The morning my husband woke up with a mysterious head-to-toe rash our heads were filled with the ideas, dreams and hopes of newlyweds. A week later, we sat before a surgeon as he explained that my husband had cancer.
There is so much that needs to discussed in a situation like that but so few words to describe how one feels. We were unsure how to communicate this news to others, and even more so how to speak about it with each other. Was it okay to speak our biggest fears aloud? Just a week before our thoughts had been on the future, now we spoke about the worry, heartbreak and disappointment we felt.
It’s been just over two years since we first heard Xylon has cancer. We’ve “celebrated” both our anniversaries in hospital. My husband has had 18 chemo treatments, radiation and a stem cell transplant. We’ve celebrated being cancer free and twice we have heard the crushing words, “There are still active cancer spots.” The reality is that we live from test-to-test grateful for even a few weeks of treatment free time together.
Through all of this we have had to learn how to keep communicating with each other. We often fail. There have been many times when I have snapped at him out of tiredness or kept quiet when speaking up would have been better. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about the realities our future might hold but I’ve learnt that when either of us stays silent about our thoughts and feelings it actually adds stress to our relationship.
Here are few things we’ve tried that have made communicating in tough times easier.
Engage all five senses when you communicate. I often find that my mind wanders when Xylon speaks, or that I continue watching TV with one ear. I’ve been consciously choosing to tune out of everything else (switch it off, put it down, close it) and look at him and listen to what he has to say. If bringing up the topic of putting down electronics might be a touchy subject create opportunities to talk when this isn’t an issue. Some of our best conversations happen in the car when we are free of all distractions.
Before bringing up a difficult topic ask yourself, “Is this the best time to discuss this?” Often there will never be a perfect time but there are usually times that are better than others. I needed to learn that talking about the broken washing machine when my husband was still tired from chemo was more likely to lead to an argument, than if I had waited a day or two. Be sensitive to the struggles your partner is going through and choose a time when you can both engage with situation.
Be Open about Fears
One lunch time we sat down and asked each other two questions. First, “What is your greatest fear?” Once we had both answered we asked, “What is your greatest opportunity?” I have found this exercise helpful for us a number of times because often I discover that the thing I fear the most is also where our greatest opportunity for the future lies. It is also a simple way to start conversations where you can both be vulnerable about future worries.
Seek God Together
We have been making a lot of decisions over the last few months. We have prayed together about the future. Not long drawn out prayer sessions just short prayers before we fall asleep. Often after a difficult conversation we’ll pray or sentence or two asking God to help us through the situation. Just being able to pray about a situation can often lead to clearer communication.
Talk about the Future
It is easy to get bogged down in the present problems. I find when that happens that refocusing on the future can help move communication on. Shifting focus from what is wrong right now to how we want the future to look can mean we find an unlikely solution. It’s amazing how often when you’re doing life with someone day-to-day you can forget to dream with them. Talking about individual dreams, and finding common dreams, can help get past momentary problems that don't hinder the future you dream of together.
Speak to Others
Realise that the two of you don’t always have all the answers. My husband and I have both seen psychologists at different times over the past two years to deal with his diagnosis. We have also spoken openly with friends about what we are going through and accepted help when it is offered. Often an outside point of view can change how we see a situation or help us talk about an issue we’re struggling with from a new perspective.
Having hard conversations isn’t easy and it’s not something that anyone wants to do but I’ve found that by speaking tough words it brings my husband and I closer when circumstances could push us apart. Tough times don’t last forever and neither do hard conversations. Speak through the awkward stuff and then go do something fun.
If you’ve had to learn to communicate through tough times I’d love you to share some of things that have worked for you in the comments.
Wendy van Eyck is married to Xylon, who talks non-stop about cycling, and makes her laugh. She writes for anyone who has ever held a loved one’s hand through illness, ever believed in God despite hard circumstances or ever left on a spontaneous 2-week holiday through a foreign land with just a backpack. You can follow Wendy’s story and subscribe to receive her free ebook, “Life, life and more life” at ilovedevotionals.com. She would also love to connect with you on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz