“sharing the veto”: marriage and chronic illness part 2

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I love talking about marriage. Though Kevin and I haven’t been married all that long, it’s been an eventful few years — ultimately forcing us to determine who we were going to be as a couple in some pretty hard circumstances. It’s been a crash-course.

We’re still learning lots, but we’ve definitely found some gems along the way. I briefly shared some of my favorite marriage lessons in the post, “In Sickness and in Health”: Marriage and Chronic Illness. Recently, another gem has been stirring in my heart, and I want to share it with you in hope that it is helpful: Kevin and I share veto power.

My friends, the spouse who is sick is constantly having to assess their body to understand if what they’re doing is smart or not. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve sat in the car outside our destination (that we just drove 40 minutes to get to), and I have to decide if I’m well enough to go in. If you’re anything like me, there’s a lot of back-and-forthness about these decisions. The desire vs. disappointment. The maybe-foolish-but-it-might-be-okay choice vs. the wise-and-not-so-fun choice. It’s a fact of life that the sick spouse has to make judgment calls constantly, and hopefully the healthy spouse is understanding and helpful when the sad decision to switch plans is made.

But, there’s a great opportunity to share the decision-making here. It’s natural to assume that because the sick person knows their body best, if they say they’re “fine”, then everything is okay. But I don’t think that’s always true, or at least it’s not for me. Sometimes I decide to push myself anyway, because I’m stubbornly insistent: “This is what I’m doing!” Or, sometimes I don’t even know that I’m pushing too hard, but Kevin can see that it is a bad idea. Kevin sees a lot that I don’t see. He’s a good judge also, because He knows me.

In my heart, I long ago decided to give Kevin “veto power”. Just like I can decide that I need to go home, he can decide that I need to go home. I can often spot the concern in his eyes, and in those moments I like to ask him, “Is my decision regarding ______________ making you uncomfortable?” Sometimes he says “no”, and sometimes he says “yes”…

If it is a “yes”, the conversation then proceeds one of two ways: 1) I decide immediately that it’s important to me to listen to Kevin’s concern (whether or not I’m convinced) and back-off of whatever thing I’m trying to do, or 2) I explain my reasoning behind pushing myself, and then we decide together if it’s worth it or not. Generally, we err on the side of caution. If something is “iffy”, then it’s probably best to go home — for my health’s sake, for Kevin’s stress levels, and honestly for the good of the people around me who might be worried when I hit “the wall”.

Kevin has as much veto power as I do. He doesn’t expect it from me, but I want to give it to him. It’s a decision that I willingly make, so that he can feel more comfortable. As awful as it is being sick, being the healthy spouse is heart-breaking. Healthy spouses feel powerless as they try to care for and comfort their sick spouse. I don’t want Kevin to feel powerless. I especially don’t want him to feel powerless watching me be reckless with my body’s limits. I want him to feel like we’re a team. I want him to know that I take his concerns seriously. Yes, it’s my body, but it’s also his. We are “one”. We are “Team Albert”.

It’s always disappointing to stay home from the wedding, leave the party early, or turn around half-way to your destination. But I honestly can tell you I’ve been happy with every decision to relent based upon Kevin’s perspective. He can see things I can’t. He has saved me from over-extending myself so many times. When I’m stuck in brain-fog and can’t decide, he can recognize that’s a red flag. I trust him to care for me. I love him and want to honor his desire to keep me safe.

My friends, oh if you do this, your marriage will have many happy, safe, rich moments. The disappointment of not getting to do what was is in your heart to do, is replaced by happiness in getting to listen to your spouse’s heart to love and protect you. And in return they get to feel heard. It’s a win-win. It won’t be the “win” you expected for that day, but I guarantee you that it will be a satisfying “win” for your marriage.

I wish you great joy and deep moments of listening and comfort with your spouse.

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“in sickness and in health”: marriage and chronic illness

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When Kevin and I met in June of 2010, I had only been symptomatic for a few weeks. He has never known me as a healthy person. He has witnessed me growing more and more sick, and he has been with me every step of the way.

At first, he attentively listened and encouraged me as I recounted my stories of doctors visits and medical decisions. Then, I started including him in my doctors visits, where he would take notes for me and help me remember to ask the questions I wanted answers to. Then, he became my sounding board, and we started making medical decisions together. Even as an engaged couple, he helped me pay for my medicine and doctor’s bills.

Kevin knew what he was getting into when he vowed to care for me in sickness and in health. It wasn’t just a possibility that he would someday care for me in sickness, it was his present reality. It was his future.

We’ve been married now a little over two years, and while we are still kiddos compared to the many wonderful, married champs around us… I know that our marriage is very rich. We’ve practiced this vow every day of our marriage, and it has made us tender-hearted towards each other.

Today I want to talk about some of the things that have made our marriage rich, as we’ve both learned to live out this vow. But before I get into specific tips, I want you to know the point of view I’m starting with — I believe the best starting place for marriage when you’re chronically ill is the attitude / posture that your spouse is your hero.

There aren’t really words to describe the trauma of being sick day after day. There isn’t an adjective strong enough for how awful sickness is. It robs you of life. Awful, awful, awful. You can’t escape it. You’re stuck with it. BUT REMEMBER, your spouse willingly takes it on. This is why they are heroes. They choose to bear the load of finances. They stroke your head and massage your arms when you’re crying in pain. They develop sign language and looks to read your every need. They jump to get you water and pills when you wince. They leave the party early every time with you. They use their vacation time for doctor’s appointments, surgeries, and ER visits. They don’t have this illness, but they say “yes” to living with the trauma of it too. They are the person that runs into the burning building on purpose. It’s amazing. They are amazing.

