When Chronic Illness Makes Marriage Lonely

My dog was bitten by a tick. We used tick bite preventative medication, but she still got bitten. One little bite left my dog with a high fever, lame in her back legs, and so weak she could barely walk from the living room to the kitchen without stopping to rest. Our vibrate, happy, full of energy dog was knocked down flat.

My husband reacted with frustration when he couldn’t make Daisy walk to the back door. I didn’t react that way at all. I knew down in my gut what it is like to have trouble walking from the living room to the kitchen. I knew exactly what it felt like to have weak muscles that don’t work. Instead of getting angry, I was able to coax Daisy one step at a time.

As much as I love Alex, he doesn’t get it. He has no idea what I go through, even though we’ve been married for 25 years. I wish I could help him understand. Years ago I introduced him to the spoon theory. It’s an interesting way of explaining chronic illness. Still, Alex cannot understand what it is like to be weak inside his own body. I can tell him, “I’m low on spoons.” And it helps, but not enough.

Because I have good days mixed in with bad ones, I think Alex gets confused. Yesterday I had energy. Today I don’t. Tomorrow? Well, I will find out tomorrow. There are times when I wish I could zip Alex inside a suit that gives him my chronic illnesses for a week. Just one week would help him get it. Until that suit is invented, he’ll have to guess. Since he can’t feel what I feel, he guesses wrong.

Alex struggles with empathy. He’s not a “feeling” kind of person. If the pipes in the bathroom need replacing, he can knock out the wall and replace them. He can cut cement board and rebuilt the shower. These are the things he’s good at. He’s not good at figuring out how he feels, or how other people feel. He’s not good at showing empathy. Alex knows our dog is hurting and is worried sick. He knows I’m struggling and is worried, too. But, sometimes he responds with anger when compassion is what is needed most.

Yelling at the dog for not being able to walk out of the bedroom isn’t going to help. Stroking the dog’s head, talking softly, praising Daisy for each step, telling her how proud you are of her, this helps. Kindness doesn’t come naturally to Alex. This has caused tension in our marriage. Sometimes I’d like a compassionate response, but what I get is a snappy comment, or a dismissive wave.

I’m not saying Alex is a brute, because he’s not. He can be thoughtful and sweet and generous. The only problem is, he can’t emotionally put himself in my situation. It’s tough for him to work out what I need. I’ve trained him to ask how I am doing, and to respond with, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes, just hearing that he cares helps. Because he does care, but Alex is a nuts and bolts kind of guy. If he can fix a problem with tools, he’s all set. Chronic illness requires tools he doesn’t have. He isn't interested in getting new tools, either.

Alex isn’t interested in learning about my illnesses. He’s not interested in what I need to do to look after myself. Alex isn’t going to hold my hand and tell me it’s going to be OK. When I had chemotherapy at a treatment center, Alex drove me to my appointment, dropped me off in the parking lot and left. He did this for 18 months. It never occurred to him to sit with me. In the treatment center, I watched couples hold hands and talk. I sat in a chair alone for six hours. Alex wasn't there.

The last time I had surgery, he didn’t wait in the hospital waiting room. He didn’t even want a phone call afterward. I drove myself home a few days later. When I need his compassion most, he’s not there for me. It breaks my heart. I want to fix him, but I can't.

Alex doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know how to respond. He built a wall between us where he can pretend there is no chronic illness, and I deal with it all by myself. I can share my whole life with him, except for my chronic illness. I wish I could share my struggles with Alex, but I can’t. Even though he is my husband, and I love him, when it comes to chronic illness, I’m alone. And I am lonely in my marriage because of it.

If your significant other doesn’t understand what you’re going through, you’re not the only one. I wish I could say your significant other will get it. I wish I could say it will get better. The hard truth is, it might not get better. Sometimes feeling lonely is something you get used to, just like chronic illness.

If you have any suggestions on how I can handle this better, or just want to vent about your own situation, please leave a comment. Thanks.

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