How a Marriage Survives When One Partner Gets Sick

What we can learn from couples dealing with chronic illness.

Photograph: Photo By Levi Brown

Deborah did everything she could to make his life easier; she was terrified about what might happen to him. But his diagnosis also brought on, for her, “a whole gamut of very difficult emotions,” she says. “I was relieved that his seizures were not something more serious, like a brain tumor, and that these strange symptoms that had been growing more severe now had a name: epilepsy.”
Still, mixed in with the fear, relief and love for her husband were worries about what it all meant for her. Deborah had just turned 50, raised three kids into their teen years and finished a degree in psychology. She’d opened her own practice, and it was taking off. “I was just getting out from under having to look after everybody, and suddenly I was right back where I started—spending every day as a caregiver,” she says. “Here I’d been telling myself it was my time, time to be my own person. I was looking forward to my family being less dependent on me. And then Chuck became so ill, and my days became about driving him where he needed to be and worrying over what we needed to plan around next.” She wanted to care for him, she says, but there was also a part of her that resented the situation. “I wasn’t going to get my turn to fly,” she says. “It was as if an air traffic controller had just said, ‘Grounded!’ I’d lost my place in the queue to take off, and I wondered, will my turn come again, or will this airport be closed?”

Share Your Thoughts!


Lisa Green05.04.2014

Thank you for such an informative article. I have been chronically ill since I was a child. Your article reflected my first marriage. Fortunately my second marriage I am in now is different and so much better. We do have the same relationship issues the chronically ill has but a much better approach.

shauna 10.26.2013

Thank you SO much for writing this article. My marriage did NOT survive, so it was painful to read this, but so much of what you discussed was like reading a recap of my own marriage.
One aspect of this which I wish there were more statistics on is how old the chronically ill spouse is when diagnosed, if they have been chronically ill before a diagnosis. And how does this affect their likelihood of martial success?
I was the chronically ill spouse in my marriage, but I went undiagnosed until 1 year after we'd already separated. For every situation you mentioned in the article, my husband and I had similar tensions, similar problems building up. But when the time came for action or resolution, the one big difference was that as far as my spouse was concerned, I wasn't 'really' sick. I had no diagnosis. My symptoms 'didn't make sense,' and so he concluded early on that my physical problems must be more mental than physical.
It completely changes how one spouse reacts to another's pain, when they don't believe the pain is 'real.'
In a survey by the AARDA, over 40% of the respondents with auto-immune diseases had been told by doctors that they are 'chronic complainers' or need to think less about their health if they want to get better. I was told this myself, before diagnosis. I can only imagine how this misdiagnosis can affect a marriage, both in terms of how much support the chronically ill spouse feels he or she can ask for, and how much support and understanding the other spouse is willing to give.

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