In Sickness and In Health

 

shutterstock_190123037In an article I recently posted about divorce, someone commented that breaking up is the best option if you’re dealing with mental illness: “While you can be legally married to someone that is mentally ill, you cannot actually be married to them. This is because marriage is a “peer” relationship and you cannot have a peer relationship with someone that is (or even claims to be) mentally ill. You are forced into a ‘caretaker’ relationship with that person. I recommend that you accept that you are divorced in fact, and get divorced legally. Then get on with the business of having a happy life.”

Setting aside any situation that involves abuse (both physical and emotional), dealing with someone who is mentally ill takes strength, courage, and longsuffering—character traits most of us don’t have in abundance. It also takes sacrifice. That is never easy. 

Like the commenter said, when your spouse suffers from a mental illness (or any long-term illness), your marriage has changed. It’s no longer two people giving equally; you have become a caretaker— giving and often receiving very little in return. The result can be discouragement, exhaustion, and hopelessness (and that’s if the mentally ill person recognizes their condition and is getting treatment; it’s an entirely different story if you’re dealing with someone who is mentally ill and refuses to get help).

How devastating it must be for a person who had hope for their marriage to find themselves walking that road alone, carrying a burden they never expected, no longer receiving the love they need. What grief they must feel at their loss. In light of that, we should give people struggling with caring for a mentally ill spouse the encouragement, support, and love they need. Compassion is called for, not condemnation.

Unfortunately, though, some people don’t stick around to be the caretaker—they figure this wasn’t the deal they signed up for, so they’re out of the marriage. They don’t pause to consider that their hurting husband or wife didn’t ask to become sick. Instead, they leave because marriage is supposed to be a give-and-take arrangement, not all give. Again, setting aside abuse and dealing with a person who simply won’t get help, it seems that “in sickness and in health” has become a hollow promise in our society. People would rather go about the “business of having a happy life” than suffer through all the realities of loving sacrificially.

In making that choice, they miss the deeper joys that suffering and sacrifice bring. As Paul wrote in Romans, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts.” 

Think of that: The wellspring of hope and joy that can come from suffering—and those who care for sick wives and husbands do suffer. The pain and struggle (often affecting even their own health) are real. But the situation isn’t hopeless, and one doesn’t need to run from it. Have courage and embrace your trial, hold to the promise of loving “in sickness and in health,” find joy in your suffering, and you will have hope. But it can’t be done if you don’t have love in your heart—sacrificial love. 

Sadly, many people run from suffering and sickness because they want a “happy” life, not a joyful one. They do this not only with mental illness but with physical illness as well.

Researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis recently found that nearly a third of marriages between older married couples studied between 1992 and 2010 ended in divorce—and in almost half of those cases, the wife fell ill. The study found that the couple was no more likely to divorce if the husband got sick.

While the study didn’t delve into why a woman’s illness was more likely than a man’s to lead to divorce, researchers assumed it’s because women tend to be natural caregivers while men aren’t.

“Women are more willing and able to battle for love. When a stressor like illness comes into play, the man will disappear and the woman will be the one to fight,” said Dr. Jacob Ham, a clinical psychologist and Director of Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s HEARTS (Healing Emotions and Achieving Resilience to Traumatic Stress) Program. “This parallels the way boys and girls deal with adolescence. The girls are more likely to argue with their parents but still want to maintain the relationship, while the boys disappear until college.”

While sickness makes marriage vulnerable, being aware of—sharing and talking about—the implications of illness can help the marriage survive. Dr. Ham says “emotional connection is the secret to marriage survival.”

Emotional connection. Love. Commitment. Living sacrificially. I see these every day with my own mother. My father is very ill, a disabled veteran, completely dependant on her. They’re both in their late 70s, and she is his sole caretaker. When I go to visit, I see the weariness in her eyes, the heavy sighs of exhaustion as she sits down for just a moment before he calls for her to do something for him and she has to get up again. I hear the strain in her voice when she hasn’t slept because he was in pain all night and she remained by his side, faithfully watching over him so he would never be alone. I sense the sadness in her when she says they can’t go on a vacation with friends because her husband is too ill. They once traveled the world together, but no longer. Sickness has robbed them of that kind of freedom. But it hasn’t robbed them of their love. 

