"I feel like there are thumb tacks in my bed!" I tell my husband as he crawls into the other side of our bed. "I know there is nothing there, but I feel bruised all over."
“I’m sorry,” he offers with a sympathetic voice, but there is little else he can do.“Actually, I'm really nauseated too,” I add. “It’s probably just the meds. I wonder if I should eat something or if that would make it worse. Hopefully it will pass if I can just go to sleep.” Before I finish my sentence, he is already starting to snore because he's so exhausted. *sigh*
For many of us, our spouse is our best friend. If our relationship is good, we want to share our feelings with them. Even if our relationship is hurting, we feel that by explaining our pain, our spouse may sympathize and be more loving toward us.
Although we don’t want to burden them by constantly sharing about our aches and pains, when we are hurting there is a desire to be heard and have our feelings validated. By talking out loud about what we are feeling, it somehow makes the pain real. It’s no longer “all in our head.”
Galatians 6:2 tells us “Carry each others burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” At some point we must carry these burdens to the Lord, as well as a close friend, rather than just count on our spouse to carry the burden of listening about every single ache.
Although our spouse may not be suffering from a physical ailment, there are still many losses that he is grieving. For example, it is an emotional thing to watch the person you love be in pain and not be able to 'fix it', especially for men. He may be suffering as he watches you lose the ability to do things you love. He likely misses the couples outings you once took together when you could do physically active events, whether it was date night or just taking long walks together in the evening. He may be frustrated that even his hugs can cause you to wince. Counselors have found that there are three major areas where marriages suffer: money, time and physical intimacy.
Your marriage may be having difficulties in all three, specifically because of the role chronic illness has taken on within your marriage. Is it possible to “share our burdens” with our spouse without overburdening him and making him want to run the other way every time we open our mouth to share another symptom of our ailments?
Be a team with your spouse
It’s you and your spouse “up against” the illness. Although you may feel like your spouse is merely a spectator, intentionally make him a part of your team fighting the battle of pain, in whatever way he is most comfortable.
Ask your spouse if you can share some information about your illness so he has a better idea of what you are going through, but don’t overwhelm him. If he is willing to attend a few doctors appointments with you, let him, and give him time to ask the doctor his own questions. For example, giving him a brochure may be better than handing him a 250-page book. If he listens to podcasts, find some that would be beneficial for him to listen to about your illness. Acknowledge that there may be role or responsibility shifts in the marriage due to the illness. Be open about what you are struggling with and where you need help. For example, if you can no longer scrub the bathroom, let him know well before the grime gets out of hand.
Connie Kennemer lives with Multiple Sclerosis and she candidly shares the struggle that it can be to find the right balance and word. “I am not as mobile as I used to be and I often ask more of my husband such as ‘Can you work at home this afternoon?’ or ‘Why do you have to go to another meeting?’ How much should he accommodate me because my body is changing? He doesn’t always know when to stop and encourage me to try things myself. This is a constant challenge.”
Be reasonable in your expectations
We often marry someone who has our opposite personality style. If you need to read every article about your illness, but your spouse doesn’t, it may simply be because your spouse has a more laissez faire attitude, not because he doesn’t care. His response to a crisis may appear to be nonchalant on the outside, but it doesn’t mean he is not worried and concerned about you.
On the flip side, maybe you are emotionally overwhelmed by the diagnosis and you need to just sit back and take it all in before you start doing research, while your spouse is spending hours at the computer finding out everything he can on the latest treatments, medications and signing you up for the healing service at church. He may accuse you of being in denial about it all, since you aren’t showing as much passion as he in finding out more about your illness. An excellent book recommendation in helping you understand your communication styles better is “Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti” by Bill and Pam Farrell.
Have information about your illness available for when he is ready
If you are having a conversation and you want to explain more about how you are feeling, or details about the illness itself, you may want to have books with sticky notes on the pages you think he’ll find most helpful. Or bookmark pages you can read together and then discuss. Connie says, “After ten years of living with MS, I am past the whiny stage, but Rex sometimes holds back; that’s when I need to ask him more questions about his feelings.”
Creatively keep him informed about the embarrassing parts of the illness
If your illness is going to cause you to be in the bathroom during eighty percent of the events you attend together, you need to let your spouse know that this is part of the disease. Health organizations have brochures on symptoms. You can say, “I’m dealing with some personal matters of this illness right now; I don’t really want to talk about them yet, but they’re in this brochure if you’re wondering.” Avoid sharing every detail if you can.
Look for other ways to vent besides always dumping on your spouse
“I realized that I held onto all of my frustrations of pain during the day and then ‘threw’ them at my husband as he came in the door,” shares Cheryl, who lives with chronic fatigue syndrome. “My actions set the tone for our entire evening and even though I felt better, he felt worse, and it lasted all night. He was beginning to dread coming home at night.”
Cheryl began to put aside the last two hours of her day to spend time writing in her journal, praying and doing something she enjoyed that calmed her. “Writing in my journal gave me the chance to express my frustrations, and then prayer really began to minimize the negativity too. My husband quickly noticed a difference and it’s made our relationship so much stronger.”
Find some ways to get involved in your community or a special hobby
What else do you have going on in your life, other than your illness? It’s easy to be overwhelmed with doctors' appointments and just maintaining our illness, but it can result in a pretty dull life. Even if you have limited energy, do something you’ve always wanted to do that doesn’t have a deadline. Put together memory albums for your grandchildren, clean out just one drawer, find a new craft or hobby, volunteer to be on a prayer chain. Soon you will find that your illness actually is the last thing you want to talk about when you have had much more interesting events in your day.
So, the question is, how much talk is too much? Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer. It is different for each person and each marriage. Learn to look at your situation objectively. Honestly ask yourself, "How often am I bringing up my illness and pain? How do I benefit from talking about it more often than necessary? What am I seeking? Validation? Understanding? Actual physical help?" Ask yourself if talking about your illness could be a way of getting your spouse’s attention, and if this seems to be the only thing he responds to? Regardless of whether it is attention, acknowledgment or understanding, how can you get these needs met by the Lord instead? How is it negatively impacting your life, or those around you, by discussing it all the time?
And then take a moment to really ask yourself “Is there a better, more creative way I can create intimacy with my spouse, other than just complaining about each ache and pain? What activities can I still share that could help us grow closer together?”And then when you do need to share with your spouse, send up a prayer to the Lord first!
“Heavenly Father, You know I do not want to burden anyone, especially when I know there is really nothing they can do to 'fix' me. I just really need a big hug from You right now! I know that my husband cares about me very much and truly wants to encourage me, even on those days when he doesn’t seem to know how. Please give me the wisdom to know when to ask for help/comfort from him and when I should only come to You to fulfill all of my emotional needs. Amen.”
About the Author, Lisa Copen - You will find more articles and overall support while living with a chronic illness and/or pain, please visit Rest Ministries so you don’t miss any of their great content and to be entered for their monthly giveaway! Lisa Copen is the director of Rest Ministries, author of 'Beyond Casseroles: 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend' and founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week.