“I, John Doe, take you, Jane Doe, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
A template that people get excited about in an official function bringing two people together. Sometimes you might wonder whether the words bang the ears of the newlyweds with the same magnitude they carry. Maybe. You can be sure that “…to have and to hold and to hold,… for better,… for richer…” might make sense.
In Sickness and In Health
There is no point of continuing with the discourse of whether partners entering into a life commitment ever listen to this part. Yet, this is where our discussion is, because it is all important. Whether it is a young relationship or partners have been in a covenanted marriage for decades.
Having a chronic illness can significantly affect even the best of relationships the universe has ever experienced. Selfishness will most definitely play a part in the issues that ensue, but this might not be the only or major cause.
When a chronic illness knocks the doors of your relationship (and the possibility is higher in this day and age than when Zinjanthropus would light a fire using stone tools), the relationship will definitely be affected. Unfortunately, things can never be the same again. Two things will most likely happen;
- The partner living with chronic illness (hereafter referred to as ‘the patient’) may not feel the same way they did before the illness
- The partner who is not sick (hereafter referred to as ‘the caregiver’), might not know how to handle the changes
In this standoff situation, there will be a strain in the relationship, caused by either a misunderstanding of each other’s feelings or… sorry to say, selfishness (from both sides). The understanding of “…in Sickness and in Health…” may be pushed to its breaking point. It is at this point that the love, the grace and grit, the resilience and hard rock commitment to each other should patiently set in.
Studies suggest that age has proved to be a major factor. Marriages in which one spouse has a chronic illness are more likely to fail if the spouses are young. And spouses who are caregivers are six times more likely to be depressed than spouses who do not need to be caregivers.
How do you keep a relationship strong despite Chronic illness?
Kirsten Schultz, a sexuality educator and who has been chronically ill for most of her life, suggests communication as the first line of defence in protecting the relationship from crumbling.
“In my work as a sexuality educator, I’ve helped people improve their relationships by stressing that communication is one of the most important components of a lasting, healthy relationship. But the importance of communication is even greater when chronic illness butts in, no matter what stage of the relationship you’re in,” says Kirsten.
Chronic illness does not only affect your immediate partner, but it also means that every other relationship the patient has ever had and has, is impacted in one way or another by the change of lifestyle.
Disclosure of hidden and chronic illness is not an easy thing, but that’s what communication demands. Many opine that it is best to reveal certain hidden things as early as possible in relationships that show signs of serious potential. This is an opinion that most can agree with because it saves the heartbreak of a partner having to leave at a point where a lot of progress has been made. Early disclosure essentially sets partners on a trajectory that makes it a little more comfortable to work out the progress while working out the best communication models to keep them intimate with each other.
The truth is, whether there is a chronic illness or not, relationships suffer where partners are not free to discuss problems with no easy or obvious solutions. This kind of silent treatment leads to a gaping distance between partners and a lack of intimacy. Embracing ways that allow partners to talk openly about challenges in their lives is the first step to effectively finding solutions to problems and eventually closeness and intimacy that result from working together as a team.
Social work professor Karen Kayser, Boston College, insists that the right level of communication is key. She suggests a middle ground where partners strike a middle ground in talking about the illness. It would be a problem if the couple never talks about the illness and it would also be a problem if they get so consumed with talking about the illness.
Find a place for meaningful empathy instead of sympathy
One way to release the stress and anxiety that comes with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and so on is to express empathy as opposed to pity and sympathy. Empathy involves understanding your partner and taking steps to support them. It is engaging in their life and walking in their shoes as they share their experiences.
Both parties should be willing to learn to engage empathy in dialogue. The patient should not assume that the partner understands everything and therefore should learn to express the little details that may be harder to express. The caregiver, on the other hand, should be quick to listen and try to understand their partner while focussing on effective communication. Empathy calls for expressing how you feel when arguing, rather than attacking your partner. ‘I’ statements like …” I was hurt by these words…”, “I felt disrespected when…” etc.
Other ways that can build on handling stressful emotions include finding the best way to deal with anxiety. It is always recommended that you identify the root of the anxious behaviour and try to find creative solutions around it.
- You can research the condition and find available resources to tap in.
- Consider visiting a trusted counsellor, therapist, minister or a trained professional in cognitive behavioural therapy
- Watch out for depression
- Come to a point of honestly acknowledging that your relationship cannot be as it used to be and that both of you are experiencing the changes as a result of chronic illness.
Other ways to help stabilize your relationship in chronic illness include smaller issues like stating your needs to get help when you can’t really handle them, learning to be vulnerable to your partner and others while remaining confident and fearless as well as admitting that you were wrong when you were. Such acts of selflessness and honest dependence on your partner work miraculously in breeding true intimacy with each other.
The Caregiver needs attention too
One last thing we need to understand in a relationship living with chronic illness is the caregiver’s needs. The caregiver in the relationship is as much affected as the patient. Their needs are as much important as the patients. Sometimes, in such relationships when depression hits, it hits the caregiver most and quicker.
The physical and emotional needs of the caregiver need to be given attention otherwise they won’t be able to give adequate care to the patient. The caregiver can find a friend to confide in as well as find a physical activity to engage in at least twice a week to relieve stress. More ways to engage in to avoid the risk of burnout and depression include; setting realistic goals, strengthening social connections, knowing what limits you can’t go past and genuinely asking for help.
having these steps at hand is not enough to give you a great relationship, there will be new things to learn about one another. The learning process is going to be continuous and will be tumultuous most of the times. However, tumult does not mean that the relationship ain’t growing. Put on a teachable attitude and thrive in your relationship.
Love, laughter and ever after, in sickness and in health!