No matter how good your marriage, chronic illness can cause strains between you and your spouse. But there are practical steps both spouses can take to help ensure that illness doesn’t become a wedge between them. Health professionals offer these tips for keeping marriage strong:
Share information. The person with arthritis needs to inform her spouse, to get him accurate information about her illness and to find support groups that he can join or that they can join together, says Kathy Robinson, PhD, an associate professor of nursing at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville. And the well spouse owes it to himself and to the marriage to empathize. Like so many with arthritis, Meredith Boyd of Atlanta knows getting on the same page is worth the work: “After all, my husband brings me the freedom of independence.”
Be sympathetic, not overly helpful. “If spouses are over-solicitous, the ill spouse can feel demeaned or powerless,” says Robinson, who works with families dealing with chronic illness. “She may be trying to recover from knee surgery, and her husband may simply be worried that she’s going to fall. Their goals clash.” In that case, it may be helpful to see a therapist or join a support group – sources that can help them get on the same page.
Prioritize intimacy. “Set up dates for sex, so that the person with arthritis can prepare by taking pain medication, by not taking on too much during the day and by building a sense of desire,” says Afton Hassett, an Arthritis Foundation-funded researcher who studies the psychology of rheumatological conditions at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. “You need to make sex a priority and to talk about it.” Therapeutic lotions that reduce joint pain may also help someone with arthritis relax for an intimate date, especially if his or her spouse offers a massage with a loving touch.
Make caring mutual. “It takes ongoing communication and imagination to find ways to have as much give and take as possible, to acknowledge what each individual can do,” says clinical psychologist Barry Jacobs, at Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, Pa. “Sometimes it may be mainly symbolic, but it’s a way to try to balance the scales.” To avoid silent resentment, make direct requests when you need something.
Take a break. If the spouse with arthritis needs a great deal of care, it’s important to acknowledge that and find ways the well spouse can get some respite, says Scott R. Beach, PhD, director of the Survey Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of a 2005 study on caregiver behavior. “Use all the available service providers, if possible. Or if you have any family members who can help out for a few hours a day, use them, so the well spouse can get away. Don’t try to do it all yourself.”