What to do when your spouse is diagnosed with a chronic illnessWritten by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott
What's inside this article
When we get married and say our vows, we commonly include the phrase “in sickness and in health.” And when we’re young and vibrant, it’s often difficult to grasp what this actually means.
For some married couples, one spouse might eventually be diagnosed with a serious chronic condition. When either partner receives this kind of diagnosis, it can rattle the entire landscape of the life you’ve built since the beginning of your marriage.
In many ways, illness can alter the way your day-to-day life looks – not only for the spouse who received the diagnosis, but for your whole family. A serious diagnosis can shake the foundation you thought you had, and it creates a new normal you’ll need to prepare to navigate together.
When we plan and dream of what life’s going to be like after marriage, we don’t include the possibility of life-altering or debilitating illness. But for many couples, that is a reality. If it happens in your marriage, you’ll need to be able to effectively support your spouse throughout their illness, whether it’s a terminal diagnosis or a health condition that can be maintained over the long term.
This article is about what to do if your spouse is ever diagnosed with a chronic illness. We hope that this will help you begin your journey together as you embark on one of the most challenging times in your life.
1. Pause to understand your spouse’s condition and how it might be affecting them.
The first thing to do when your spouse receives a serious diagnosis is to take some time to understand what this illness means for your spouse. Consider not only what kind of impact the initial diagnosis has had on them, but potential effects as the future unfolds.
How are they feeling? Did the diagnosis come as a shock, or as a relief after months or years of pursuing answers? What does your spouse need from you at this moment? How can you provide that to them?
Chances are, their needs are going to shift from the early stages of their diagnosis into the future. Think of your spouse’s needs as being on a spectrum, particularly now. That means that in the beginning, they may need more support from you as they learn to maintain the condition they’re dealing with. Their needs might even change from day to day, and you need to be prepared to support them.
2. Consider how your spouse might need to feel loved during this time.
In light of this diagnosis, how does your spouse need to feel loved? If you’re feeling unsure of what to do for them, ask. Be open to his or her answers, and remember that they may not know what to tell you right away. Think of what helps your spouse feel comforted and safe, and try to bring them more of that, too.
3. Acknowledge that both of you will grieve.
A life-altering diagnosis brings a measure of grief with it. The grieving process looks different for each individual, so be understanding and patient with one another. Listen to how your spouse is feeling, and take the time to acknowledge your own emotions.
It’s important to give yourself time to process the impact of this news and the grief that comes along with it. Don’t try to suppress your feelings or press forward with business as usual, as though nothing has changed. Be honest with yourself about how this has impacted you. If needed, seek counselling from a registered therapist who can help you to process your emotions in a healthy way.
4. Remove burdens from your spouse by picking up some of their usual tasks or bringing in additional help.
Your spouse will likely need to focus their attention and energy on learning to manage their condition. This will likely include some lifestyle changes that will help them to have a higher quality of life in the long run. Helping your spouse to make these adjustments might involve taking some of their normal tasks off their plate.
Depending on your time and energy reserves, you might be able to take on some of the tasks they usually handle, whether that has to do with managing the family’s money, household tasks, repairs, caring for your pets, and similar duties. If you’re already overtaxed and unable to pick up tasks for your spouse, consider bringing in some outside help.
Do you have young children? Enlist help so they can continue their normal routines. Do you have older kids? Have them step in and carry more responsibility at home. If you have parents, close relatives, or trusted friends nearby, ask for help. But if this isn’t an option for you, you might want to consider hiring someone to help you out.
Outsource what tasks you’re able to, and bring in support for your spouse’s health if that’s needed. As their primary caretaker, you’ll need to build a support system so that you can continue showing up for your spouse in the best way possible.
5. Consider adjusting your daily routines to support your spouse’s needs.
If you have the flexibility, make any necessary adjustments to your daily routines to better support your spouse’s health needs. This will need to involve a lot of communication. Don’t make changes based on assumptions. Instead, ask what they need, then respond accordingly.
For example, it’s possible that your spouse might not want to change your family’s rhythms. However, they might not be able to physically continue with business as usual. Honour what they want to do, helping to support them, but don’t be afraid to gently suggest adjustments and outside help if that’s warranted.
Your first priority is to try to support your spouse and to listen well, empathizing and internalizing what they’re asking of you. Making sure you both fully understand one another will go a long way toward harmony and peace as you’re navigating this diagnosis and the changes that come with it. Above all, you both need to be able to move forward in a healthy, productive way.
6. Take things one day at a time.
A new diagnosis brings many unknowns with it. That’s why it’s so important to take things one day at a time. Your spouse will have good days and not-so-good days, and neither of you will always be able to anticipate what kind of day lies ahead.
Go with the flow. Practice patience, grace, empathy, and love toward your spouse at every opportunity. Cherishing your spouse and intentionally showing them how much you love them will make it easier to navigate the unknown together. And, if you remain open and communicative, it will be much easier to manage the unpredictability that chronic illness can bring with it.
These diagnoses can be debilitating, and have the potential to permanently alter what your life looks like from now on. How you respond to the situation, particularly by supporting your spouse, will affect your shared experiences going forward.
Seeking support from trusted friends and family, or even a registered professional therapist, can make all the difference in how you process your own grief. In turn, this will have a direct effect on how you show up for your spouse.
If you or your spouse is struggling with chronic illness, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are #1 New York Times bestselling authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts and they are the creators of renowned SYMBIS Assessment (SYMBIS.com). Learn more at LesAndLeslie.com
© 2022 Dr. Les Parrot and Dr. Leslie Parrot. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at Symbis.com.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Join our newsletter
Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox