In Sickness and in Health
By Marita Littauer with Chuck
Noon, MA, LPCC
While the topic of living with a disabled spouse may seem like the audience who needs these insights is limited, if you’ve read the last two parts, you know that there are many elements of Annette and Troy’s situation that are applicable to most marriages. In the last installment, we looked at some things Annette can do to help nourish her soul and find personal fulfillment—since her husband’s health issues have prevented him from being able to support her in that way and the caregiving he required has left her feeling isolated. If you have not been following along with us, I encourage you to go back and read parts one and two before reading part three.
This week we will look at some insights that will strengthen their marriage that may well be helpful to yours as well. Next we will offer some insights regarding career options that will be helpful for anyone in Annette’s position. At the end of this week’s installment, you will find the section called “The Interaction.” This is your “homework assignment,” much like what a counselor would suggest you do as a couple if you are in a similar situation to Annette and Troy.
Find New Interests You Can Share
While these insights will help anyone in a care-giving situation, it will do little to restore the marriage's vitality. In Annette’s case, Troy is now capable of at least a somewhat normal life; they need to explore things they can do together.
Speaking from her own experience with disability, Helen offers the following peer insight:
I know first hand how a serious illness or injury can affect a marriage. Due to an accident, I am also disabled. I encourage Annette, and anyone dealing with similar circumstances to remember that her husband is still the same man she loved and married. While it is a challenge, she can still have a glorious and exciting marriage. If she and her husband can learn to focus on doing everything they can think to do to court and encourage each other, her life will be sweet. Now is the time to test those vows they repeated when they were married. They've made it through the worst part. They can now start rebuilding what was lost. God promises that he will restore the years the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25). An affair with another man can't compare with the joy she can find right in her own marriage if she will seek ways to build up her husband. If she will crown him her king, he in turn will treat her as his queen. What a payoff! I've experienced restoration in my marriage and it is marvelous.
In an effort to rebuild what was lost, couples like Annette and Troy might try traveling together. Every few months they could plan a special weekend away at a bed and breakfast. They might take a photography class or a gourmet cooking class together. Whatever their interests or level of physical activity, they need to do things together that they can both enjoy. For Annette, loving Troy extravagantly may mean being willing to adjust her faster pace to his new lower key pace. In their new place of equilibrium, the things they did together previously may no longer be possible. Rather than mourn that loss, they can celebrate what they can still do together.
Find an Emotionally Healthy Outlet
If you are facing a situation like Annette and Troy’s after you work to rebuild your life and relationship, look at a couple additional areas. While not mentioned in the given case history, Melanie Wilson, Ph.D., is concerned that Annette will act irresponsibly if she does not find an outlet for her anger and grief. While Melanie’s questions are directed toward Annette, anyone in a similar place can benefit from Melanie’s professional insights. She asks,
Has she expressed her anger through journalizing, prayer, or to her husband? Although she has willingly submitted her own needs to care for her husband (and this is to be praised), she must have some feelings of anger, disappointment, and grief. If she has not worked through these feelings and expressed them openly, trouble could still be brewing. Sharing her anger and grief with her husband and directing it at the stroke (rather than at him), can be healing and restorative. Doing something as simple as writing down the things that the stroke took away from them can be a wonderful exercise. Only when the anger and grief have been expressed can the couple focus on the blessings they still share and the strengths they can capitalize on in the future.
Offering insights as a peer advisor, as the spouse with the disability, Jo agrees with Melanie’s advice. Jo says:
I, too, am disabled. I was married for eight years before being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis during my husband's first year in seminary. From the beginning of dealing with the disease, I poured out my fears and struggles to God in my prayer journal. I remember discussing my Scripture search regarding healing with my husband as we prayed for that very thing and did not receive the answer we desired.
God's answer has been, “I will be with you in the midst of MS” and He has done that very thing for over 23 years. I learned to thank Him while dealing with it (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and thank Him for what He could do in and through it (Ephesians 5:20). Praising God for who He is, not what He could do for me became crucial for my spiritual growth (Psalm 92:1-2, Corinthians 1:3).
Five years after the diagnosis, my husband, who was a full-time pastor and seminary Ph.D. student, began an affair with a girlfriend of mine. My husband had become bitter and had not dealt with his anger at God, nor me for having MS and for dealing with it so well. His affair lasted over a year and nearly devastated me. Had I not continued clinging to God, I shudder to think what would have become of me. After fifteen years of marriage, My husband left the pastorate, his doctoral studies, and me, then filed for a divorce I didn't want. A year later, he called me. He told me he was sorry for having nearly destroyed me and that he was sorry for dissolving our marriage; however, he did not want to work on it again.
By not dealing with his emotional and spiritual struggles, my husband had let himself see only the MS instead of me. He resented the way our life changed rather than choosing to look for things we could do together.
Four years later a wonderful man took the risk of marrying me and MS. We have had thirteen years of health challenges, ensuing spiritual and emotional growth, and more fun together than some couples ever have! We tandem, because I can't ride a bike alone. We ski—I use helps designed for the disabled. We enjoy traveling and sightseeing, eating out, serving the Lord, Bible study, and worship. We enjoy sitting side-by-side knowing we share a deep love born out of adversity.
