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How Your Marriage Can Recover from a Serious Illness or Injury

How Your Marriage Can Recover from a Serious Illness or Injury

Walking through our local shopping mall with me and our two kids, my husband Russ had to stop and rest every few minutes. “Sorry,” he said while wincing in pain. “Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to try to come here with you all tonight.”

“Let’s just go home, then. We’ve already gotten the birthday party gift, and that’s all we really need right now,” I replied.

“No – I don’t want to go home yet!” our son Justin protested.

“We were going to eat dinner out tonight,” our daughter Honor said in a disappointed tone. “We hardly get to eat out anymore.” That’s because there aren’t many restaurant options that are compatible with Russ’ special diet, I thought as I pondered the complicated food restrictions that were a vital part of managing kidney disease.

“I hate feeling like this!” Russ exclaimed, and then stopped himself before he said more. In his eyes I could see flashes of the anger, sorrow, and frustration he had struggled with ever since his diagnosis.  We got carryout food for the kids and me to take home, where Russ sat glumly at the table eating the leftovers of a previous specially prepared dinner. When I saw his head nod as he struggled to stay awake at the table, I knew that I had to handle the kids’ bedtime routines by myself yet again.

By the time I came to bed, Russ was already fast asleep, and I tried to sleep, too, knowing that it was the best way to take my mind off the frustration of having to be celibate while Russ was too sick for us to enjoy the sexual part of marriage. But worries about Russ’ health swirled around in my mind, preventing sleep until the Holy Spirit brought the Bible’s shortest verse to my mind: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). After shedding a few tears of my own, I finally fell asleep in peace. The reminder that God sees and cares about human suffering in this fallen world challenged me to trust him with the pain that Russ’ illness caused in our marriage.

Many other spouses face the same challenge, since serious illnesses (like cancer or diabetes) or injuries (such as broken bones or herniated discs) may strike couples at any point during their marriages. Dealing with a chronic condition is particularly challenging, because the stress of it continues indefinitely.

A 2014 AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that caring for a spouse is the most stressful kind of caregiving there is, with two-thirds of people caring for ailing spouses reporting that caregiving duties caused stress in their family (versus only half of people caring for ailing parents). While physical suffering often leads to marital suffering, there’s good news, too: the poll found that 7 out of 10 people caring for a spouse said that going through the challenges together ultimately strengthened their marriages.

If your marriage has been damaged by the stress of dealing with illness or injury, you can count on God to heal your relationship when you seek his help – whether or not he ever chooses to heal the physical suffering involved. Here’s how your marriage can recover from a serious illness or injury:

Pray often. Staying in contact with God through frequent prayer will help strengthen you and your spouse as you deal with whatever challenges you encounter due to illness or injury. Don’t hesitate to honestly express even your most difficult feelings and thoughts to God in prayer. Ask God for whatever you need. Then listen for what messages God may have for you. Listening is even more important than talking, because it’s through listening that you develop a hunger to hear from God, which will keep drawing you into a deeper relationship with him. The closer you and your spouse get to God, the more your desires will come to reflect his desires for your marriage – so you’ll be at peace that God is at work fulfilling good purposes even from the pain in your marriage.

Adjust your expectations of God and each other. Don’t assume that God will deliver physical healing, no matter how much faith you have. God doesn’t always choose to heal bodies (which are only temporary), but he always heals souls (which are eternal). If God doesn’t respond to you and your spouse’s faithful prayers as desired, go ahead and grieve for the good health that has been lost, and then rely on God to help you successfully navigate the circumstances you do have. Embrace each day God gives you together to the fullest, however you can. Be realistic about what the sick or injured spouse can reasonably do – and about how much time and energy the caregiving spouse must spend to help. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you both the kindness and patience you need to serve each other lovingly every day, in the midst of your challenges.

Help out – but only in ways that truly help. It’s important to help the sick or injured spouse with practical needs, but it’s just as important to avoid doing what that spouse can still reasonably do himself or herself. If the caregiving spouse does too much, he or she can become frustrated and exhausted, while the ailing spouse can become resentful – which can lead to conflict between you. Communicate with each other clearly about which specific tasks each of you should do. Husbands, especially, usually don’t like having their wives do anything for them that they can still do themselves, because unwanted help tends to make them feel disrespected. Ask the ailing spouse regularly how you can best help him or her, with tasks such as: changing bandages or catheters, making appointments or providing transportation for doctor or laboratory visits, picking up and organizing medications, handling insurance claims, preparing special-diet meals, taking measurements (such as blood pressure or blood sugar), cleaning medical equipment, helping with personal hygiene tasks or getting dressed, and helping with mobility (such as assisting with crutches or steering a wheelchair).

Make time for fun together. The stress of dealing with an illness or injury can put a lot of pressure on your marriage. Devoting time regularly to fun activities you both enjoy doing together will release that pressure, preventing unnecessary arguments between you and helping you both stay emotionally healthy. So make fun times a high priority in your schedule, and be creative when planning different ways to enjoy each other’s company – from outings (such as going to a museum or a sports game) to fun at home (like cooking together or watching a movie).

Embrace your scars. Don’t be embarrassed about the scars (both physical and emotional) that you and your spouse have gotten from health struggles. When Jesus appeared to people after his Resurrection, he chose to display the scars he had gotten from life in this fallen world. God sees scars as badges of honor. Your scars show that you have overcome some type of struggle, so instead of trying to hide them, embrace them. Ask God to help you and your spouse learn whatever lessons he wants your scars to teach you, so you can both grow closer to him and each other as a result.

Russ eventually got a kidney transplant (thanks to a wonderful donor from our church), but he still must manage his condition (with timed medications, restrictions to deal with the side effects of those medications, laboratory tests, and doctor visits) for the rest of his life. Recently Russ and I hiked through the canyons of Zion National Park, and the massive cliffs that towered all around boxed us in – just like the demands of managing Russ’ health issues sometimes still make us feel boxed in. But in the evening, a massive array of stars appeared in the sky above those cliffs – too numerous to count – like an illustration of the endless amount of hope we have in relationship with the One who created those stars. We stood there staring into the sky for a long time, hugging each other, knowing that just as we couldn’t count the stars, we couldn’t know what the future held for our marriage. But we did know that we could trust God, both in sickness and in health.

Whitney Hopler, who has served as a contributing writer for many years, is author of the Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Her Twitter handle is @WhitneyHopler.

Publication date: June 2, 2014