You said you’d be together in sickness and in health…
But neither of you expected this.
A serious medical diagnosis changes everything. Your whole life turns upside down. You’ve got to pull together. You’ve got to be strong for each other.
When you’re in the midst of a medical crisis, all you’re thinking about is survival, not whether your relationship is going to survive this.
But your relationship still needs you. You don’t want to lose each other, after everything.
Dr. Jackie Black is a marriage expert, educator, and board-certified coach who serves couples in trouble and couples facing life-threatening and chronic illness. She helps couples maintain their closeness and connection, even when the stress of coping with health challenges threatens to push them apart.
In this week’s YBTV interview, Dr. Jackie explains why couples still need to take the time for each other, how to cope with intense emotions, what to do when the well partner feels pushed aside, and why it’s okay if things never go back to normal.
What You’ll Learn
“You can work on your relationship once the health scare is over.”
That’s what many couples think. Their job right now is get through the crisis.
Go to the doctor, decide on the surgery, wrestle with insurance. There will be time for date nights, cuddles, and decompressing when everyone is well again.
But maybe that’s the wrong way of thinking about it…
“Being sick is scary enough,” Dr. Jackie says. “It changes everything when you don’t have the focus, the motivation, the energy that you used to have.”
What makes it even scarier is when, in all the chaos, you start losing that connection to your loved one.
It’s not even about the emotional support. It’s about “that special, warm thing that we can’t even put a name to, that we get with each other,” Dr. Jackie says.
That’s the first thing that gets lost, because the relationship becomes transactional. It becomes logistical. It’s about doctors and procedures and medication and reactions to medications and surgery. It is an alternate reality, there’s no question about it. And if we lose that connection to each other … [we’re] living in a very cold, dark place, and it’s scarier than it has to be.”
Dr. Jackie knows how it feels. She’d been working in the cancer community for many years when her husband Mark was diagnosed with cancer.
Even with her background and knowledge, she learned things she couldn’t have understood if it hadn’t happened to her. She learned when to push her husband and when to step back. She learned when to reach out and when to let him process his own feelings. He passed away in 2005.
Today, she coaches couples struggling with the impact of illness on their relationship.
How do we share those moments with each other? How can we be there for each other and not abandon ourselves? Because it’s so complicated emotionally when someone has been diagnosed with a life-threatening or chronic illness, or they’re in chronic pain. There’s no time to wait…. We need to have all the gifts and skills and tools we can get, so that we don’t miss a single second.”
You Are More than a Sick Person
“People who are ill will tell you they feel like such a burden,” Dr. Jackie says. They spend a great deal of effort discouraging others from making a fuss.
But the implicit agreement is that the sick person is the priority. They deserve the bulk of time and attention. They don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else.
That’s a setup that can suck the heart out of a relationship.
“We can do more than one thing at a time,” Dr. Jackie says. “People can be sick—people can feel awful and not have any strength—and have an open heart. People can be in a lot of pain and have an open heart.”
She encourages couples to work on a mutual, reciprocal flow of warmth, caring and compassion. It’s not just one way. Both parties can give and receive from each other.
When You Don’t Want to Talk about It
Because illness can feel so frightening, some couples make the decision to put what’s happening in a box and try to live life as if nothing has changed.
“Under some situations, under some circumstances, that might be a strategy that works,” Dr. Jackie says.
But “generally you want to tell the truth. You want people around you to know. Not to upset them, but to invite them to contribute, to participate, to be part of your family, part of your community, to the extent that it feels good to you.”
If you’re going to get sicker and sicker, or it’s a protracted chronic illness, then people will find out.
When “we don’t tell the truth about what’s going on with us, it leaks out. It just has a way of doing that,” Dr. Jackie says.
“And then people don’t know what’s happening. They either blame themselves, or wonder what it is that they’ve done wrong, or they get mad at you, because they try to figure it out [for themselves]. Whenever there are blanks in the story … we fill in the blanks with our own stuff.”
Be open and honest as possible, even with small children. “Children pick up much more than than we think they do,” she says. They overhear conversations you don’t think they heard. Not being told the truth can feel like a betrayal.
But What about Scary Feelings?
One of the hardest parts of illness is not knowing what’s going to happen. Whether you’re going to lose the one you love. Whether your life will ever get back to normal.
What do you do with those feelings? Do you stuff them down, so as not to scare your partner? Do you stay busy, so you don’t have too much time to think?
“Feelings are normal, natural, and necessary,” Dr. Jackie explains. “There are five normal, natural feelings: mad, sad, glad, afraid, and guilty.” Those “feelings aren’t good or bad. They’re not positive or negative… They exist in and of themselves.”
Running away from our feelings doesn’t help us in the long run. We can’t escape uncomfortable feelings. “Feelings tend to leak out if we’re not owning them and honoring them as legitimate,” she says.
Our choice, then, is not whether to feel. It’s what we will do with those feelings.
“There are really functional, healthy, productive ways to express the normal, natural feelings that are ours to experience,” she says. It’s in our best interests to learn how to identify our feelings, experience them without judgment, “and then find our courage to tell the truth about how we feel.”
Will Life Go Back to Normal?
If you can just hold out long enough, then surely you’ll get your old life back. Won’t you?
Life will never go back to what it was, says Dr. Jackie. “We are the beautiful tapestry of all of the threads of our life experience…. Life becomes enriched because of the experiences, because of the wisdom, because of the challenges and the pain.”
This is your new normal, but you’re not stuck in it. You can make changes.
If you don’t like what’s going on in your relationship, you created it. The good news is, you can create it to be exactly the way you want it to be.”
There is Help
If you would like extra support, Dr. Jackie can help. She works via phone, Skype and Zoom, and she has clients in eight time zones all around the world.
She also offers 3-day private destination retreats in a gorgeous hotel. “You have evenings alone in a luxurious setting with no responsibilities, no phones, no kids, no bills to pay, so that you can really just focus” and reconnect.
If that sounds like EXACTLY what you need, click here to learn more.
Scary stuff happens. Bad stuff happens. And there’s help. Nobody has to go through this alone.”
Jump to Topics of Interest
2:06 When to push, when to let go
5:46 Couples need each other more than ever
7:18 When the ill partner gets all the time and energy
9:58 Whether you should tell anyone what’s going on
12:57 Difficult emotions
14:59 Will things go back to normal?
17:34 Work with Dr. Jackie
19:45 You’re not alone
Jackie Black, PhD, BCC
Dr. Jackie Black is a marriage expert, educator, and board-certified coach, serving couples in trouble and couples facing life-threatening and chronic illness. She is an author, speaker, relationship blogger, and frequent guest expert on summits, podcasts, the Internet, and terrestrial radio throughout the world. She offers marriage coaching for couples by telephone, Skype and Zoom from anywhere in the world. Find out how you can work with Dr. Jackie.