When my husband is ill, he wants me to take care of him—and for the most part, I enjoy doing so. I’ll soothe his forehead, get him tissues, make him “sicky juice” (our family’s name for orange juice and ginger ale mixed together, with a straw for good measure), and fluff his pillows.
Many of us have cared for our husbands during a brief illness or recovery from surgery. But how do we manage when his medical condition is long-term?
I’ve watched two marriages close to me suffer over the past two years while the husband has been unwell. In one, a diagnosis came early on—but it took a while to figure out the best treatment plan. In the other marriage, there has been pain with no clear diagnosis yet, accompanied by depression.
I’m no stranger to having an unwell husband, either. For several years, my husband has had high blood pressure that is not well controlled by medication. Last year he went through some tests, and this year he faces another medical test and possible surgery. Before his diagnosis and during a few stretches when he was adjusting to new medications, he exhibited behavioral changes.
Long-term illness, mental health problems, and even getting used to a diagnosis of a manageable condition can pose unique challenges.
Wives are affected, too
I know first-hand that when your husband isn’t well, his isn’t the only life affected. Wives of husbands with physical or mental health problems face new tasks and adjustments.
- We may need to help track or administer medications. We’re the ones who remember that the pill that needs to be taken before dinner. We may need to give injections. I’ve watched many wives carry their husbands’ medication in their purses so it is always available.
- Wives often monitor symptoms of a husband’s condition and notice new symptoms. We may even be the one who noticed the first symptoms of his medical condition. I am the first to notice whether a new medication is working to control my husband’s blood pressure because he gets angry more quickly and he exhibits other symptoms of stress. It is often easier for someone other than the patient to observe symptoms objectively.
- Sometimes we need to make lifestyle changes along with our husbands. Sometimes, this means that we change our eating habits or look for healthier alternatives for favorite foods. It might mean that we need to park closer to the door or always remember to pack an inhaler.
- Some medical conditions affect how we plan our lives. It isn’t easy to deal with unpredictable symptoms. One woman I know has stopped committing to events she has enjoyed for decades because she doesn’t want to risk having her husband experience pain while she isn’t there to care for him. Accompanying a husband to medical appointments and tests has an impact on her time as well.
- When a husband has a mental health problem, a wife may adjust her own interactions with him in an attempt to avoid triggering certain behavioral or mood symptoms.
- We experience stress and worry. Is this treatment going to work? Is he going to get better? Is this temporary, or is this my new normal?
- With some medical conditions, a wife may need to make some difficult decisions about her husband’s care.
- Some conditions may affect our sleep, especially if medication needs to be administered during the night or if we make frequent trips to the emergency room.
What does this do to the marriage?
With all this going on, marriage can take a hit. The whole relationship dynamic changes when the people involved need to step outside their usual roles.
A wife may begin to see her husband as a patient, feel the weight of additional burdens on her own shoulders, or be unable or unwilling to lean on her husband in having her own needs met. In one of the marriages I know well, the wife has intentionally kept troubling family news from her husband out of fear of adding stress to his life—yet it is news that she needs a great deal of support in dealing with herself.
Unwell husbands experience pain and worries. Men who are on leave from work may have concerns about not providing for their families. They may be tired or weak and be unable to fulfill their usual roles in the family and marriage. If sexual dysfunction is a symptom of the condition or medication, their sense of their masculinity can take a huge hit. Sometimes they resent being treated like a patient at the same time as they seek the extra care and comfort that comes with that.
Both the husband and wife face can face difficult adjustments, and they may find it hard to provide the support the other most needs at that time. Activities they’ve enjoyed together for years may need to be changed or eliminated. Sex may be difficult or impossible. The very things that have bonded them as a couple throughout their marriage may not be available to them during this time.
What can you do?
It is important to take care of yourself and your marriage during this challenging time.
Allow yourself to mourn the loss of the life you were living . . . Acknowledge that you are sad that you can’t do the things you used to do together and that your new challenges are hard. Pretending that nothing has changed won’t help you cope. The stages of grief can apply to any difficult life change, so allow yourself to feel the moments of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and know that you may go back and forth between these feelings.
. . . while adjusting to your new normal . . . Learn your new routine. Get familiar with the medications you need to know. Start coming up with backup plans for scheduled events in case your husband is having a rough day.
. . . or remembering that this is just a season. If your husband’s illness is not a permanent condition, it can help to remember that the challenges you face won’t last forever.
Learn about your husband’s condition. Accompany him to medical appointments to ask questions, take notes, and ask about support for you and for him. Find out the reputable sites on the internet for his condition. (I know from personal experience that if you aren’t looking at the right sites, you can easily be convinced that everything is horrible.)
Get support for yourself. I know you don’t want to bother other people with your troubles—but this is an opportunity for them to do something that matters for you. The people who love you can’t make your husband’s illness go away—but they can listen to you, they can stay with your husband for a few hours so you can go for a walk, and they can pray for you. Seek support groups. Talk to other women whose husbands have been ill.
Be intentional about couple time that is not about your husband’s medical condition. Even if you can’t go on the five-mile hikes you used to go on, you can sit on your favorite bench at the park. Spend time just being a couple and talking about the things you’ve always talked about.
Look for the ways your husband’s illness draws you closer to God. What growth opportunities does this time provide for you? Who and what is God sending you to care for you and help you? Be sure to spend time in the Word and in prayer. When my husband was going through some of his medical tests last year I read through many of the Psalms on the Bible app on my phone and found great comfort.
Find new ways of being sexual together. Some medical conditions and treatments make sex difficult if not impossible. This may be a season of sex that is mostly for one spouse at a time—or even most of the time. If intercourse isn’t feasible, then use oral or manual sex—or one spouse can be held by the other while masturbating. Being sexual together might mean something different than it used to—and looking for those ways together can add to the emotional intimacy in your marriage.
Dealing with the challenges of your husband’s medical condition or illness is going to be hard at times—but with attention and effort, it doesn’t have to take away from the intimacy in your marriage.
Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net