Chronic Illness in Marriage
by Erin Prater
Nearly half of all Americans live their
day-to-day lives with at least one chronic illness as a
companion. Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, chronic fatigue
syndrome, Crohn's disease, asthma, arthritis, lupus, sickle cell
anemia and a host of other conditions pillage millions of
personal lives and marriages each year. Statistics show that
over 75 percent of marriages plagued by chronic illness end in
Nothing quite assists a spouse in understanding his or her role
of helpmate like a chronic illness. For married couples, a
diagnosis means twice the heartache, discomfort and worry.
If you have a chronic illness, how do you juggle your needs with
the needs of your spouse? How can you fight feelings of
inadequacy and guilt? If your spouse has a chronic illness, how
do you "keep it together" for him or her? What if you become
burned out? What do you do when you find yourself thinking,
"This is more than I bargained for?"
In Sickness and in Health: Tips for Coping With a Diagnosis
More often than not, the reality of 'sickness' materializes out
by Erin Prater
If you're like most couples, you breezed through the "in
sickness and in health" clause of your marriage vows without
much thought. You were probably too busy gazing into your
spouse's eyes, beaming from the thought of marrying your soul
mate and eagerly anticipating your wedding night.
Had you given it some thought, you might have pictured "in
sickness and in health" as serving your wife chicken noodle soup
when she has the flu or running to the store at 10 p.m. for
another box of Kleenex and Sudafed for your husband's "monster"
cold. Aside from the token mention of, "Yes, honey, I'd still
love you and take care of you if you were in a car accident,"
calamity was probably the furthest thing from your mind.
More often than not, the reality of "sickness" materializes out
of nowhere. When your spouse is diagnosed with a chronic
illness, you begin to realize that your life, your spouse's life
and your marriage will never again be the same. It's easy to let
thoughts such as, "Will this affect his lifespan?" and "Will we
still be able to have kids?" torment you.
Below are eight tips for dealing with a diagnosis as a couple.
1. Accept offers of help. If you're involved with a church or a
close-knit group of friends, you'll likely receive more
assistance than you know what to do with. Casserole dinners and
offers of free babysitting won't ameliorate your condition or
mend your broken spirit, but they will allow you to focus on
healing and coping as a couple.
2. Find a support group. Contact your doctor's office or church
for support-group referrals. If possible, find a group where
spouses and family members are welcome. If a support group
doesn't exist in your area, consider starting one. Or, find an
online forum where you can receive and give encouragement.
3. Find a good counselor. If the prospect of seeing a
psychiatrist daunts you, don't. Instead, find a certified,
Biblically based counselor both you and your spouse can speak
with. Your pastor may be a certified counselor; if not, he
should be able to point you to one. You can also call
800-A-FAMILY for a local referral.
4. Continue to make intimacy a priority. Physical intimacy is
one of the greatest tangible bonds between a married couple.
Besides fulfilling physical cravings, sex builds relational and
spiritual intimacy between a husband and wife, allowing them to
release emotions. If sex is still possible, continue to make
love regularly. If it isn't, seek to fulfill each other's needs
in other creative ways.
5. Reach outside yourself. It's possible for you and your spouse
to spiritually and emotionally "drown" in hopelessness if you
constantly focus on your situation. Reach out to others in need
– individuals with a similar medical condition, shut-ins who
could use a warm meal or widows who'd appreciate a listening
ear. Helping others brings true joy – a rare commodity at times
6. Realize it's OK to question God. God understands if you're
angry at the doctors, angry at Him and angry at the world in
general. Don't let Satan trick you into thinking anger is a sin.
It's not, though sinful behavior includes acting in anger
towards others or turning your back on God. Present Him with
your questions and uncertainties. Wrestle through this time with
Him, and expect additionally clarity as the end result.
7. Reflect. Life is a journey, and followers of Christ are
promised it won't be an easy one. You may not have answers to
why you were diagnosed with your condition – not now, not in
this life. Take comfort in knowing you will have these answers
someday. In the mean time, God will reveal to you His purpose
for your life – and your life with this condition. Journal your
thoughts, feelings and reflections. Share them with your spouse.
