How to Survive a Health Crisis or Chronic Illness

Survive a Health Crisis Communicating about your inner experiences is key now and can set the tone for your relationship for years to come.

First comes the shock: emergency treatment for a heart attack or stroke, for example. Or the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Or test results that reveal the presence of a chronic medical condition that will be with you — and your marriage — for the rest of your life, such as diabetes, arthritis, failing kidneys, or chronic pain.

Next comes the long haul. When a health condition travels home with you from the hospital or the doctor’s office, it takes up residence in your kitchen and bedroom, on your calendar and in your daily lives, in your hearts and in your minds. “Coping with this illness will be part of your marriage from now on,” notes Wayne M. Sotile, Ph.D., director of psychological services for the Wake Forest University Healthy Exercise and Lifestyles Program. “There’s nothing more important for living well with any chronic disease than a happy, loving marriage.”

A medical crisis or lifelong health condition rewrites the script of your relationship. Your roles may change drastically. Your future doesn’t look the way you’d hoped. Sex, money, work, chores, fun — they’re all different now. “Managing the way an illness affects your marriage is just as important as keeping up with medications and doctor’s appointments and treatments,” Dr. Sotile says. “Today, most illnesses aren’t short events. They’re processes that go on and on and on, possibly for the rest of your lives. And both of you will need different things at different times in the process. Couples who take responsibility for this can build stronger, closer marriages despite the presence of illness.”

A close marriage not only makes life easier for the two of you, it could be a make-or-break factor in the health of both the patient and the caregiver. The stress and demands of caregiving heighten the odds of the caregiver spouse developing his or her own serious health problems, as well as depression and anxiety. And marriage problems can affect you both as you cope with illness: When Israeli scientists studied 73 couples in which the wives had breast cancer, they found that when husbands were emotionally distant, their wives suffered more distress.

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