One spouse’s diagnosis of a significant illness can impact a marriage in substantial ways. According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, many aspects of a family (defined in various ways across the research) can be affected. These include emotions, finances, relationships, work, education, leisure time, and social activities.
The purpose of the study was to identify, after accounting for patients’ and families’ quality of life, the effect of specific treatments on patients’ partners and families. What the researchers also found was not all of the effects were negative. On the contrary, familial relationships could go stronger.
But how? In my experience as a family law attorney, I have seen marriages survive disaster as well as come back from the brink of it, which can include a spouse’s diagnosis of a significant illness. But as much as we would like to think that this outcome is the mere result of spouses “rising to the occasion,” there is more to it than just that.
Indeed, there are specific steps both spouses, the one who is ill and the one supporting them, can take to strengthen their relationship in the face of illness. Here they are.
1. Be vocal about your support from the beginning.
Bearing witness to someone you love’s diagnosis of a significant illness can bring about an onslaught of emotions. The first of those emotions might, understandably, be shock — for both of you.
As a supportive spouse, it will be more important than ever to remain calm. Your spouse who is sick is going to need you more than ever, so you will want to let them know that you are there for them, no matter what. By voicing your support from the very beginning, you are laying the groundwork, the foundation you will need, to get you both through this difficult period from the beginning.
2. Learn about the illness.
The expression “information is power” is true, particularly when you are dealing with a medical crisis. If you or your spouse has received a difficult medical diagnosis, make it your business to learn everything you can about it.
For both the person suffering from the illness and the spouse, education can provide a sense of control in a situation where everything feels like it is out of control. Also, as the spouse, your interest demonstrates your commitment to being supportive.
3. Be vigilant about looking for signs of anxiety and depression.
As alluded to earlier, the onset of an illness can bring about a rush of emotions. Many people, both the caregiver and the ill individual, can go through the stages of grief as a result. Management of anxiety and depression for both is, therefore, critical, and should be expected.
To the best of your ability given the circumstances you each face, be vigilant about looking for signs of anxiety and depression in yourself and your spouse. They may not always be obvious. But when you see them, consider it time for action.
4. Seek support from a mental health professional.
During times of incredible stress resulting from illness to one spouse, it can be incredibly helpful to seek out assistance from a mental health professional. It can be two professionals if medication is desired, one for therapy exclusively and one who has the capacity to prescribe medication for anxiety or depression. These individuals may not be one and the same.
5. Show affection.
Do you know the power of a hug? Spoiler alert: It is huge. According to extensive research, stress releases cortisol in the body and slows down healing. The good news is, also according to research as described in his article published in Psychology Today, physical touch releases oxytocin, which not only makes you feel good but can also speed up the healing process.
So feel free to give that hug to your spouse, hold their hand, or give them a kiss. It can be strong medicine, providing comfort to you both.
6. Be open about your needs.
The time when you and a spouse are fighting an illness is not the time to be shy. In the same way that open communication is important during good times, it is important during difficult ones.
Whether it is a physical or emotional need, a desire for more space or less of it, or anything else you would like to improve your well-being, your ability to communicate could make the difference between whether your marriage survives or deteriorates. So speak up.
The person who is ill may already perceive themselves as a burden and not want to place any additional pressure on you, the caregiver. But give them permission to do just that. As much as they will need you physically, they will also need you emotionally.
Communicating with your spouse openly and honestly can better allow you to feed each other as you must to fight the good fight — against the illness and for each other as a couple. It can also improve your relationship, especially if you were not communicating well before. Although you would never ask for an illness, it could be the reason you grow closer as a couple.
7. Exercise self-care.
Whether you are the spouse suffering from the illness or the spouse caring for them, you need to exercise self-care. Especially if you are the caregiving spouse, that could mean ensuring you get enough sleep, eat well, and take periodic breaks. Think of it this way; if you are the healthy spouse, you will not be doing your ill spouse any favors if you become sick, too. By helping yourself, you help them.
If you are the one suffering from the illness, again, do not be afraid to ask for what you need. A supportive spouse will want to help you help yourself, so don’t make them guess about what you want. If your spouse cannot provide for you, at least give them the opportunity to find someone to help them do so, which brings me to this.
8. Tap into or expand your support network.
You may think fighting an illness alongside your spouse means it is the two of you against the world. But that does not have to be the case. Instead of cutting yourselves off from friends, family, clergy, mental health professionals, and those in your community, look to your personal networks for support.
Doing so can take a lot of pressure off of both of you so that you can focus on what is important and help keep your relationship from suffering for it. Even a little bit of outside support can make a huge difference. Think meal prep, visits from others so if you are the caregiving spouse you can take a break, childcare, assistance with phone calls and transportation, or anything else you each can think of. Again, a family crisis is not the time to be bashful.
9. Manage any added financial strain the illness is causing.
When one spouse becomes ill, it can place financial stress on the household. From having to pay for added expenses related to the illness to an unexpected income interruption, the effect can be devastating financially.
It is, therefore, important to consider how the illness is affecting currently your financial picture and how it may as time goes on. If you are unsure how to go about determining the impact of an illness on your finances, or how you can limit your exposure, there are various professionals who can help.
The best place to start is by contacting a family law attorney. In addition to an experienced family law attorney having the skill to identify what issues in, say, your prenuptial agreement (if you have one) may be implicated, they can enlist the help of their entire team, including trusted professionals such as financial planners, forensic accountants, and others who can assist with your situation, and provide copious resources.
10. Revisit your existing estate plan or consult with an estate planning lawyer to create one.
Another type of professional with whom you should consult is an estate planning attorney. That is because estate plans involve more than a will alone.
With the right documents in place, your estate plan can offer you support during your lifetime, including when illness strikes. These documents include medical and financial powers of attorney, an advanced health care directive (living will), and a HIPPA authorization. Depending on your situation, you may also have a trust in place.
If you don’t currently have an estate plan, contact an estate planning attorney as soon as possible. A skilled and experienced estate planning attorney can help you navigate your immediate situation and what could happen moving forward, advising you on Washington state laws, which can become complicated.
11. Cherish the time you have together.
The days, months, and years you share with a spouse as you face an illness together, though profoundly difficult, can also be the time when you share precious moments and make lasting memories. Though you may feel like it is you and your spouse alone in your fight, with support from various channels, it doesn’t have to be. Enlisting the assistance of a team can help you better allocate your time to each other, and to what is most important to you.
Consult with a Washington state family law attorney and estate planning attorney.
At Elise Buie Family Law, our family law and estate planning attorneys understand how much of a strain having to navigate an illness in a marriage is and how involved it can become. With decades of cumulative experience between us, our empathetic team of attorneys, support staff, and network of professionals can help you so that you are not alone during this challenging time. Call our office today.