In Sickness and In Health
This is a topic that no one likes to think about. What happens to your marriage when one of you becomes seriously ill, disabled or terminally ill? Every couple will have to deal with minor illnesses, such as colds and the flu, but not everyone has to learn to persevere and thrive when the conditions are really difficult. If you are honest, most couples just assume that this is something for those who have been married a very long time, the part of marriage that is reserved for the elderly. But what happens when you, or your spouse’s health or mental health status, takes a turn for the worse?
Research on how caregivers and families cope when there is serious or terminal illness is very revealing. Most couples and families find that the presence of severe illness or disability does not make everyone rally together and dig deep into their relationship. Unfortunately, these stressors are more likely to lead to alienation, a sense of isolation, and divorce. We know that on average, only 30% of people who experience cancer or severe illness report that they learn from it, develop an improved marriage or friendships and benefit from the experience of overcoming the illness or disability. Sixty percent report doing worse psychologically/emotionally and 30% report no change at all. We also know that 80% of marriages will be at risk for divorce when a child has a disability. Clearly, the presence of illness, disability and poor mental health pose a grave risk for marriages and families. What this probably reflects is what happens when pressure is added to an already weak marriage — it crumbles or barely survives. It also reflects our heartfelt desire to assume that bad things only happen to other marriages, unlucky people, or only to those who are not in concert with God. This is in contradiction to Jesus’ gospel message. Our lives are blessed with His presence and but not with an absence of suffering.
The difference for any Christian is that we have a God who is intimately familiar with our worst struggles because of Christ’s passion and resurrection. Jesus knows what it is to be tortured, humiliated, to be in unremitting pain, to die, and ultimately to be made whole and perfect in the resurrection–a promise given to all of His followers. God never abandons us. He redeems all of our suffering, our disability and our deaths by maintaining a loving presence in our darkest moments. What does this have to do with helping maintain your marriage during severe or prolonged illness? Everything!
From a mental health perspective, we know that one of the greatest assets a person has who has a terrible illness, is their social support system. A healthy social support system, such as marriage, provides earthly Grace and comfort because someone is able to look the person who suffers in the eye and say without hesitation, “I know you, I love you and I see who you are despite the distortions that illness, mental illness or death is wrecking upon your body or mind. I still believe in you and I will not leave you.” This message is so powerful that when people with terrible disability, mental illness, or terminal illness have this expression of earthly love that mirrors our heavenly Father’s love, they do much better than statistics suggest. It can mean the difference between recovering from a terrible illness, or mental illness, or ending up homeless or dead. We hear this message from God, but we also need to hear it from our spouses. How do you show your spouse that they are beautiful and still the one you cherish above all when tragedy may have made them momentarily unrecognizable?
The biggest mistake that spouses make is to go into “fix it” mode. They attempt to ameliorate the situation, to focus upon getting better at the expense of allowing and acknowledging the struggle, frustration and powerlessness of the situation. Most people, in fact, avoid this difficult realization by desperately focusing upon making things better. For example, I recall my mother-in-law fussing over her northern Italian 88-year-old husband eating salami for lunch because he had experienced several heart attacks and had been given only a year or two to live. His perspective was to enjoy what he had. Her perspective was to make things better, which led to a lunchtime fight every day. Both women and men are guilty of becoming “thera-spouse” versus “loving spouse” when they forget to love the person behind the condition and focus upon getting rid of the condition. The person who is experiencing the illness or mental illness will often say, “I just wish people would see who I am and not make such a big deal about my condition,” “I am still me even though I am dying,” or “Even though I cannot walk, I am still myself.” We know that when you see the beauty, meaning and value of your spouse’s suffering and have faith for their healing, you bring them great blessing for wholeness. You show them how to reconnect to their true self and to the truth of God’s promises for healing and wholeness in His Kingdom.
Illness, mental illness, disability and terminal illness can make us all feel lost from our sense of self, purpose and even from God, unless someone shows us that we are still ourselves, still God’s child and still worthy of great love. Sometimes the greatest gift that you can give your spouse is to remember and articulate who they are in the midst of their worst struggle so that they do not become lost, alone or abandoned to terrible suffering. This gift is greater than being able to alleviate their suffering. You mimic Christ’s holy presence when you offer your loving presence to your spouse without focusing upon change, improvement or better effort. Focusing upon fixing the condition ends up making your spouse feel judged and inadequate, as though they have failed. Think about it– if you are in the hospital and your husband or wife is fretting about whether or not you have eaten enough or done enough physical therapy–what message does that convey? Do you feel a critical presence or a loving presence?
If you are a caregiver for a spouse who is seriously ill, then you must learn to lean on others in order to prevent your own demise. Caregivers have a special burden and 80% are at risk for anxiety and depression. If you are a caregiver, you need to take time away, take time to do the things that restore you physically, spiritually and socially despite your loyalty to your spouse. You have the same need to be able to be yourself despite the demands of your new role. Many caregivers, especially women, fail to ask for the respite and help that they need. The rest of us often forget to ask how we can help when caregivers are silently suffering.
Here are suggestions for helping your marriage when physical or mental health is missing:
- Focus upon being a loving presence rather than a fixer or therapist. As a spouse, your special gift, that no therapist or doctor can give, is your intimate knowledge of your spouse– your vision of your spouse as a whole human being who is beloved no matter what.
- If you are a caregiver, lean on your sisters and brothers in Christ so that you do not burn out from the role of caregiver. Take the time to maintain your good physical and mental health.
- Remind your spouse that God redeems all suffering, including theirs, and that their suffering is never in vain even though the purpose of their suffering is not yet apparent.
- Take the time to enjoy any good moment you have. Do not wait for everything to be better or to be well. Those who cope well with terrible events report being able to enjoy the daily gifts of small moments–a moment of less pain, improved mental clarity, or a lovely sunny view out of the window. They do not wait for all to be well in order to celebrate what is good in their life.
- Remind yourself that your spouse is still the one you love and still beautiful and whole in God’s eyes. Pray to convey that beauty back into their soul while they go through their time of trial.
- Remind yourself that you are never alone. Christ is present at every moment of your suffering, your dying and your death. Other people have experienced the same illness, the same trial, or the same end of life and you are in good company.
- Reach out to support communities online, through hospice or patient advocacy organizations. Isolation is more painful than actual illness, so speak up, seek help and learn to share your suffering with others. They will support you and remind you that you are not alone.
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