How to Survive a Health Crisis or Chronic Illness

When sickness enters a marriage remember your vows and support each other with communication and love.

By Sarì Harrar and Rita DeMaria | Ph.D. from The 7 Stages of Marriage

Physical affection is a powerful stress-reduction tool for married couples — and the better your relationship, the stronger the power of touch. In an intriguing University of Virginia study, 16 married women agreed to be zapped with very mild electric shocks while researchers studied their brain activity with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Each woman in turn held her husband’s hand, the hand of a male stranger, or no one’s hand.

The results? Chalk up a victory for marriage. When husbands reached into the MRI machine to clasp their wives’ hands, activity in the part of the brain that registers the anticipation of pain quieted down significantly for the women. They said that they felt less distress. And brain images also showed less agitation in the hypothalamus, the area of the brain that controls the release of stress hormones. Women who were most satisfied with their marriages got the most benefits. In contrast, holding a stranger’s hand cut stress only a little.

“We can’t see what our spouses are doing to our brains and emotions until a stressful event arises, but it’s going on all the time,” noted lead researcher James Coan, Ph.D., soon after the study was published. “When a wife holds or caresses her husband, she is really reaching into the deepest parts of his brain, calming down the neural-threat response.”

Touch is second nature in a close marriage. But when one spouse is sick, that can all change. Experts suggest that couples make it a point to stay physically close and even resume their sexual relationship. But pain, muscle weakness, surgical scars, breathing problems, medication side effects, and worries about stamina or the effects of a physical activity like sex could make you both feel wary. The ill spouse may not feel attractive. The caretaking spouse may not want to overtax his or her mate. Your instinct may be to wait, but how long? This advice can help you both get the affection and love you need — safely.

Shower each other with physical affection. Hold hands. Hug. Kiss. Touch whenever possible. Learn how to perform a simple foot, hand, or back massage — and trade massages. The more touch, the better. It’s soothing, cuts stress, and makes you feel closer and happier. If you have surgical scars or feel self-conscious about your changing body due to weight gain or loss, spend time holding each other while you are dressed. Dr. Sotile suggests gradually letting your partner see surgical scars or changed parts of your body, then gently rubbing them with lotion or touching them.

Have fun. Your mate is still your partner, so don’t forget physical flirting and fun even if it doesn’t lead to intercourse or an orgasm. Tease each other. Tickle. Fool around. Get to second base and linger there.

Make love when you’re both ready. Physical love triggers the release of the bonding hormone, oxytocin, in women — you feel calm and happy. It also lowers blood pressure, protecting against heart attack and stroke. Men also experience a fivefold increase in oxytocin just before orgasm. The health benefits of regular sex for men? In a study of 1,000 guys from Northern Ireland, those who had sex three times a week or more cut their risk for a heart attack or stroke by 50 percent. Frequent orgasms lowered risk of death to one-half that of sexually inactive men, say researchers from Queen’s University in Belfast. Maybe that’s why long-married men live up to five years longer than their unmarried counterparts.

And yet, you may be worried about sex — and that’s normal when illness visits your marriage. Eighty percent of heart patients, for example, are scared to make love for at least six months after a heart attack. Sex may not be the same — and it’s wise to talk with your doctor first for advice on whether you’re in the small minority of heart patients for whom sex may be risky, if your medical condition causes pain, or if you take medications that have dampened your libido or sexual response. Take it slowly. Enjoy the full experience of touching, tasting, feeling.

Need a little help? Ask your doctor. Steer clear of health food-store and online remedies for low sex drive or orgasm troubles. Some may be dangerous; others are simply ineffective. Still others could interact with medications you take and produce unwanted side effects. Both men and women experiencing arousal or orgasm difficulties after a brush with a major illness may boost sexual pleasure with a little pharmaceutical help, Dr. Sotile says. Viagra-type pills and creams that enhance blood flow in your most erogenous zones may be worth exploring.

Your doctor may also be able to adjust other medications you’re taking or suggest other strategies to improve your sex life. If talking about your sex life with your doc makes you uncomfortable, pave the way by writing down your questions in advance.

Redefine intimacy. Don’t give up if sex isn’t what it used to be or is simply not an option right now. Embracing, hugging, touching, and kissing count too. Even if you can’t manage intercourse, spending time together touching and talking can bring you deep, satisfying intimacy.