As you'd expect of any couple married for 33 years, Gregg and Sherrie Piburn have faced relationship issues of various complexity. Unlike many couples, the Piburns have dealt with the difficulties that come when chronic illness and marriage intertwine.
Sherrie has struggled with debilitating exhaustion, muscle pain, migraines and severe depression. After her diagnosis of fibromyalgia more than 20 years ago, “Sherrie and I learned that chronic illness can drive a couple apart or bring them to a higher level of relationship,” says Gregg. He chronicled the couple’s struggles and triumphs in Beyond Chaos: One Man’s Journey Alongside His Chronically Ill Wife, excerpted in Arthritis Today in 1999.
“Chronic illness sneaks into your house and robs from everyone who lives there,” he says. “People tend not to communicate about it. Instead, they try to hide it, or the well person says, ‘That’s my sick spouse’s problem, not my problem.”
Key to the couple’s success was realizing that chronic illness also affects the “healthy” loved one. “I know Sherrie’s experience has been much tougher than mine,” says Gregg. “But having her realize how it affected me helped us band together. We have become allies rather than competitors.”
Although she now also has osteoarthritis, Sherrie’s health has improved, and she teaches part-time. She’s learned to accept her condition and to use techniques suggested by physical and occupational therapists that help conserve her energy. She feels well enough to enjoy long walks with her husband and 2-year-old granddaughter, and accompanies Gregg when they speak nationally to couples and families facing chronic illness. Marriage and relationship issues are central to their talks.
Even Sherrie’s improvement presented a challenge to the couple’s relationship, as she reveled in a sense of independence she had not felt in many years. “When I was ill, Gregg treated me like a china doll. He was used to being the caretaker. Now I want a stronger role in our relationship than I was capable of before,” she says. “You have to hash it out again, just like when you were first married.”
Gregg agrees. “For years, I took on the role of a martyr who tried to be everything to her. I thought that was who I needed to be, but it wasn’t healthy for either of us,” he says. “With Sherrie’s help, I learned to allow her space to grow.”
Today, Sherrie and Gregg say their marriage is stronger than ever. “If you do some things that are courageous – like really being honest with one another – your relationship can grow, no matter what,” says Sherrie.
Order a copy of Beyond Chaos: One Man’s Journey Alongside His Chronically Ill Wife here.