5 Struggles Every Couple Faces When One Partner Gets Sick

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dealing with chronic illness

And how to overcome them —​ together.

It’s great to be part of a couple when you are well and having fun together.

But what about when one of you gets ill or is challenged physically, like being pregnant or injured? How do you manage to take care of yourself, your partner, and still support each other?

That's where the rubber meets the road.

Statistics from a recent study at the University of Michigan show that over 30% of married couples get divorced when one of them, especially the woman, has a serious illness. Yes, we marry and commit “in sickness and in health.” However, it’s not enough to just say the words.

You must take action as a team when "sickness" hits, even if one of you is partly disabled or compromised in some way. 

My wife, Phyllis, recently had emergency surgery and ended up in the hospital and rehab for several months.

Suddenly all the household tasks, taking care of our dog, and coordinating repairs that she had taken on routinely fell to me. Phyllis was physically and emotionally drained and needed a lot of support.  

Whether you are a committed partner or a parent, there is nothing quite as difficult as seeing your loved one in pain.

I felt so bad about the pain and disruption Phyllis was feeling. I so wanted to help her feel better, but there was little I could do. Likewise, I was feeling sorry for myself about all I needed to do.

I knew how to do everything but did not know how I was going to handle it all. No matter how I felt, though, I still felt guilty that it was worse for her.

It was easy to get in my own head about this and feel overwhelmed. But really, being overwhelmed didn’t help; it just kept me from being in action.

So I just decided to show up to be with her as much as possible, create some fun activities (we rediscovered Gin Rummy), and find occasions to laugh. We watched movies and Facetimed with our kids and grandkids.

What became clear was that we both needed more rest  for her to heal and for me to recharge.

We spent some time coordinating our schedule for each day, working out when I would visit, go to work, do laundry and be available to talk. We were both exhausted most of the time, but celebrated each milestone in the recovery and planned for our future.

We brainstormed how to make the experience in rehab more interesting (keeping track of funny things people said, writing a short play about life in rehab, etc.)

Finally, we thought about how our experience might help others, hence, writing this!

In the end, all I wanted to do was to be helpful so we could look back on this experience and see what we learned, and how we actually grew as a partnership.

Some couples say that they are at their best when they are confronting emergencies or threats to their health and well-being.

That has been my goal.


Along the way, I found five challenges that our relationship faced —  and most couples in the same situation will have to deal with  in dealing with a severe illness. Hopefully it helps other families, too.

1. The loneliness and asking "why"?

The partner who is ill might feel stressed and lonely, especially if you are hospitalized. You might keep asking yourself, “Why me? Why now?” You may feel like “this shouldn’t be.” But asking these questions won’t help.

You just have to surrender to it all and accept what is happening. It is a hardship but maybe a “vacation” from something as well.

Remember that it won’t last forever.


2. The ill partner's guilt over the stress the supporting partner feels.

This is often the case when the woman is pregnant.

Though she may not be ill, her physical capacities become increasingly compromised. More weight is put on the partner to take care of responsibilities at home.

Your partner may not take this on wholeheartedly, and you may both feel resentful.

Remember, it’s nobody’s fault. It is all part of the process of giving birth or getting well, whatever your situation may be.


3. The stress, overwhelm and even anger that you may feel, as the caregiver of someone ill or the partner of a pregnant woman.

There are a lot of concessions or changes you will have to make.

You will be taking on many of the tasks you are accustomed to your partner handling.

Stop and look at the big picture. You may feel tired or angry, but know you are not in as much pain as your partner.

It is OK to feel what you feel. This condition too shall pass.


4. The sadness you both may feel at times.

Dealing with illness, injury or pregnancy is a big change and adjustment.

There will be many things you will miss out on. 

You may feel frustrated at not being able to fix the situation. You may also feel exhausted which brings on added emotional and physical stress.


5. Learning how to pick each other up when one of you is down, discouraged or in significant pain.

You may have to be intentional about this, actually taking turns to lift the mood or suggest a positive activity.

Take on the pain or disability as your common challenge together as a team. It is definitely worth the effort to find some options for dealing with it all. Being cooped up in a hospital, rehab center or even at home when you are ill or disabled can be very difficult.

Try going outside for a while and enjoying the fresh air and change of scenery. Just sit there and watch the birds or meditate together.


A few tips that might help keep your sanity:

1. Share your feelings with each other, and spend time just listening. And don’t forget the power of acknowledgment. A little show of appreciation for your partner’s difficulties and efforts goes a long way.

2. When you are at the end of your rope, put yourself in your partner’s place, and think about what it is like for them to deal with everything. It is easy to get caught up in your own problems and lose sight of your partner’s stress.

3. When you are both at the breaking point, think about what outside supports you can call upon — friends, family, professionals.

You don’t have to do this alone!

Too many couples suffer in silence when there are people who would be glad to help if you just ask them. It’s better than going insane!!


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. 

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