February 2019

Loving your Partner in Sickness and Health

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

If you are married, chances are you breezed right through that vow to love, honor, and cherish your partner in sickness and in health. And just like some of those other vows, it’s a promise much easier uttered than kept. (If you have so much as nursed your significant other through the flu, you are probably nodding your head about now.) Caretaking is a tough gig, and you will note that your partner did not come with a repair kit or troubleshooting guide.

While it would be fun and maybe funny to take off on the well-documented phenomenon of “man flu,” or rumors of women’s feigned headaches, I happen to know that real caretaking is no laughing matter; the impact illness can have on a marriage or partnership is serious and potentially life-changing.

Whether you are married or not, if you are in a long-term committed relationship, odds are, one of you is going to get sick, injured, or require surgery at some point. And let’s face it: Most of us are not our most lovable selves when under the influence of pain and misery. Any medical issue, from the occasional virus or minor accident, to chronic pain, serious illness, a debilitating condition, or terminal disease can put a strain on the relationship. This is when love steps up and does what it is called upon to do.

Voice of experience
In case you wonder from whence I speak, having spent 20 years with a much older partner, I saw him through myriad health challenges including multiple orthopedic surgeries, open-heart coronary bypass surgery, two life-threatening infections, a major spine surgery, and ultimately a terminal diagnosis and death. I managed medications, spent countless hours in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, slept in chairs and on cots in hospital rooms, and performed tasks that were not only physically taxing and heart-wrenching, but often messy and smelly. It was a medical education and a lesson in humanity all in one—a degree one cannot attain academically, but only by living through it.

In my current marriage, I have had few opportunities to take care of my husband Tom.
He’s a hardy soul and rarely gets sick—usually just pushing through on his own. Maybe twice in 14 years of marriage I’ve taken his temperature and brought him soup in bed.
That changed this past summer when he was struck with severe hip pain, seemingly out of the blue. It came on rather suddenly and rapidly became debilitating—to the point that he could not walk to the mailbox without sitting down to rest or make it to the top of our stairs without crawling up the last few. The ultimate diagnosis was a cyst on his spine, requiring a major back surgery to remove it and stabilize the affected vertebrae.

My first thought was, “Please, God, not me.” But I rose to the occasion, becoming my superhero self again. Thankfully, I remembered how to navigate the medical world and lovingly support my man through his recovery. He was demanding, ornery, and not much fun to be around, but we got through it; he’s fine now.

Role reversal
On the rare occasion when called upon to take care of my medical needs, my late husband did what he could. Once, when I had strep throat, he heated a can of tomato soup (only slightly scorched on the bottom of the pan) and made me hot chocolate from scratch. He engineered homemade ice packs to tie on my swollen cheeks when I had my wisdom teeth removed (because I was hellbent on standing up to cook for him), and drove me to every doctor’s appointment I ever had over the course of our marriage—not because I couldn’t go it alone, but because he wanted to be there for me. Maybe all things were not equal, but we took care of one another to the best of our abilities.

Not until I reached my mid-50s did I get to fully experience the receiving side—being the patient. After four foot surgeries and a recent back surgery, from which I am currently recovering, I’ve become well-acquainted with chronic pain and its side effects, which naturally spill over into my primary relationship. I’m known to be strong-willed, and I dislike being dependent, especially when it comes to my basic self-care and daily responsibilities. Let’s just say that I have been a tad irritable. Yet, on top of his fulltime work, my husband has taken on shopping, cooking, housekeeping, laundry and cat care (with supervision), wound bandaging, shoe tying, and everything else I would normally do that requires bending, lifting or twisting, which I am forbidden to do for the next four months. This being a new experience for both of us, I have discovered that Tom is not a mind reader or a natural nurturer, but he does love me and will follow instructions to a T.

Sweet revelations
A medical event can suck the life out of a relationship and kill intimacy. Or, it can draw you closer than ever before. Being thrust into the role of caregiver countless times, the silver lining for me has been learning to trust my instincts and strength to survive in times of crisis, at the same time shoring up my confidence as well as my sense of loyalty and commitment. Being a patient has taught me to lean on my partner in a new way, which has increased my level of trust and firmed up the security of our marriage. We’ve been through some difficult times—neither sexy nor fun—and we’re both still here. Because love steps up and does what it is called upon to do.

Tips for Caregivers:

Advocate for your loved one. Do your best to be present at medical appointments. An extra set of ears is always helpful. Ask questions. Understand the diagnosis and treatment plan and clarify any instructions for at-home care.

Know your partner’s healing style. Some people are comforted by constant care and may crave extra coddling during an illness. Others prefer to cocoon and be left alone. If you are unsure of your partner’s preferences, have the discussion. Then you can be the gatekeeper—respecting your loved one’s wishes regarding the attention he or she needs as well as visitors, phone calls, and his or her preferred style of communication with the outside world.

Anticipate needs. Think in advance so that your partner doesn’t feel like a drill sergeant or resign to suffer in silence. If you were in the same position, what would you need to have within reach? With what tasks might you need assistance? When would you want privacy? With a little forethought, common sense, and organization, you can avoid being run to death meeting one need at a time, and your partner will feel less stressed knowing that you are thinking ahead.

Flex your patience muscle. Someone who is sick, in pain, or recovering from an illness, injury or surgery is likely to have a short fuse, which means you may have to practice a little extra patience so that you both don’t blow up in a fury. Now is not the time to do battle over any issue, large or small.

Ask for and accept help. If you are coping with a long-term illness or lengthy recovery time, friends and family will inevitably offer to help. Resist the urge to be the hero and try to do it all alone. By allowing others to contribute to your partner’s care—whether by dropping off food, running an errand, or coming by for a patient-approved visit so that you can take a break—just say yes!

Take breaks. You can’t be on duty 24/7. No need to feel guilty if you lie down for a nap or make arrangements to get out of the house for a while. Just be sure your partner has what he or she needs in your absence and knows how to reach you. If your loved one truly requires round-the-clock care, consider hiring a licensed caregiver so you can do what is necessary to take care of yourself.

Partner, don’t parent. If you take away only one bit of wisdom, this is it. Even if your partner is physically debilitated, he or she is still your partner, not your child. Act accordingly. As tempting as it is to take charge of everything, the minute you step into your bossy pants, you risk building a wall of resistance and damaging intimacy, now and in the future. Instead, communicate clearly with your partner so that he or she can provide input into decisions and take personal responsibility for his or her own healing, rehabilitation or, in the case of a terminal disease, expression and execution of final wishes.

Tips for Patients:
Ask for what you need. Verbalize or make a list of your most essential and most immediate needs. Try not to nag or complain. Communicate effectively, and give your partner some space and grace.

Be willing to accept your partner’s best efforts. If your partner in thrown into an unfamiliar role, accept that he or she may not do things exactly like you would. For example, if you ask your significant other to fold the laundry, look the other way if the towels are not stacked perfectly. And if your partner has to do the driving, relax (close your eyes if you have to), and let him or her drive. You are much more likely to arrive alive without the extra backseat critique.

Express appreciation. Remember that your partner is under stress, too, and is doing his or her best to meet your needs and see you through your medical challenge. Remember to say please, thank you, and I love you.

  1. Great information, excellent organization and succinct. Congratulations, Linda!

    — M. SMEGA    Feb 8, 09:57 pm   

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