A relative once commented to her that he didn’t understand how she could do what she did. It was just too hard. Not fair. She responded with peace in her weary voice, “What else would I do? I love him.”

That is character. That is real love. That is selflessness. That is what our culture needs. Until we take our eyes off of ourselves and look at the person sitting across from us—the person in pain and in desperate need—and we give up our lives for them, we will never know true joy. We might experience fleeting moments of happiness, but not joy; not the deep, meaningful kind of joy born of suffering and sacrificial love.

Where is hope if we don’t allow ourselves to suffer? What kind of character are we developing if we don’t learn to persevere? Whether it’s caring for the mentally ill, the handicapped, or the sick, what kind of people will we become if we can’t love in sickness and in health? Do you want to live in that world, a world where people choose “happiness” over love, themselves over others? If that is our choice, then we have no hope. We have only ourselves and the dark, destructive path of selfishness. 

There are 36 comments.

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  1. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Amen.  

    One thing that you didn’t mention, but that I know has made a difference in cases I have seen, is that in a strong family the children help share the load, as you clearly do in the way appropriate for your family. 

    I know one elderly man who cared for his wife with Alzheimer’s — and she never had to go into a nursing home.  When they could no longer live in the retirement home they moved in with one of their children, and he was surrounded by other people who also loved both of them.  He was her primary caregiver, but he could not have done it alone.  Their daughter-in-law is an inspiration to me, and her children learned a lesson which will richly repay her one day.

    That’s not always possible or best, especially with that kind of illness, but in any such situation commitment and love from the rest of the family makes a difference to the one who must carry most of the load.

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  2. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Beautiful piece, D.C. Thank you.

    • #2
  3. PsychLynne Inactive
    PsychLynne
    @PsychLynne

    This is a lovely piece, DC.
    I am further struck by this:

    Researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis recently found that nearly a third of marriages between older married couples studied between 1992 and 2010 ended in divorce—and in almost half of those cases, the wife fell ill. The study found that the couple was no more likely to divorce if the husband got sick.

    This research result completely reflects my clinical experience.  I’m not sure the reasons, I don’t the explanation saying women, as a whole, are more nurturing quite satisfying – but I don’t know what else.  Maybe in certain older couples, economic incentives (husband worked – has the higher social security), but given that caregiving is a high cost endeavor, that doesn’t seem to be enough of an explanation either.  

    • #3
  4. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Marriage is the creation of a new family. Can a child ever cease to be your child? Why then can a spouse cease to be a spouse? 

    For some, marriage is a contract: “If you do for me, I will do for you.” For others, it is a promise: “I will do for you.” But it can be even greater than a promise. It can be, like one’s blood relations, a native connection; something which can be ignored or distanced but never dissolved.

    • #4
  5. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    I find the suggestion to divorce a mentally ill spouse to be offensive. Would the commenter give the same advice for a spouse who has had a stroke and been rendered paralyzed? You should divorce your wife or husband because they can no longer take care of themselves? This is outrageous.

    • #5
  6. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    Poppycock.

    A mature couple I know were suddenly confronted with this situation when the wife was suddenly subject to a radical intermittent personality change that left her with no cognizance of her marital status and made her quite abusive and promiscuous. For all intents and purposes, she became a different person for extended periods. Rather than flush the mother of his children and move on, the husband worked with mental health professionals and, after a really bad year, she had been diagnosed, treated, and was entirely herself again.

    While I can easily envisage cases where divorce would be a must to protect the family, cases where the errant member engages in behavior that risks compromise of the family’s material well-being for example, even here there should probably be a dichotomy recognized among the faithful between a marriage before good and a legal divorce to protect the very family that marriage created.

    • #6
  7. virgil15marlow@yahoo.com Member
    virgil15marlow@yahoo.com
    @Manny

    Absolutely agree.  If you can’t be a caretaker for your own spouse, then what kind of a human being are you?  I’m sorry, not much in my estimation.  You are married for better or worst.  And absolutely agree on the suffering.  Suffering is not a curse.  And in many cases suffering is a blessing.  No one can really understand life without suffering.  If your life’s goal is to maximize pleasure, then what can I say.  Leaving the relgious side of this aside, one’s goal in my estimation is to reach wisdom.  Otherwise this is all meaningless.

