By Barbara Kivowitz
When we commit to our partner in sickness and in health, chances are we are paying very little attention to the in sickness part of the vow. Most likely we are envisioning a future with satisfying careers, a lovely home, and happy children. Nowhere in our story is there a placeholder for the intrusion of illness. Yet the CDC estimates that almost one out of every two adults will have a chronic disease in his or her lifetime.
Among the people we interviewed for our book, IN SICKNESS AS IN HEALTH: Helping Couples Cope with the Complexities of Illness (Roundtree Press, 2013) were Frances and Ted, a couple who were in their thirties when illness changed their lives.
Frances was a psychotherapist, and Ted was a scientist. When they weren’t working they were outdoors, tramping through the woods, climbing a mountain, or skiing down one. They were used to moving fast and being in control. Shared activities were a major part of their bond.
Illness crept in slowly. Frances noticed that she tired more easily. Soon, she started to feel pain in her hips and shoulders. The pain progressed from intermittent to constant. They went from specialist to specialist and were told, “The good news is we can’t find anything wrong; the bad news is we can’t find anything wrong.”
Illness became the third partner in their relationship, and its needs superseded the couple’s. Illness determined if they could travel, when they could socialize, and what activities they could do. Frances’ body had become a stranger to her; and Ted’s life had unraveled. Their old, active life was gone, and they didn’t know how to connect in this new one.
Illness – The Stop Sign
For couples accustomed to the momentum of daily activities driving them along, illness is a giant stop sign. The routines around meals, laundry, work, and children get derailed as hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies become the new focal points. Their old ways of connecting aren’t enough. The ill partner is suffering, and the well partner is distraught, trying to mend what is beyond his control.
The halt illness introduces can lead to estrangement, or it can lead to deepened communication and redefined values. As one of the experts we interviewed for our book said, “Illness can be the jolt that removes the dullness from our lives and unveils the potential.” When the mundane is stopped by illness, the couple can connect at a depth they might never have reached had it not been for the “jolt” of illness.
Unconditional Listening – A Tool for Reconnecting
One way for couples to reconnect is to practice an activity called “unconditional listening.” This is listening with mind and heart, without interruption, and without trying to solve a problem or come to a decision. By postponing problem solving and decision-making, the couple can be present for each other without expectations. This restores the closeness illness erodes and provides a stronger foundation for eventual problem solving.
One partner at a time talks about what she has been thinking, feeling, and wanting, while the other partner listens deeply, with empathy, asking questions only to clarify. After the first partner finishes, the listening partner reflects back what he heard. Then it is his turn to speak while the other partner listens deeply. He doesn’t respond to what the first partner said; he speaks about his own thoughts, feelings, and needs. When both partners feel understood, they sit for a few moments in silence. The silence solidifies the experience and rekindles emotional intimacy. In fact, sitting in silence together can be a powerful intervention for couples, even without the unconditional listening activity.
Fixing the Issues
One day, Frances, who had learned about unconditional listening, asked Ted to partner her in this activity. Frances had been keeping a secret that was draining her and pushing her farther away from Ted. Frances revealed that she was thinking of suicide. Ted, instead of reacting with agitation, simply listened. He then said, “You’ve been hurting so much you just want it to end and the only way you can think to end it is suicide.” Frances nodded. Ted put his arm gently around her and said, “Of course you’re thinking of suicide. Who wouldn’t in your situation? I’ll be by your side no matter what. But I still have hope that we’ll get you the help you need.”
Frances felt heard, comforted, and reunited with her partner. This gave her the strength to keep searching. A few weeks later they found a rheumatologist who diagnosed Frances with fibromyalgia and put her on a course of treatment that helped. She still has relapses, but she and Ted are closer now than they had been pre-illness. They now choose to stop and pay attention to their connection.
No one would ever pick illness as the means for achieving higher levels of intimacy. But if illness does intrude into your relationship, you can use it as that giant stop sign to turn you away from daily ruts towards pathways that deepen the quality of your relationship. As one woman we interviewed said, “You may not be able to cure the illness, but you can fix the issues.”
Barbara Kivowitz is co-author (along with Roanne Weisman) of IN SICKNESS AS IN HEALTH:Helping Couples Cope with the Complexities of Illness