Health & Medicine

Adjusting to a dire diagnosis

Your spouse has just received a crushing diagnosis. Your lives together will never be the same.

The initial impact of an illness can hit couples like a car wreck. Shock, sadness and disbelief combine with frightening medical procedures, doctors’ visits and new medications. Chaos reigns for months at a time. Once stable couples feel as if they’re in a freefall and the ground is nowhere in sight.

Each partner reacts to the news of an illness in a personal manner. A woman may obsess about her diagnosis and spend hours searching for information on the web. Her husband, on the other hand, may be unable to face it and refuse to talk about her treatment or address her needs. Out-of-sync couples may be frustrated by each other’s behavior and feel unsupported and alone.

Roles that have served couples for decades can be immediately disrupted by illness. Spouses are forced to perform chores that are unfamiliar and difficult. When her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, his wife needed to oversee their household finances and investments, even though she hadn’t written a check during the 40 years of their marriage.

The balance of power shifts dramatically. One partner may assume full-time caregiving duties for a spouse who requires constant care. The patient may feel helpless, guilty and impotent while the care-giver is resentful and overworked.

Couples are frequently forced to make drastic changes in their lifestyles as a result of a partner’s illness. They may need to remodel their home or move to more appropriate living quarters. They may reduce their spending or stop enjoying activities they once shared.

Sometimes couples are unable to face the severity of a partner’s medical condition. They pretend that spouses are healthier than they actually are or that they will get better in spite of their physicians’ dire prognoses.

Such denial may momentarily protect couples from the reality of their situations. But they can prevent them from taking steps that might actually improve their care or quality of life.

For instance, a husband refused to admit that his wife was weaker following her cancer surgery and chemo treatments. He expected that she would keep up with the same social obligations that she had before the illness. Even though his wife told him that she was often overwhelmed and exhausted, he continued to schedule gatherings of business acquaintances and friends.

With so many stressors accompanying illness in a couple, it’s no wonder that 75 percent of couples dealing with chronic illness end in divorce. Another study found that a woman is six times more likely to be separated or divorced after developing cancer or multiple sclerosis.

At a time when couples desperately need each they’re too often rent apart by the disease. When they can honestly address the needs of both parties and create a new post-illness existence, they have a greater chance of staying together and facing the diagnosis as a team.

Tips for handling a health crisis

If you or your partner is facing a serious illness, try these suggestions to strengthen your relationship:

Get information. Arm yourselves with data, options and websites to learn as much you can. You may not like what you’re reading. At least you understand your foe.

Discuss your concerns. Your illness impacts both partners. Each will have varying needs. One of you will need medical care and assistance. The other will need support and time away. Honor the differing roles you’ll assume as you face this issue together.

Pare your life back. The illness gnaws at your resources. Don’t let any be frittered away. Dump all but the bare-bones essentials. Save money and energy where they’re needed most.

Get help. Get a housekeeper and a baby sitter. Allow friends and neighbors to pitch in. Let go of any personal heroics. You can’t afford them now.

Find support. Join a relevant support group. Get individual therapy. Share burdens with caring listeners who can get you both through this tough time.

Find enjoyment. Even though you’re facing a serious illness together there is joy and excitement in your life. Your ability to celebrate in the face of trauma will rekindle the closeness that you feel.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit