Dear Dr Jules
My husband has had to go into hospital and is likely to be there a while, and even when he comes home things will be different for some time. I am finding it hard to cope without him, plus the travelling to the hospital regularly is hard and I’m feeling lonely without him around. I can’t afford paid help around the place while he is out of action. Any ideas?
I’m sorry to hear about your husband’s health problems, and wish him a speedy recovery. Although we promise to care for each other in sickness and in health when we marry, we don’t necessarily think it will ever happen to us, nor do we discuss how we will cope if it does. In reality, many couples have to face health issues in one or both partners, particularly as they age. My own parents, for example, have spent the last few years with first my father, and now my mother, being out of action for prolonged periods, with the result that one or other of them has had to carry the load for both.
Coping with a spouse who becomes ill always requires a readjustment in a marriage, particularly if that illness is likely to be chronic. Here are some ideas that might help you in your current situation:
1. Coping with Changing Roles
When you got together you had assumptions about the roles a husband and wife take on, and these tend to evolve over time. For example, who does the cooking, the gardening, or manages the finances? When one of you is out of action for a while, these roles have to shift and you might be faced with learning new skills which can be demanding and leave you feeling helpless at times. Don’t feel like you have to carry everything yourself. If the house isn’t cleaned for a while, or you have to eat beans on toast every night, know that the world won’t end. Do what you can do and don’t worry about the rest, especially if you are busy running back and forth to the hospital.
2. Feelings about your partner may change
If you have to take on more of a carer role for a while, it is natural to feel differently towards your partner from time to time, especially if he is no longer as strong or independent as he once was. Complex feelings like anger and guilt are normal, and part of the adjustment to a change in the balance in your relationship.
3. Remember to take care of yourself too
It is easy to get dragged into a routine of caring for the other person while forgetting about your own needs. Remember to take some time out now and then to think about what you need and don’t feel guilty if you take a break. It is an important part of your survival.
4. Understand your partner’s emotional reactions
Your husband will be experiencing a range of emotions at being unwell and at times he will feel helpless. Sometimes he may even seem angry at you or say things you find hurtful. Don’t take it personally, and don’t feel responsible for his emotions. Let him work his way through the process of adjustment and be there for him when he is ready to talk about it.
5. Do ask for help and support
Now is the time to let friends and family know that you need them. Maybe someone can bring some food round to save you having to cook, or perhaps someone can help with the garden or run you to the hospital when you are tired? You might also just need a cuppa and a chat with a girlfriend to feel better. It is at times like these that you find out who your true friends are, so don’t be afraid to push a little. If you need ongoing help, you can also ask the hospital social worker to see what is available in the community, as well as checking out online sites such as HelpX where you can find volunteers to stay with you short-term to work on manual tasks in exchange for food and accommodation.
The impact of an illness on a marriage can be significant. Some couples find that it ultimately makes their relationship stronger, while others buckle under the stress. Understand that the illness will have an impact on you both, and then work together to figure out a way to survive it. You have faced challenges together before, and you are strong enough to get through this one.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or stuck with your life and can’t see a way forward, then counselling can be helpful in providing support and a non-judgmental space to explore your options. For more in-depth help and counselling, consider contacting Dr Jules in person.