Marriage, a beautiful gift from God, requires the self-sacrificing love of two sinners — and often that sacrifice is even more demanding when chronic illness is involved. Unfortunately, some statistics show the divorce rate is as high as 75 percent for couples dealing with chronic illness. So, how to keep marriage strong in chronic illness?
Over the past decade since my own rare disease diagnosis, my husband and I have gained some wisdom — and made some missteps — when dealing with chronic illness. We’ve had seasons of scary survival mode and intense caregiving, where my husband devoted his time and energy solely to my daily care. There have been other seasons of relative calm where the impact of my disease is more subtle, but the hovering what-ifs are always present.
The grief and daily pressure could tear us apart, so we must accept illness as part of our lives and allow God to strengthen us through it. How can we allow chronic illness to unite us, not divide us, as a married couple? From my own experience and talking to several friends with chronic illness, we offer several ways to help your marriage stay strong in the face of chronic illness.
7 Ways to Keep Marriage Strong in Chronic Illness
1. Accept limitations and adjust your expectations.
Many don’t plan on chronic illness when they vow to love “in sickness and in health.” It’s a big leap to go from lover and friend to caregiver and advocate. It may be a jarring, sudden health event or a gradual change of roles. While there is understandable grief, acceptance of this “new normal” helps you cope and trust God for the next steps.
The sufferer needs to realize their caregiver cannot replace God, even if they depend on them greatly for physical and emotional support. And the able-bodied spouse should ask God for grace and compassion to deal with their spouse lovingly. Both need to cultivate their own relationship with God and pray for spirit-filled strength.
2. Seize the day on the days you feel good.
Chronic illness often involves flare-ups, physical battles or seasons of complete rest. But many times, there are days or hours when you’re able to create beautiful memories. Once, I almost missed out on a scenic fall bike ride with my husband and son because I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough energy to clean later. But the bike ride was worth the energy — and cleaning could wait!
People often ponder, “What would I do if I had six months to live?” Well, those with chronic illness understand the fragility of life, so taking the trip or saying yes! today makes sense when every day is a gift. Create new traditions or keep old ones that you can look forward to together.
3. Gratitude goes a long way.
For both partners, the ability to express gratitude specifically and sincerely is a gift. When the chronically-ill spouse verbally recognizes the sacrifices of the other, it paves the way for connection. Often the caregiver rearranges their schedule and priorities, so showing gratitude for the little things is important, such as: “Thank you for helping me when I’m in pain. I trust you.” or “I appreciate you making dinner again.”
And when the caregiver expresses gratitude, it helps the sufferer not feel lost or forgotten. Phrases like these are life-giving: “I appreciate how you read to our son even when you’re tired. You’re a good mom.” or “You’ve been such a fighter when things are so hard. I admire your faith and strength.” Don’t forget to pray together and express gratitude to God for his grace in trials.
4. Make your expectations clear.
This is true in any marriage, but it’s elevated when illness is involved. We romanticize that our partner will just get us and read our minds. But this is unfair; we need to communicate our needs and desires, such as: “I’m extra tired today, can we order take-out?” or “I feel lonely today. Can we just sit and connect tonight for 30 minutes?”
5. Have grace for times of physical abstinence.
Chronic illness and pain take a toll on a couple’s physical intimacy, which may result in prolonged periods of abstinence. Talk through these times, and find other ways to physically connect. Don’t let these seasons build resentment.
6. Find a support system.
Chronic illness can be lonely, isolating and often misunderstood by others. Having friends or loved ones provide respite for the caregiver is important. Both spouses need emotional and spiritual support, and having that from trusted sources helps shoulder the burden. Each should have their own fun outlets and ways of coping, such as a movie night with a friend while the caregiver goes bowling.
Just make sure there are equal opportunities for both to have outside friendships and interests so bitterness doesn’t fester. Asking for help with children is also essential when both spouses are stretched beyond their capabilities. Another support tool is therapy or counseling as couples work through the difficulties of living with chronic disease. Your church may also be a deep source of support in chronic illness.
7. Have a contingency plan.
Couples with chronic illness understand an emergency plan is necessary. We are skilled at packing a hospital bag or adapting when a flare-up interrupts our travel plans. Communicating a plan ahead of time helps you prepare and not scramble when a crisis comes.
We don’t have to end up as a divorce statistic. Like Christ and the church, sacrifice and service in marriage is God-glorifying. Your marriage can be fruit-bearing and joy-filled. Seek God’s strength and compassion as you navigate chronic illness together.
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Colossians 1:9-12 ESV
Erica Baldwin lives in North Carolina with her husband and miracle son. Diagnosed with an incurable genetic condition at 33, Erica encourages women to trust God’s goodness while facing life’s unplanned detours and unwanted trials. Erica’s grief journey also includes infertility and early loss of both parents. ohhisgoodness.com (get free devotions for an anxious heart) IG @ericabaldwin_ohhisgoodness.