Marriage, on its best days, requires a lot of two people. When illness strikes, the demands increase exponentially as a couple’s eco-system is under threat. Each partner is facing his/her own set of fears and demands, pressures previously not present in the partnership. I often said during my husband’s illness that it was like having a third party enter into our marriage. I had to share him, his body, his heart and mind with an illness that was threatening to take him away.
As the spouse and caregiver, it is important to know that you can still have a loving, deep union through a difficult time. It won’t always be perfect. It takes conscious work, but your union can endure and get stronger. Here are some tips for caring for your marriage while caring for your spouse.
Share your feelings with your spouse. If the two of you are to walk side-by-side through a difficult journey, honesty will go a long way.
YOUR MARRIAGE STILL COMES FIRST
One anniversary, Saro and I were going through a rough patch. He was starting a new risky clinical trial and living with the fear that it might not work. That fear was paralyzing. As a consequence, he uncharacteristically did nothing to honor our anniversary, not even a card. It was an awful day. Still, I didn’t shy away from telling him, that no matter how sick with fear he felt, he was here today, still my husband and I was still his wife. As partners, we had made a promise to acknowledge the other person. Just as I stood witness to his fear and illness, he had to acknowledge my love and care. Even if it’s simply to take a scrap of paper and scribble “I love you” on it. After that anniversary, we made a pact. If he was too sick, a friend or family member would do the heavy lifting of getting a card from the grocery store or maybe even a gift. It only took his remembering. For him, it was empowering to know that being a husband came before being a cancer patient.
MANAGING THE “ANXIETY CONTAGION”
At times in our home, there was a lot of free-floating anxiety. Especially just before a new chemo, surgery, or receiving test results. Plus, we lived in near constant financial anxiety as medical costs increased and compounded over the years. Again, we had to make an agreement. One of us would have to escort the other off the “anxiety merry-go-round” whenever being trapped on it threatened to rob us of well spent time together.
THE TIES THAT BIND, GO DEEPER
“In sickness and in health…” Approach caregiving as a moment to go deeper into your bond. There is great strength and turning into each other instead of away.
SEEK OUT A CHANGE OF SCENERY
While waiting for a scan, the day after we found out about Saro’s first diagnosis, I met a woman in the waiting room of the imaging center. Her husband had fought back cancer three times. “How have you done it?,” I asked. She took a deep breath, handed me a tissue and gave me one of the best pieces of advice I could have ever received. She said, “We get away from all this whenever we can. We traded in his car and got an RV. Now, we take a trip whenever we can. You need a change of scenery.” That piece of advice stayed with me. If health, time and resources permitted, we left home and went someplace to feed our souls. We took in the California coast an hour from our home. And in greater leaps, we even went to Saro’s hometown in Sicily, after receiving the okay from his doctors. However, often a “change of scenery” meant just leaving the house and taking in a midday movie simply to escape into another world. After each trip, we always returned with spirits lifted and fresh perspective, a little stronger for what came next.
DATE NIGHT 2.0
When you’re sick and exhausted from treatment or exhausted from caring for someone who is sick and exhausted, a date night can feel about as plausible as a trip to Mars. So for us we had to amend our idea of Date Night. We binge watched movies in our bed while he did IV treatments. I bought candles and lit the house up on Friday nights. I drank wine, he had tea. We’d eat food or a friend would pick-up from a restaurant. Date Night gave us an opportunity to re-acquaint as a couple.
WE’RE NO SAINTS, IT’S OK TO STILL GET UPSET
Anyone who shares a life with another person knows the ins and outs of what gets on your nerves about your mate. That doesn’t suddenly change when someone is diagnosed. They don’t become angels and we, the caregivers, don’t become saints. It’s okay to still get mad at your spouse even while they are sick. It’s okay to communicate you’re upset. Do it gently and perhaps not at times when they are feeling super vulnerable or in the throws of painful side effects. Holding in your frustration, anger will only cause resentment. You’re no saint. Having the gamut of human feelings is totally fine.