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  8. user_240173 Contributor
    user_240173
    @FrankSoto

    Albert Arthur:

    I find the suggestion to divorce a mentally ill spouse to be offensive. Would the commenter give the same advice for a spouse who has had a stroke and been rendered paralyzed? You should divorce your wife or husband because they can no longer take care of themselves? This is outrageous.

     It’s outrageous to us because we have an entirely different view of what marriage is.  To most Americans it is seen as an avenue to emotional fulfillment.  Hence, divorce when it ceases to be quite so emotionally fulfilling.

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  9. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    Sisyphus:

    A mature couple I know were suddenly confronted with this situation when the wife was suddenly subject to a radical intermittent personality change that left her with no cognizance of her marital status and made her quite abusive and promiscuous. . . . Rather than flush the mother of his children and move on, the husband worked with mental health professionals and, after a really bad year, she . . . was entirely herself again.

    The greatest man I’ve ever known is a man whose wife developed schizophrenia after the birth of their two children, in her twenties.  Unlike most schizophrenia, hers is completely unresponsive to any medication. (He is a physician, and so I know he watches the literature for any new hope, but after thirty years of this, no one thinks anything is likely to have an effect on her condition.) She has been continuously hospitalized for probably 20 years. He visits regularly and monitors her care, and takes her out for limited visits and to see doctors. He has been a faithful husband, and for them the only happy ending will be, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” He is a model of Christlike love, as all marriages should be. 

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  10. C. U. Douglas Thatcher
    C. U. Douglas
    @CUDouglas

    Thank you for this. You have great insight.

    Personally, I can’t see leaving my wife for illness. I swore before God, our family, and friends that I would stand by her no matter what. If she has struggles, then I can thank God that he found someone to stand by her side and even carry her through her struggles.

    • #10
  11. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Extreme cases can require saint-like endurance. We are all called to be saints, but no one is expected to be.

    An ideal is not a standard of judgement. It is a hope and a guiding light; useful even when not perfectly achieved.

    • #11
  12. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    Frank Soto:

    Albert Arthur:

    I find the suggestion to divorce a mentally ill spouse to be offensive. Would the commenter give the same advice for a spouse who has had a stroke and been rendered paralyzed? You should divorce your wife or husband because they can no longer take care of themselves? This is outrageous.

    It’s outrageous to us because we have an entirely different view of what marriage is. To most Americans it is seen as an avenue to emotional fulfillment. Hence, divorce when it ceases to be quite so emotionally fulfilling.

     You are right! My wife and I made traditional vows at our wedding, but I remember reading some truly bizarre vows at various web sites like theknot.com. One, and I don’t recall the source, basically went something like, “I vow to remain married to you so long as our love shall last.” Um, gee, thanks. Not quite the same as “till death do us part.”

    • #12
  13. user_48342 Member
    user_48342
    @JosephEagar

    I was brought up that divorcing a sick spouse is one of the more serious male sins.  That said, I’m aware that older men in this situation struggle with sexual abandonment, and that’s something they should discuss with their wives.  I’m a firm believer that whatever arrangement a couple in that situation comes up with (which may or may not include an “open marriage” type situation), is their own private affair, but they do need to have that conversation.

    • #13
  14. user_519584 Inactive
    user_519584
    @JWS

    I have a different perspective than many of you regarding the divorce of a mentally ill spouse. I was married to a mentally ill person for over 17 years (the illness became far worse as time wore on but was also worsened by alcohol abuse, promiscuity, and some personal family tragedies). I tried to work with her to help combat her illness, in spite of losing both my parents during protracted terminal illnesses and having our adopted son be incarcerated for a major felony.

    During the last 5 years of our marriage, I would come home from work to a  drunken wife who was either combative/argumentative or grief stricken over what had happened to our son. I tried to work with her, help her with the meds, went to her medical appts, etc. but she insisted that I “just don’t understand her pain”. Needless to say, her meds weren’t working due to the alcohol, but she refused to stop. 

    • #14
  15. user_519584 Inactive
    user_519584
    @JWS

    It was when I started to hope that she’d be dead by the time I got home from work, that I realized that we could not longer be married.

    Although the divorce was difficult, it was needed.

    The good news….we are now very good friends. I take care of almost all of her financial needs…and she has stopped drinking (for the most part). She moved back near her father and brother and has a reason to live now (helping take care of her aging father). She also visits our son in prison weekly.

