Chronic Illness in Marriage

When Your Marriage Experiences More ‘in Sickness’ Than ‘in Health’

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Marriage is a challenging endeavor. You choose one person to take on life with and that includes the ups and the downs of this crazy dance we call life. It’s easy to stand at the altar and vow before family and friends on your wedding day to love and honor – in sickness and in health. It’s part of the deal, but the application is much more challenging than simply saying the words, “I do”.

Sometimes it can be very difficult to choose love continuously when your spouse is healthy, much less sick. We all have bad habits, lapses in judgment and can lack patience. So, imagine all those character deficits being compounded by sickness! I’m not referring to the common cold, here, or even occasional flu, either. Because those illnesses have an end in sight.  Most of us will gladly jump at the opportunity to serve our spouse by nursing them back to health with cuddles and lots of chicken soup. In that situation, it can be very easy to choose love.

What I’m talking about here, is actually the beast of chronic illness.  The incurable, never-ending storm that becomes your life when one partner in the relationship falls ill to an illness with no known cure. There is pain that is so abrasive, (such as seen in those suffering with fibromyalgia)  that even a gentle caress may not be possible, and this can often be misperceived as rejection by the well spouse thus resulting in division within the marriage.

I remember when my husband and I first started dating, we would cuddle and schmooze for hours while entangled in each other’s arms.  We’d go for long walks or bike rides and spent much of our time outdoors.  We were active, and fit.  We spent many evenings together snuggling while watching movies or T.V together on the couch.  My favorite time of the day was sitting down with him and having his arms around me.  (It still is — even when my body and skin hurt!)  However, since becoming sick with Lyme disease and multiple parasites which caused me to later develop fibromyalgia, a lot has changed.  As I got sicker and the pain increased, I have found myself not being able to tolerate even a gentle caress on my skin at times, lay on one side or even to lean into him as easily. Because of the unfathomably intense pain, I feel at times, our cuddles have become less and less.  Of all the things I’ve lost to this illness, this one breaks my heart far more than anything.  Because my husband has been present for many of the most physically and emotionally painful events of my life, his arms are the only place I want to be in such times.  It’s torture to watch helplessly as my husband’s heart breaks when his tender loving touch is what I need most, yet instead, it causes unbearable pain.

For a man, that’s a terribly difficult thing to have to accept.  It’s heartbreaking to watch as the person you love chokes back tears from the pain — his and yours. I rarely ever considered his heartache when he lashed out in powerlessness. I only thought of it as unloving, or perhaps he was even angry and resentful of me being so ill, when in fact it was the opposite.  And then, of course, there are the late-night visits to the emergency room when he’s already exhausted from working his tush off to support me and our family. Most of the time, I’m too sick and can’t drive myself, so, this always falls on him.

Then sleep deprivation sets in.  Arguing begins.  And tempers explode like a match tossed in a pile of kindling.

And let’s not forget the surgeries, hospitalizations, countless doctor’s appointments and obscene medical costs! Whenever I have needed to have surgery, or on the days when I’m just too sick (either physically or mentally) to care for myself, my husband has always been my caregiver, my chauffeur, housekeeper, and chef. He wears so many hats! And that can quickly erode a relationship just as quickly as it can erode a person. This, in turn, causes me, as the one receiving the care, to wind up feeling especially guilty. I know that he doesn’t mind doing it because he loves me, but I often hate myself for putting all of that on him. So, when I do feel OK, I tend to overcompensate, go completely nuts, and I overdo it! EVERY.  SINGLE.  TIME.  It’s become an ongoing and rather vicious cycle.

We choose love in moments of despair.

Now, I’m learning to live in compassion and understanding.  I need to remember that I am not the only one struggling in this relationship and that we can turn to each other rather than against each other. This was not the way life was supposed to go. This was not what I imagined my marriage would look like. I can wholeheartedly say he probably thinks the same thing. When he met me, while I was never quite well, I wasn’t this sick. Within the last decade, there have been multiple hospitalizations and surgeries and so many tests and procedures that I honestly lost count.  My wonderful husband has been right beside me through all of it.  He has helped dress me, feed me, bathe me, dry my tears, pick up medications and everything else in between. I hate that I need so much help from him, but I am blessed, that it is him I need it from.

We’re still learning what normal looks like for us, and that’s okay.  Because as these illnesses progress and change, what our “normal” looks like today may in fact look very different tomorrow.  Nevertheless, we’re trying to move towards each other, with respect to when the day comes, that he is walking, and I’m wheeling. But the important thing for us to remember is that we are growing together in this. Life is just too short to waste it all fighting with the person you love when what you’re really angry at is actually the fact that one of you is really sick.

So what if our date nights aren’t always traditional!  Sometimes we both would much rather stay home and watch movies and ignore housework. We accept that each of us really needs the other in completely different ways.  We work hard at our relationship so that frustration, stress, disappointment, and resentment do not fester.

We choose love in moments of despair.

My husband has this funny little dance he does when I’m down because he knows that it will always draw out a giggle. And whenever I see him overworked and weary, I cook his favorite dish and give him a massage. I try to let him know how valued he is and that all of his hard work is actually noticed and greatly appreciated.  These are all things that should be done in a relationship without chronic illness, however, we have to emphasize the small and seemingly insignificant acts to avoid big issues getting out of control.

When I envisioned what I would be like as a wife, I pictured a perfectly kept home with dinner ready each night. (And I still try to do this as often as I can despite the crippling pain and fatigue.)  I pictured laundry neatly folded and put away, which in reality rarely ever happens. I pictured fun outings and leisurely vacations.  Letting go of the manner in which I thought things would be has been a slow and painful process. However, we are getting there. We could choose to decide to let my illnesses break us or better yet,  we could grow closer together because of them. I will continuously choose the latter each and every time.

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