ďIn sickness and in healthÖĒ We make those vows bravely, even naively, with all good intentions of keeping our promises. But the reality is bleak: statistics show that 75 percent of marriages with a chronically ill spouse end in divorce. According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics defines a chronic illness as one that persists longer than three months.
One of my motherís friends got cancer and her husband immediately divorced her. He didnít want the burden of caring for her. Obviously, this was not a solid marriage to begin with but it isnít uncommon for spouses to feel frightened by the prospect of living with a chronically or terminally spouse. In other situations, the chronically ill spouse forces the other to leave the marriage. ďI donít want to hold you back,Ē is the typical belief.
But marriage is a team effort. When one member is down, there should be a feeling of ďNo man (or woman) left behind.Ē Chronic illness should not end a marriage. What is love and marriage if not a binding contract that ensures your devotion through good and bad times? Here are some ways to make it easier to keep your marriage vows when living with chronic illness:
If you have a chronic illness:
*Ditch the guilt. Guilt only wears you down. You need your energy to heal and to carry on. Love means loving your spouse ďin sickness and in health.Ē This is part of the marriage vows. Would you stop loving your spouse, if he became chronically ill? It is times like these when love is tested and strengthened; you may discover deeper dimensions of your love for each other as well as the more important things in life.
*Encourage your spouse to get out and enjoy life away from you, too. Many people feel threatened by this, worried that he or she will find another love interest. But cutting him off from the world will suffocate him. If your love is strong, it will survive short, temporary reprieves. And those getaways can help your spouse feel happier overall and a happy spouse is less likely to leave you.
*Do all you can to improve your well-being. Keep on top of medical advances. Participate actively in therapy or other health regimes that make you feel better. Even if remission or a cure is not in the prognosis, doing all you can may improve how you feel. Hope always.
*Focus on what you can do and express gratitude for the good things in your life. Avoid complaining about your ailments too much. Itís ok to vent to family and friends occasionally, but complaining too much brings others down. Journal instead. Draw others to you with a happy and positive attitude.
*Donít make your illness the center of your life. My uncle lives with pancreatic cancer and no one is a better example of living well with cancer. He is beating the odds because he refuses to hand his life over to his illness. The weekly chemo is just like another appointment or errand, and his schedule is filled with pleasant activities. Although he keeps everyone apprised of his cancer status, he doesnít complain or talk about it much at all. The result? He has zero side effects from the chemo treatments and enjoys a regular, active lifestyle with his wife. He is living with one of the most devastating forms of cancer and surviving it!
Also, I have diabetes but I donít moan about everyone going out for ice cream. I just choose something I can have or take a bite of my husbandís ice cream. No one else should have to hold back because I have diabetes. Donít be jealous of healthier people. Live through them when necessary to share their joys.
*Live for the moment. Just for this moment, find the joy. Just for this moment, laugh and love. Not only will this deepen your gratitude for your life experience, but a positive attitude is healing. Live for just this moment and you give a gift to your spouse and yourself. After all, our lives are made up of moments like pearls on a string. Make it a beautiful strand.
If you are the caretaker:
*Remember to keep yourself healthy. Eat right. Exercise. Take time out just for yourself to rejuvenate your spirit. Allow yourself to enjoy life, without your spouse, without guilt. It is essential in order for you to be a better mate and caretaker.
*Keep in touch socially. Ask someone to come and stay with your spouse while you attend church once in a while. Or invite a friend over to visit with both of you. Encourage your mateís old friends to keep in touch.
When I was younger and worked in a coffee shop, an elderly man visited us every afternoon. He sipped his coffee, chatted with a few other regulars, paid his tab and walked back home to his wife who had some undisclosed illness. He was a devoted husband and yet still needed a connection to the outside world. His daily walks with coffee stop helped.
*Make the most of your time together. When your spouse feels up to it, enjoy what you can, even if it is a slow stroll around the park or playing a game of checkers. Read to him or her. Reminisce. Enjoy a special meal. Listen to favorite music or watch a DVD. Make a phone call to a friend together for a short conversation to catch up on news.
*Keep up with your former interests, if possible. Donít forget who you are. Youíll bring more of yourself to your marriage. A bedridden spouse needs to live vicariously through others. Bring photos and videos to share your adventures.
*Have patience with your spouse. Itís easy to get weary but if you were the chronically ill one, how would you feel? Tolerate the moodiness and depression as part of the illness, not part of your spouse.
A positive attitude makes the difference in your quality of life and quality of your marriage. Chronic illness is just one of many types of life conditions that people must live with. Manage it well and a fulfilling lifeóand marriage--awaits.