    So if this rare case, divorce saved both our lives.

    Just thought I would add some perspective here….it’s not always a simple decision.

    • #15
  16. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    JWS:

    It was when I started to hope that she’d be dead by the time I got home from work, that I realized that we could not longer be married.

    Although the divorce was difficult, it was needed.

    The good news….we are now very good friends. I take care of almost all of her financial needs…and she has stopped drinking (for the most part). She moved back near her father and brother and has a reason to live now (helping take care of her aging father). She also visits our son in prison weekly.

    So if this rare case, divorce saved both our lives.

    Just thought I would add some perspective here….it’s not always a simple decision.

     I would just like to observe that you seem to have in some ways fulfilled your marriage vows to her regardless of the legal end of your marriage–continuing to love and support her while not allowing yourself to be a victim and not enabling her behavior.  

    • #16
  17. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister
    @DCMcAllister

    JWS—I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. I did made caveats about abuse, and it sounds like your situation was definitely abusive, and that she wasn’t dealing with her mental health issues. You also mentioned promiscuity, so it sounds like she broke the marriage covenant, not you.

    You should be commended for the kindness you have continued to show her.

    • #17
  18. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Stop writing! I’m running out of tissues.

    But seriously, a contract protects each party should the other fail to meet the obligations. A covenant places all the obligations on the non-failing party during times when the other cannot or will not fulfill them. I liken it to being in a boat, no life preservers, no way to swim ashore. Just because one of the people stops rowing doesn’t mean the other person gets to quit. It means he or she must row for two. From man’s perspective this is unfair and even impossible in extreme situations. From God’s view, however, it is not only possible, it is an absolute requirement.

    • #18
  19. user_519584 Inactive
    user_519584
    @JWS

    DC…. I understood what you had written, but some of the comments were far more rigid regarding divorce. Just thought I leave some food for thought (not everything in life is always black and white).

    Actually, it’s all good now! Remarried to a woman I dated in grad school (went to high school with her and we reconnected after 25 years). Fortunately she is very understanding and tolerant of my relationship with my ex-wife (although for obvious reasons, she prefers to remain mostly detached from the mess of my previous life).

    • #19
  20. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    And another thing. We men are commanded to love our wives as Christ loves the church. That is a sacrificial love. If it costs us nothing then we’re doing it wrong. Love endures all things.

    • #20
  21. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister
    @DCMcAllister

    KP (here’s a virtual tissue :)   I am a bit disturbed by the findings of that study about men not taking care of their ill wives. I don’t know what that’s all about, but I hope we can raise sons to love sacrificially. Our world needs strong men like that. (and strong women :)

    • #21
  22. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister
    @DCMcAllister

    JWS–I hope I didn’t come across defensive in my comment (I read it back and it does come across that way)–also, by the way, my comment was accidentally deleted and I had to rewrite it so that’s why it looks a little different. My comment went into gateway error and it got messed up–so sorry about that.

    The reason I wanted to make those points was I didn’t want to heap guilt on you. You aren’t what I was describing in my post. Not by a long shot. I’m glad you moved on to find happiness, and maybe the commenter I cited in my post went through something like you did–hence my caveats. But I don’t know. I do know people who give up too easily on those who are broken and ill, and I know how difficult it is to care for a mentally ill person. There are degrees to mental illness though, and sometimes people need to be institutionalized or they’re abusive in their illness. These are all factors to consider.

    • #22
  23. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    JWS: Just thought I would add some perspective here….it’s not always a simple decision.

     I appreciated your perspective, and I think maybe that your experience is not entirely incompatible with my negative reaction to the comment mentioned by Denise… It seemed to me that the commenter was suggesting divorce should be a first resort. Also, I know that caring for a mentally ill family member is different than caring for someone who has some other incapacitation, such as paralysis from a stroke. 

    • #23
  24. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    D.C. McAllister:

    KP (here’s a virtual tissue :) I am a bit disturbed by the findings of that study about men not taking care of their ill wives. I don’t know what that’s all about, but I hope we can raise sons to love sacrificially. Our world needs strong men like that. (and strong women :)

     I have never known a man who abandoned a wife in her illness. In fact, and undoubtedly this is just sampling error, most of the people I know who have nursed sick and dying spouses have been men.  I suppose this study is really a good one and you are interpreting its results correctly?