Open yourselves individually and corporately to what God has in
store for your life together.
8. Refuse to be owned by your condition – or hopelessness. Life,
no matter how painful or confusing, is precious and worth
living. Do your best to make lemonade out of lemons, and rest at
His feet when you're wrung-out.
When Reality Sets In
Few things in life test wedding vows like chronic illness.
by Erin Prater
All marriages face obstacles. Most, however, aren't as pervasive
as chronic illness, which can rear its ugly head on a daily
basis: Your wife, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, may
wake up on a Saturday too fatigued to attend the all-day BBQ
festival you both had been looking forward to. Your husband's
Crohn's disease severely limits where and what the two of you
can eat. Your wife's asthma flairs up during sex, causing the
two of you to stop prematurely. Your husband, who suffers from
diabetes, slips into a hypoglycemic seizure that sends you both
to the hospital on a Sunday evening.
Spouses of individuals who suffer from physically debilitating
conditions often find themselves filling both the role of spouse
and caretaker/nurse. Spouses of individuals who suffer from
mental conditions may find themselves feeling more like a
babysitter than an equal partner in the marriage.
Few things in life test wedding vows like chronic illness. If
your spouse was diagnosed before you tied the knot, you may have
underestimated the toll the condition would take on the
marriage. Or, you were so in love you didn't care. As time
progresses, it's natural to wonder if you've gotten "in over
your head." If your spouse was diagnosed after your wedding day,
you may find yourself thinking "If only I had known how hard
this would be. Would I have still signed up for this?"
Below are do's and don'ts for the patient and spouse on coping
with marriage and chronic illness:
For the Patient
• Don't expect your spouse to carry the full burden of your
condition, physically or
emotionally. No one person can handle a chronic illness alone –
not your husband, not yourself. Enlist the help of friends,
neighbors, coworkers, church members and family. If need be,
bring in outside medical or household help.
• Do seek to serve your spouse. Your wife is a great to support
to you in your daily battles with chronic illness. Do what you
can to serve her, if even in small ways. And don't keep tally of
who's done what for whom. This can be detrimental to a marriage.
• Don't offer your spouse an "out." It's natural for your spouse
to wonder, "Am I really cut out for a marriage in which a
chronic illness is involved?" Though offering her an out may
seem the compassionate thing to do (and likely to garner some
much needed reassurance of her commitment), it may backfire and
fuel destructive thoughts Satan is tempting your spouse with.
Thank her for her commitment to you through good times and bad,
and express your mutual commitment.
• Do speak well of your spouse – publically and privately. Let
his friends and coworkers know what a great help he is to you
and how irreplaceable he is.
For the Spouse
• Don't use your spouse's condition against her. Though the
nuances of your wife's condition are frustrating, they're not
intentional. Bring your mutual frustrations at the situation to
God, and don't direct them at each other.
• Do allow time to recharge yourself. "Me time" is crucial to
keeping yourself fresh and able to deal with the challenges of a
marriage in which chronic illness is involved. It's also crucial
to your overall happiness and well-being.
• Don't define your spouse by his condition. Try not to refer to
him as a diabetic, asthmatic or any other term that defines him
by his condition. Instead, refer to him as your husband with
• Do realize your doubts are normal. It's ordinary to wonder if
you're "really cut out for marriage to a person with [insert
condition]." It's ordinary for someone in your position to be
tempted to leave – temporarily or permanently. There is no sin
in being tempted, but there is sin in breaking your vows. Let
God know you need His strength to fulfill your vows to your
Weak Body, Strong Bond
'God calls you to give yourself, to deny yourself, to be
other-person oriented, and you can find life in it.'
by Erin Prater
Jim and Lynda Walters had been married for 13 enjoyable years
when, in January of 1977, Lynda was diagnosed with multiple
sclerosis, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system
attacks the central nervous system.
