Expert Blog Compelling advice, stories, and thought-provoking perspectives straight from YourTango's lineup of Experts to you

12 Lessons My Husband And I Learned When I Became Seriously Ill

Photo: Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash
chronic illness affects marriage

Love persists.

When my recent illness (a virulent bacterial infection in my knee) came on suddenly, I spent the first few days being sad about missing our family beach vacation.

Even though my husband, Peter, said he was fine with staying with me while the rest of the family went to the beach without us, I felt bad that we couldn’t go and that he was missing time with our grandchild.

It was hard not to feel despair and feel sorry for myself.

It helped for Peter to remind me that it could have been worse, and we were lucky that we caught the infection in time before it did more damage.

We have also learned a lot of lessons from this experience, and hopefully sharing them can help someone else. Here are just a few of many .

 

1. Relationships often feel taxed when one partner becomes ill, because of the adjustment in roles. 

Perhaps one of the key reasons that a University of Michigan study found that more than 30% of marriages end in divorce when one of the partners, especially the woman, is seriously ill has to do with the huge adjustment that usually has to be made.

It may be gender stereotyped, but women generally do most of the housework and childcare. That is a huge hole missing when it is suddenly not there.

Also, many women tend to be more overtly expressive with their feelings, which can be hard on the couple. The caregiving husband may try desperately to fix things and get frustrated and feel guilty when he is unable to make that happen.

There are still times when I feel discouraged, but I knew that I could always count on hearing from and seeing my husband at least once a day at the rehab center. Now that I have been discharged to home in a wheelchair for several more weeks, we have even more opportunities to give and receive support to each other

Peter let some of our friends know what happened, and it was great to have them call and come visit me in the hospital and later at the rehab center. I loved Peter for bringing our dog to visit me at the center. He also arranged for both of our kids to surprise me on my birthday (one flying in from across the country!).

He also brought me food sometimes from outside to the rehab center, which was a wonderful treat after a constant diet of institutional food.

The big change came when we learned how to take me out in the car with the wheel chair for short trips to a restaurant, to our home, a bakery, a haircut, and even to auditions for the play about a retirement center I had written that was just chosen to be performed soon at our local theater.

I would have missed out on having the play produced without his taking me to the theater for auditions and rehearsals in my wheelchair — not an easy task!

I can’t acknowledge him enough for making all of that possible.

 

2. Gratitude matters a lot in helping both partners cope.

The simple act of expressing gratitude and appreciation for what another person does or says can go a long way.

Research has shown that these acts of positive attention are what people need most —  even more than expressions of love  to function well. Happy couples, in fact, make positive statements to each other five times more than unhappy couples.

It means a lot to me when Peter tells me how much he admires me for all I do in managing the logistics of my healing, roommate problems, frustrations with staff, IV transfusions, therapies, wheelchair maneuvers, and so on. If he misses something, I can request acknowledgment.

The impact is no less valuable if I ask for it.  

 

3. There is a lot of inspiration to be found in our struggles.

Being a trained opera singer all my life, one of the things I love to do is to perform beautiful music for people.

For a while now, I"ve enjoyed singing at local nursing and retirement facilities, and at some point in my recovery, it dawned on me that while I was staying at one myself, and that might present a perfect opportunity.

When one of my opera colleagues visited me at the rehab center, we worked out a time to perform together. People loved it, and it was a great way to get out of my pain and into contributing to others.

I also gave another Encore Recital the day before I left the Rehab Center.  It was surprising how emotional it was for me and the friends I had made there over 5 weeks.  I still have contact with some of them to this day.   

My voice teacher always told me, “If you are feeling down, just sing a song!”. It really works, and a good time was had by all. 

Another thing that helped me survive this long recovery process is having a sense of humor — not usually my strong suit! I made notes of things that my roommate or others said that upset me, rather than reacting or stewing over them. I plan to put these notes into my next play, essay or short story about a rehab center.

So when my roommate yelled at me for asking her to turn down the tv at 11 pm after a full day of her watching sitcoms, I added that to my notes for the play!

It definitely beats crying or screaming or tearing my hair out.

I also recorded situations like one of the nursing aids running down the hall with a walker chasing the patient in front of her and yelling at her to stop because she wasn’t supposed to be walking without it.

Or the woman who yelled at me at dinner to “put that vase back in the middle of the table” when I move it to the side. Or the frail old woman whose chair was bumped and suddenly yelled out in the dining room at another old woman, “You son of a bitch — watch where you’re going!”

Really, you just have to laugh or go insane.

 

If you're going through a serious illness, here are a few more tips surviving an illness that I learned along the way. Hopefully, in addition to what I shared above, these will help you and your spouse or partner get through it.

4. Remember to acknowledge your partner and friends for their contributions and tenacity. Don’t be afraid to ask for an acknowledgment for something important to you.

5. Keep a sense of the big picture rather than getting caught up in the rough spots.

6. Have frequent visitors and phone contacts.

7. Pick up some new activities that you might not otherwise take the time to experience, like playing cards or working on a puzzle together.

8. Think of some ways you can contribute to others while you are recuperating.

9. Look at the extra time you now have as an opportunity for creative expression.

10. Go outside and enjoy nature when you can. Meditate outdoors some times, if possible. It is best especially in the morning and before going to sleep.

11. Ask your friends and family to bring you some healthy food, or go out once in a while for a meal if you can.

12. Most importantly, keep a sense of humor about it all.

 

This too shall pass, and maybe you can get a few good laughs out of it!

If you want to learn how to handle adversity together, visit Phyllis and Peter at CouplePower.com. Check out their book, Lifelong Love: 4 Steps To Creating and Maintaining An Extraordinary Relationship. Together they have been treating, presenting and writing about couples for nearly 40 years, and have found that there is more joy possible in relationships than most people have ever imagined.