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In Sickness and In Health

Chronic illness interjects complications into marriage.


Updated October 13, 2011

It's a sad fact that too many marriages complicated with a chronic illness eventually fail.

Complications Arise

The words "in sickness and in health" have been spoken innumerous times as marriage vows have been exchanged. The words are spoken with heartfelt promise and devotion. It is with good, unfailing intention that the vow is made between the bride and groom.

What happens though when one spouse actually does become saddled with sickness, and the other spouse remains poised with good health? Without doubt, complications will arise.

Gender Differences

When the husband is the partner in the marriage with the illness, his usual role as fully involved husband, father, and provider is disrupted. The division of responsibilities that the husband and wife are accustomed to becomes unbalanced, with more and more transferred to the healthy wife. The home is then restructured with the wife assuming her own responsibilities, the responsibilities of her sick husband, and the role of nurse too.

Conflict can arise when the sick husband feels tension and frustration because he cannot function in every capacity that he once did. When the wife is the ill partner she looks to the husband for emotional support and for him "to be there" for her. If he is unable to express emotion the ill wife may view him as insensitive or uncompassionate. Even though the wife needs her husband to be a strong emotional force, she still does not wish to become too dependent on him because it depletes her feeling of self-worth. Women are viewed as more emotional beings, and men are regarded as more rational, even in how they view illness.

The Vicious Cycle

A distressing reaction to chronic illness common to both men and women is the feeling they are bringing less to the marital relationship than their healthy spouse. The ill spouse feels they are "holding back" the healthy spouse from being fulfilled. Feelings of insecurity arise along with shame and guilt. The ill spouse believes that their partner must be resentful of what their life has become due to illness. A vicious cycle develops with the feeling of inadequacy and the continual need to apologize.

A good marriage consists of shared activities, shared responsibility, common goals, along with a healthy sexual relationship. Once one partner feels they are the reason for the disruption in the marriage, they feel deep anxiety. The ill spouse becomes encumbered with self-doubt and wonders why their spouse stays in the marriage.

Mature Love

The reactions to chronic illness which can resolve difficulties come from mature love. Mature love means:

  • Feeling free to ask for emotional support and getting it. Mutual support is intrinsic in the marriage commitment.
  • Talking openly as problems arise, rather than withholding resentment and avoiding conflict. Realize anger is a natural response to the limitations illness imposes on a marriage and needs to be expressed.
  • Deciding how you can best achieve a physical intimacy which affirms your feelings of love for each other. This requires talking very openly about how to do this and putting away unrealistic expectations about sex.
  • Taking the strain off your relationship and allowing friends and family to provide extra support, or seeking professional help before illness puts the marriage in jeopardy.
  • Swapping roles and responsibilities as necessary. Find self-esteem in your own adaptability.
  • Realizing that chronic illness will certainly disrupt the course of the marriage periodically, and the commitment to each other must be reaffirmed.
  • Realizing that possibly what holds the marriage together is guilt, gratitude, or pity. The damage therein must be repaired or an unhealthy marriage needs to be dissolved.
  • Chronic illness must be contemplative and mindful, kept in perspective that it is only one factor that complicates an intimate relationship.
  • Realizing that mature love comes with much effort and conscious desire to keep the marriage together.

For Additional Insight:


Living With Chronic Illness, by Cheri Register

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