Starting each day remembering all of your spouse’s “amazingness” creates an atmosphere of gratitude, generosity, love, and mushiness. Kevin and I are the mushiest of them all. But seriously, one of the things that makes Kevin and my marriage very sweet is that because I am constantly noticing the way he cares for me, I respond with gratitude and by serving him back.

Now that we have our super awesome, grateful marriage foundation, we can build on that with my 10 practical “in sickness and in health” marriage tips:

  1. Include your spouse in medical decisions. Personally, I’m a fan of making all medical decisions together. Kevin likes to defer to me, as it is my body… But I always want to listen to him and make a decision together. I value his thoughts just as much as my own. The decision greatly affects him too. I want to feel like we’re a team on this—that’s what marriage is supposed to be like anyway!
  2. Include your spouse in your medical appointments. I like to ask Kevin which appointments he wants to go to, and then make it work for his schedule. He’s not always able to go, but he appreciates that I want him there. I always send him a calendar notification, so that he knows when they’re coming up. It helps us both to feel like we’re on the same page—that he is included, and that I’m not alone in this.
  3. Let your spouse help you with things that stress you. Kevin’s favorite thing is when I ask him to call a medical company that is giving me a hard time. He loves stepping in to protect me. We both end up happy. When you’re sick, stress is like poison. Handing off things to your spouse (if they are able to take it on) helps you feel less crazy, and it helps them feel like they are involved. It’s deeply satisfying for both people.
  4. Expand your support system beyond your spouse. If you and your spouse alone are bearing the weight of your disease, you both will be crushed. It’s asking for trouble. There’s no way that your spouse can be your emotional and physical support at all times, and if they try… They will be run ragged. It’s a quick recipe for disappointment, failure, and frankly bitterness. Kevin and I check in regularly reminding each other to meet with people who refresh us and that we can be our real, raw selves with. This also ensures that when we need help, we have lots of people to call!
  5. Maintain your compassion for the tough stuff they are going through. When work is hard, when they have a cold… They need you to listen, be interested, and care for what is difficult for them. Maintaining your compassion is you practicing the “in sickness” vow too. It’s us caring for them in every circumstance. Remembering this makes your spouse feel special and heard, which in turn makes them love you more, which makes you love them more (you get it—lots of mushy love and affection).
  6. Communicate regularly that just because your health is poor doesn’t mean you want your spouse to stop sharing their feelings when they are hurt or angry. It’s so easy when your spouse loves you dearly for them to put their own feelings “on the back-burner” when your life is tough. It’s up to you to keep validating that their feelings and opinions are always important to you. It will be tough at first for your spouse to bring up certain topics when you’re in pain, but it will be so good for your marriage if you keep working through stuff even when it’s hard. It’s logical, right? — that any relationship where one person bottles down their feelings over and over again isn’t healthy. Yes, this is what you’re fighting against. PS: there are definitely times when Kevin and I do stop a conversation until I’m feeling a bit better, but we always make sure to come back to our paused conversations!
  7. Look for ways to serve them back for all of the wonderful ways they are caring for you. Kevin never expects me to, but I like to make our dinner and do some chores each day (well, when I can…). I know I don’t have to. I know that more than anything he wants me to relax and have fun… But I like serving him. I like making his life easier. He cares for me in so many ways, and I want to care for him back. He knows how much it “costs” me physically, and he’s over-the-moon thankful for it. AND it starts our serving / gratitude cycle all over again. What fun!
  8. Remember that you vowed to care for your spouse when they are healthy, not just when they are sick. It can be tempting to minimize caring for your spouse “in health” as less important than caring for them “in sickness”, but your vow went I promise… to care for you in sickness AND in health. Your spouse will be caring for you extra because of your sickness, sure… But don’t let it stop you from being generous in caring for them as they are healthy. Your care for them will look different. You won’t be able to care for them with as many physical actions (doing errands, yard work, cooking, etc), but you can still care for them by listening attentively when they speak, taking the time to ask questions and learn details about their work, friendships, etc. You can defer to them on date night by going to the restaurant they want to go to, or simply by watching the TV show that they love and you only tolerate. The more generous you both are to each other, the more joyful your marriage will be.
  9. Remember that while your spouse acts as your care-taker, their first role is to be your spouse. This health-journey, though it feels consuming, is only one part of your lives. Your marriage relationship is more important (and satisfying) than your care-taker relationship. Don’t forget what marriage is actually about — helping each other become the best version of yourselves, the person that you are meant to become.
  10. And finally… make time for fun with your spouse. In the midst of so many difficult moments, it can be easy to get stuck in all of the “goo”, but you need to have fun. You need to laugh. Go have dates! Invite friends over for a game night. Plan for a date immediately following a doctors appointment, so you have something to look forward to. Don’t let sickness consume your life. Go have fun!

This is just a start, dear friends. I’ve got lots of thoughts about marriage and sickness. It’s one of my favorite topics! The last two years have been the hardest years of my life (and Kevin’s too), but they have been the sweetest, richest, and most tender years. We’ve learned so much through necessity, and we have experienced great comfort in the midst of it.

My sweet hubby will soon be writing a post directly to your spouses, so stay tuned!