heart to us. By staying together, we choose to love intimately and courageously, making our relationship stronger and transforming our lives together with our partners.
Gurman AS, ed. Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy (The Guilford Press, 2008).
Martire, L. M., & Helgeson, V. S. (2017). Close relationships and the management of chronic illness: Associations and interventions. The American psychologist, 72(6), 601–612. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000066 Ruddy, N.B. & McDaniel, S.H. (2015). Couple therapy and medical issues. In A.S. Gurman, J.L. Lebow & D.K. Snyder (Eds.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (pp. 659-680). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.