The two had known something was wrong for a couple of years.
Lynda was suffering from double vision, and occasionally her
feet wouldn't lift properly when she wanted to walk or get out
of the bathtub. Eventually, Jim checked Lynda into a hospital
for testing. The family of four received the diagnosis a week
"It had been coming on so gradually," says Jim, who does most of
the speaking for the couple these days. "It wasn't like you wake
up one morning and suffer from a stroke, which is very traumatic
and immediate. But it was sad. We knew it was going to make life
a bit different.
"Lynda's response was 'I don't have time for this!' 'We're not
going to let this defeat us,' is the impression I got from her."
Lynda's condition is chronic, meaning "there's a continual up
and down, but over time there's more down than up," Jim says.
"It's a continual reminder that things are slowing down."
Ten years after Lynda's diagnosis, she stopped driving. Twenty
years after her diagnosis, the couple acquired a retrofitted
minivan in which Jim could more easily transport her – another
"My sons ask me if I ever cry; I say, 'Sure,'" Jim says. "They
ask me if I ever get angry, I say 'Yeah. Not at mom, but sure.'
But this is normal for us. We don't lament and grieve over the
things we don't have."
As Lynda's condition slowly worsens, the couple fine-tunes their
routine "weekly and monthly." Due to Lynda's condition, the two
spend most of their time together.
"We're not afraid to be alone," Jim says. "We enjoy each other!"
The couple experiences each day to the fullest at each other's
sides. They go to the opera, movies and restaurants. They travel
to see family and friends, watch "Jeopardy" and attend parties.
Jim, a former professor of Biblical Studies at Arkansas' John
Brown University, still teaches an occasional class, speaks at
churches and performs premarital counseling and weddings; Lynda
is almost always present during these activities.
"Lynda was a straight-A student," Jim says. "She typed my
dissertation at 80-90 words a minute. She used to play the piano
and organ, and MS gradually took those things away from her.
That's why I say she's a hero."
Jim On . . .
Adjusting to the reality of Lynda's diagnosis: "There was a
point where I did not respond well. I actually pulled away from
Lynda emotionally for a period of time. The saddest point of my
life was when I pulled away from her one night in bed. Somewhere
in the midst of that terrible response I woke up and realized I
was acting of the flesh, like somebody who didn't know the Lord.
I realized I was incredibly selfish and fallen, and God began to
change my heart."
The symbolism of his relationship with Lynda: "One of my
students stayed with us off and on for a period of time. She
wrote a thank-you note that said, 'I want to thank you for
allowing me to be there with you and Lynda. I realized the way
Lynda is to you is the way I am to be with God: totally
dependent.' I hadn't realized we were giving a visual
representation of that relationship. God is the one who has to
be undergirding, guiding and encouraging me, helping me keep
perspective; at the heart of it, helping me be a lover."
True joy: "I think sometimes people think I dropped some kind of
joy-pill down my throat and all of the sudden I'm jumping around
and smiling, but nope. It's amazing: Those moments of joy are
often times when I look across the bed at Lynda when she's
sleeping and I realize what a gift she has been to me, this
person who believed in me and encouraged me."
A major turning-point in their MS journey: "I remember when the
nurse came to put the catheter in and I thought, 'Wait a minute,
I'm not ready for this. We're not ready for this. We still have
sexual intercourse. We still love each other that way.' She
said, 'Well, we don't usually put this in people who are still
having sexual intercourse, so think about it.' That was the
point when we realized that this is a matter of physical
survival. It was going to be a major adjustment. The whole
journey was sort-of a gentle transition and then we came to this
V in the road. We could go left and give up, as many people do,
or go right and either be bitter or live happily ever after. We
decided to be happy and rejoice in what God still allowed us to
His advice to couples dealing with a chronic illness: "Deal with
selfishness through love and falling in-love with God.
Selfishness is just not at all love. Love is other-person
concerned, reaching out to meet their needs. God calls you to
give yourself, to deny yourself, to be other-person oriented,
and you can find life in it."