Older couple

Remember your vows? “In sickness and in health, ‘till death do us part.” Your marriage vows probably said something similar. It’s sad when you or your spouse experience a major surgery, accident, or illness. You pull yourself together, tell yourself “this too shall pass,” and look forward to getting back to normal in a few weeks or even months. But when the “sickness” part settles in for the long haul it gives you opportunity to show how committed you really are to those vows. You may have entered the world of family caregiving.

A few years ago I interviewed Jared Dunten and his wife for our radio program. Jared suffered a broken neck and injured spinal cord in a diving accident, and has been paralyzed from the neck down ever since. While in his wheelchair he met and married Kimberly, and they now have two wonderful boys. While everyone hopes Jared will one day be able to walk again, that’s not likely. Watching Jared and Kimberly together demonstrates both the challenge and the beauty of long-term love in the face of sickness.

I’ve had several conversations with one of the support staff at one of the hospitals where I work. Her husband has been on dialysis for over ten years, and just got out of the hospital again for the “thousandth” time. “This has been my life,” she said. Both her fluctuating emotions and her resilience in the face of his chronic illness speak to the weight she carries and her inner strength through it all.

My husband Al is also fighting chronic illness. Some days he feels great and does much of what any healthy person would do. Other days it’s a struggle just to get up, eat, breathe, and sit down again. The doctor’s visits, medications, and never knowing whether he’ll be “OK” on any given day, do get old. While we continue to pray for God’s strength and healing, humanly speaking we know there may be difficult days in the months and years ahead.

Yes, there are times I cry. Not often. And most of the time I try to not let him see my tears. I don’t want to add any more weight to what he’s already carrying.

But I’m also happy. I wouldn’t trade a moment with my husband for anything in the world. Through this I’ve learned a lot about what the foundations of marriage are all about. Every marriage has challenges, and these keys are important whether your challenge is sickness or something else.

Help Your Marriage Thrive

Here are some things I’ve learned about making marriage thrive in the face of sickness:

  1. Focus on the glass half full. Happiness is a choice. Spend most of your time looking at the positive things in life; the love and understanding you have for each other, any loving people you have around you, any faith you share or purpose in living you both work toward. Caregiving and chronic illness both predispose to depression; choose to proactively practice positive thinking.
  2. Be real with each other. There are times you need to openly talk about the bad stuff: fear of dying, anxiety about managing money or medical care, times the load feels too heavy to carry, guilt or shame or regrets, etc. Take care of business in the area of wills, power of attorney, life insurance, etc. Don’t park on the negative, but don’t hold back. Al and I have often felt closer after one of our more difficult conversations about the tough stuff.
  3. Make good memories. Take family pictures. Do simple things together as a couple even if it takes extra effort to do so. If you’re both physically able to travel, do it. Celebrate whatever occasions you can. Find special moments to treasure at home together: slowly sip a cup of coffee while sitting on the porch, cuddle while watching a favorite movie, or laugh while looking through old pictures.
  4. Slow down your pace of living. If you’re performance oriented like I am, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing everything fast. When someone’s sick that’s often impossible. One of the many gifts in my husband’s illness has been the necessity for me to slow down. My life has become richer as I’ve learned to stop and “smell the roses” more often. It helps me keep things in perspective. Slowing down to do things together will help you stay connected with your spouse.
  5. Keep your own soul filled up. You need to be sure your own oxygen mask is on in order to have what it takes to be there when your spouse needs you. This can sometimes become a delicate balance, but it’s vital if you’re going to be able to stick it out for the long haul. Spend time in prayer yourself. Read good books. Invest in online activities that stimulate and nurture your mind. Sleep. Find a few choice activities to engage in with girlfriends (if you’re a wife) or guy friends (if you’re a husband). Go to church if at all possible.
  6. Enjoy today, and make flexible plans for the future. Treasure the good moments, the good days. Pause to really enjoy them. It’s also good to make plans for the future, but remember to make them flexible. If you’re planning on travel, for example, make sure you can cancel the hotel room if you must change plans. Dream and plan together; just hold your dreams and plans loosely, with an open hand. After all, none of us really knows what tomorrow will bring.
  7. Express love extravagantly. Flirt with each other. Say the loving things you used to say. Hold hands. Kiss and hug often. Send each other loving text messages or phone calls if you’re not together. Pray out loud together. Choose to look for, notice, and express your commitment, caring, and love to each other daily. Remember what made you love each other at the beginning, and do as many of those things as you can over and over again.

Marriage can thrive even in the face of ongoing illness. It takes the same things any marriage takes, though perhaps a larger dose of them. Love, commitment, humility, and God’s grace are enough.

I’m proud to be married to my husband, and pray God grants us many more years together.

Your Turn: Are you or your spouse facing chronic illness? What do you think it takes to make a marriage thrive in those circumstances? Leave a comment below.

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