    • #24
  25. D.C. McAllister Inactive
    D.C. McAllister
    @DCMcAllister

    Lucy—the study amount of 3000 over 18 years is a sound scientific study compared to medical studies I’m familiar with. It shows a trend at least but admittedly no reasons for the deviations.

    • #25
  26. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    I don’t know where I heard this story, but here goes . . .

    A husband visited his wife at a nursing home almost every day.  Even though she had severe senile dementia, he would take her for long walks, talk to her about how the the children and grandchildren were doing, and about what he was currently working on.

    One day, a staffer at the nursing home asked “Why do you pay so much attention to your wife?  She doesn’t even know who you are.”

    The husband replied “That may be true, but I know who she is.”

    That sums it up for me.

    • #26
  27. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    I’m going to offer a contentious point of view on this subject; am using one example that isn’t about marriage but about parental responsibility. I believe there is a crossover lesson to be learned here.

    I have a close friend with a severely autistic child and after 18 years of staggeringly expensive and extensive therapy from every specialist in the U.S. has not been able to help her son. In the meantime, she has two other children, a terrific husband and two sets of wonderful and supportive grandparents. She had options to institutionalize this child and even as a non-parent, I can empathize with her abhorrence to do so. But I do challenge that she has sacrificed the quality of life of her other offspring, put enormous strain upon her marriage and her husband’s ability to work longer hours and earn a living not to mention the emotional and financial pressure placed upon the grandparents. There have been physical assaults on family members and guests, so she has also compromised her friendships as well. We talk often and visit each other regularly, but I refuse to visit her home.

    As a resident in a community that attracts a fair share of the Greatest Generation and as an individual who enjoys a close relationship with my octogenarian parents, I have seen a number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s. All agree within my parents’ specific circle of friends that divorce is acceptable in advanced situations as long as financial and first class medical support is sustained.

    A longtime family friend (a vibrant, 80 year-old ‘bon vivant’) recently made this decision. He has maintained full fiscal responsibilities for his ex-wife but has re-married. No one disapproves. We are happy for his happiness. Life must go on.

    • #27
  28. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    D.C. McAllister:

    Lucy—the study amount of 3000 over 18 years is a sound scientific study compared to medical studies I’m familiar with. It shows a trend at least but admittedly no reasons for the deviations.

     I found the paper here, and hope that someone with more sophistication about statistics can analyze it better than I can. It’s pretty complicated, because it’s a regression analysis that involves looking at their sample multiple times to make sure that they are looking at onset of illness before onset of divorce. 

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  29. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    EThompson:
    . . .

    A longtime family friend (a vibrant, 80 year-old ‘bon vivant’) recently made this decision. He has maintained full fiscal responsibilities for his ex-wife but has re-married. No one disapproves. We are happy for his happiness. Life must go on.

    No one disapproves, but I wonder if somewhere, deep inside, some of the people around him are not a bit more discouraged, a bit more cynical, about what love and marriage really mean.  In the end, though, I think this is the logical response if one believes that this life is all there is–you had better maximize it. If you see this life as fitting into a larger, eternal framework, then this may be a less logical reaction.

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  30. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Lucy Pevensie:

    EThompson:. . .

    A longtime family friend (a vibrant, 80 year-old ‘bon vivant’) recently made this decision. He has maintained full fiscal responsibilities for his ex-wife but has re-married. No one disapproves. We are happy for his happiness. Life must go on.

    No one disapproves, but I wonder if somewhere, deep inside, some of the people around him are not a bit more discouraged, a bit more cynical, about what love and marriage really mean. In the end, though, I think this is the logical response if one believes that this life is all there is–you had better maximize it. If you see this life as fitting into a larger, eternal framework, then this may be a less logical reaction.

    Interesting comment Lucy; I can tell you that my folks (as an example) think marriage is critical to human happiness and well-being when two people are able to engage in it fully. They do not endorse abdicating one’s responsibilities to provide care and medical support but are, perhaps because of their age, sensitive to the debilitating effects loneliness can have upon the elderly.
    Again, I was discussing an extremely advanced stage of a terrible disease in which the unfortunate spouse had no cognizance of friends, family, or even her surroundings.

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