Jo is a speaker, singer, and writer. She definitely hasn't let self-pity get the best of her.
While the presenting problem deals with Annette, Chuck has concern for Troy. Chuck would counsel Troy—or any man with a disability—with the following insight:
Stretch yourself, get away from being defined by your disability and redefine yourself with your abilities. I encourage you to connect with other men through work, church, or organizations focused on helping stroke survivors. You need to be as self sufficient as possible, allowing Christian brothers to help when needed. This will help you see Annette as your wife and lover rather than your nursemaid. Expecting her to do both places her in a difficult position.
From Annette's comments we get the idea that her interest in returning to the workforce is more from a need for stimulation rather than for money. Yes, the additional income would be beneficial, but not required. Therefore, Annette has some freedom in her occupational choices.
Vicki Jackson, LCSW, suggests that Annette create some type of entrepreneurial home business that would allow her to bring in some income, have intellectual stimulation, and still be at home much of the time. She says:
Depending on what common interests the couple had prior to the disability, they could consider a business that might involve both of them. She could even write and present workshops through the local hospital about the shift in a relationship that comes when one spouse has an illness or accident. Think creatively, talk to other couples in similar predicaments, ask the Lord for ideas, and review entrepreneur and women's magazines for motivation stories that tell of other women's adversities and how they overcame them.
I couldn't agree more with Vicki's comments. I am a big proponent of women-owned businesses, especially those that are entrepreneurial or home-based in nature. “Celebrate Your Passions,” the last chapter in my book You've Got What it Takes, would be an excellent resource for Annette or anyone in her position. Additionally, a home-based business would remove Annette's concerns about temptation and infidelity. However, Chuck comments,
There is temptation everywhere. Rather than remove herself from any possibility of it, Annette will do better to first focus on filling that emptiness she refers to and building up her relationship with Troy.
Look at what you have always wanted to do and take this opportunity to try something new! Work no longer has to control your life. You can continue to grow as individuals as well as growing as a couple with our focus on doing God's will as the foundation of your life together.
All marriages face shifts at one time or another. Many of us face health or career challenges. By being willing to love extravagantly, to give, not to get, Annette and Troy—or you and your spouse—can find a new equilibrium that works for them, their interests, and their unique situation.
For couples in a similar situation to Annette and Troy, Chuck would assign the following “homework” assignment:
- As mentioned in this chapter, the non-disabled spouse needs to develop interests that will bring personal fulfillment. As ones personal life is nourished, the temptation to stray will be minimized.
- The wife (husband, depending on the circumstance) needs to begin to rebuild her professional life. Start by brainstorming career options that will provide mental stimulation. Include the potential risks she feels are present in each one. A viable option might be developing a business with her husband.
- The husband must identify a Christian friend to whom he can be accountable. This person will agree to be his coach, making him stretch to expand his world: someone who will get him moving when he is feeling sorry for himself and applaud him when he has achieved a new goal.
- The spouse with the disability needs to identify ten new activities or resources to expand his life. These might be written on a dry-erase board where they can be kept in sight and changed as needed. One of them might be to link up with (or create if needed) a support group for stroke victims, for example. Another might be an athletic endeavor; rather than playing golf with the heavy hitters, he might go to the driving range. He might also cultivate friendships with men with similar disabilities. Using a calendar, begin scheduling two new activities a week for four consecutive weeks.
- The disabled partner needs to prepare a talking paper that he will later present to the wife. In developing this outline of what he will say to his wife face-to-face, he should express his appreciation for the love and care that she has provided during this medical crisis. At the end he will emphasize that he is improving daily and that as he progresses, she is free to begin rebuilding her life, independent of caring for him. This will give her validation for her sacrifice while giving her permission and encouragement to expand her life. Once he has delineated the points he wants to share with his wife, perhaps reviewing them with his accountability partner, he needs to share his feelings with her.
- Together husband and wife need to discuss their changing expectations of each other as the relationship takes on a new equilibrium. This should be done on a weekly basis during this period of transition.
Be sure to watch for the next installment of Marita's column.
Marita Littauer is a professional speaker with more than twenty-five years experience. She is the author of 17 books Including Personality Puzzle, Communication Plus, The Praying Wives Club, Tailor-Made Marriage—from which this column is derived, and her newest, Wired That Way. Marita is the President of CLASServices Inc., an organization that provides resources, training and promotion for speakers and authors. Marita and her husband Chuck Noon have been married since 1983. For more information on Marita and/or CLASS, please visit www.classervices.com or call 800/433-6633.
Chuck Noon has worked as a professional counselor--licensed in two states. He holds a BA in Motion Picture Production from Brooks Institute and an MA in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling from the University of San Diego. He has worked with hundreds of families and couples in many varieties of settings. Currently, Chuck is working in mental healthcare management. Chuck and Marita live in the mountains outside of Albuquerque.
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