Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Chronic Illness and Emotions: What Couples Can Do to Connect

Part 6 (and the final part, for now) in the series on Relationship Roles and Illness.

Illness can be a demanding task-master. It can consume time, energy, patience, compassion, and even love. It can smash our early relationship dreams of a blissful hand-holding companionship - a happy couple smoothly tripping down the road of life, producing strong children and noble works along the way, and ending in a quiet sunset, supported by a steady retirement income stream.

One of the sadder casualties of illness is our image of our partner. A once charmed, handsome, generous, capable image gets supplanted by the gray profile of disease. Conversation that was once lively and expansive constricts to topics that can be researched on WebMD. The love that brought the couple together can be forgotten, supplanted by worry or detachment.

To reclaim each other, to resurrect or rebuild intimacy, I suggest couples do two things:
  1. Be together in silence. When the turbulence of activity slows to stillness, and space is emptied of the words you hurl at your fears and resentments, you may be able to see that unique essence of your beloved that drew you together before illness did its damage. In silence, you may be able to reconnect with the spirit (some of you may call it the soul) that has not disappeared but may be waiting to be roused. Being together in silence may seem impossible. It isn't. And it doesn't have to be for hours, all at once. It can start with an uncomfortable ten minutes three times a week and build up over time.
  2. Laugh together. Laughter is not only potentially good for one's health, but it disrupts the rhythm of complacency or anger or sadness. One day, when I was in the thick of my chronic pain condition and in no mood to connect much less laugh, I noticed about seven black socks draped all along the stairs that led to the bedroom. I asked Richard how they got there. He answered, "They're making a break for it....trying to reach the land of lost socks before they're caught." I cracked up. It felt so good. And it felt so good to look into Richard's eyes with lightness in my own, instead of the usual darkness.
For some couples, it's too late to reconnect. Illness has done too much damage; or the relationship was strained to begin with and illness only made things worse. The long haul of chronic illness can become unbearable. For couples in this situation, I would suggest bringing outside resources into the relationship. These can be friends, family, community, or hired help to clean, shop, cook, chauffeur, baby-sit, and take care of the daily care needs of the ill partner. These resources can also be in the form of activities each partner can engage in -- book groups, card games, classes, sports, etc. When your relationship has turned into a source of pain equal to or greater than the illness each partner needs something to uplift him/her and someone to talk to -- be it friends, family, or a therapist.


Rosalind Joffe said...

I only wish that I could have resorted to laughter more often. Would have been a good thing for our daughters to be around. I have had to "work hard" to laugh more. Seems counter intuitive but true. Especially since feeling chronically tired and in pain can let you forget to laugh rather than cry.

Barbara Kivowitz said...

Your point is well taken. When pain and anxiety and exhaustion are high, laughter can seem far away. But ironically, I have found one good laugh can break the downward spiral, or at least give a temporary lift. I used to keep a few Dilbert cartoon books scattered around the house when I needed an emergency laugh.

GypsyMama said...

My husband and I both have a horrific chronic illness. It's a much maligned mitochondrial disease. I had it when we got married 12 years ago. He got it 4 yrs ago. I've fought hard to not let it destroy my soul but my husband experiences it like a cancer of the soul. He may be healing now but I stayed too long and now I'm vulnerable emotionally. It's SO feral. I fear we need to be apart.

Barbara Kivowitz said...

Gypsy Mama - it sounds like both you and your husband have been deeply wounded by illness and by the distortions and vulnerabilities illness inserts in our relationships. I find your use of the word "feral" to be so powerful. Sometimes illness takes us to our most basic selves - and that can be illuminating and compelling. And of course, illness sets in motion waves of changes. Some of the couples we interviewed for our book found ways of staying together while inserting some form of apartness. Others introduced more external elements into their relationship to break up the intensity. Please let me know where you find yourself heading.