Chronic Illness and Marriage

Chronic illness and marriage is such a complicated combination that it’s rare to see a healthy spouse’s perspective on their partner’s chronic illness. I read Living With a Husband’s Chronic Illness Has a Bad Effect on His Wife’s Health eager for insight. I didn’t like the insight I got.

I genuinely wanted to read what this woman had to say, to see her difficult experiences and uncomfortable thoughts laid bare. My immediate response? To get defensive and write a long post about it. The gist: “How unfair that she’s taking her husband’s illness out on him. Does she realize he may be watching too much TV because he can’t do anything else? And, yes, that includes folding the laundry while watching.”

Instead of posting my inflamed response, I re-read the article many times over the week. , the author, knows she’s being unfair, but she’s exhausted and burnt out. She knows her husband isn’t to blame, but she doesn’t know where else to direct her anger and resentment. (She may not know that it’s possible to be too sick to fold laundry. I expect not many people can understand that unless they’ve lived it.)

Writing this article took tremendous bravery. Lewis admitted ugly truths about herself and her thoughts and published it anyway. She wrote honestly about a topic so painful and verboten that few people are candid about it (especially in print).

Of course I don’t like what she had to say. I have a chronic illness that’s had a tremendous impact on my husband. I’ve heard the saddest stories about how chronic illness destroys relationships. There’s an oft-cited statistic that the lifetime divorce rate is 75% for people with chronic illness (the overall lifetime divorce rate is highly debated, but 42% seems to be a reasonable estimate.). There’s some question over whether this number is accurate, though experts agree that the divorce rate for the chronically ill is very high.

I’m working on an article for about managing migraine’s impact on a marriage. One of the suggestions is to talk about migraine’s affect on the relationship. I say, “The truth will probably hurt both of you. Talk about it anyway.” And then I read this article from a healthy caregiver and was hurt by truths from someone else’s relationship. This is emotionally fraught stuff.

I applaud for her courage and honesty. The difficulties of caring for a chronically ill spouse need to be acknowledged, even though many of those who are sick won’t like what we read.

Here are some resources for learning how to support a marriage in the face of chronic illness (I’ll add my piece when it’s published):

Feb. 17, 2015: 8 Tips to Manage Migraine’s Impact on Marriage is that post I mentioned I was working on. It is migraine-focused, but the ideas apply to most, if not all, illnesses.

11 Responses to Chronic Illness and Marriage

  1. Deborah says:

    I read the same article and as a caregiver I know what she is talking about. It is very hard to learn to make your new reality work in your relationship. It is so hard to watch someone you love suffer but at the same time it is very difficult to feel that everything is your responsibility. It takes commitment, compassion and determination to make any marriage work and throw in a chronic illness and it can get even more complicated but it is not impossible. In spite of my husband’s chronic illness we have a wonderful marriage for which I am truly grateful!

  2. Katie Burke says:

    “The truth will probably hurt both of you. Talk about it anyway.” Beautiful.

  3. Kelly says:

    Kerrie, I really appreciate your post in bringing this issue of chronic illness and marriage to light and look forward to reading what you share on It is SO important to talk about. Thank you for your honesty about your reaction to the post. I am glad you shared it and as my husband I both have chronic illnesses and have to be caregivers to each other. Based on your statistics, our marriage probably shouldn’t survive…but it will! 🙂 I own the book you referenced though I haven’t read much yet. I’m glad you provided the resources!

    In late 2012, seven years into my disabling chronic illnesses, I found my husband unconscious & seizing. He was rushed to the ER, on a ventilator (unable to breathe on his own), in a coma and his kidneys eventually started failing. Thankfully, he survived after it being touch and go, but when he awoke, we found out it was a suicide attempt. He had severe undiagnosed depression. What we know now is he had not been equipped with the tools to handle emotions since childhood even though he has had Crohn’s disease since he was little, and seven years of coping with mine was too much and he had a psychotic break despite the fact that we were doing what I felt as everything “right” including talking truth/going to individual & joint therapy. My chronic illnesses most certainly had a bad effect on my husband’s health and it was a horrid- cold water in the face realization.

    Your post inspired me to share a post about my situation with my husband which I’m in the process of writing. I really appreciate what you wrote because it got me thinking about my own situation in life and evaluate what if anything we could have done differently.
    Thanks again for sharing. Your honesty is refreshing.

    • Kelly, wow, your husband and your marriage have been through so much. Thank you for sharing your story so openly and honestly. I think it’s important for people to see that chronic illness can be detrimental to relationships even when people are doing things “right.” I don’t mean that as a discouragement, but that we all stumble and we all fail, but it’s possible to pick up ourselves and our partners and make our relationships strong again. I’m looking forward to reading your post.


  4. Alexandra says:

    It’s also the system. I still love my husband but because of my income we can’t get any help. I can just barely afford to keep a roof over our heads and things like internet, tv and going out once a week. But I have fibromyaligia and chronic fatigue syndrome and am barely managing my full time job. But because I’m married to him I’m also supposed to do the cleaning, cooking and shopping. That means right now we’re living on microwave meals and we’re having eviction threats against us because I can’t keep up with the household. We need household assistance but I can’t pay for it and due to my income we can’t get assistance. It would be easier if he lived by himself or in an adult foster home so I wouldn’t have to also do his part of the household but I can’t afford that either. So I’m finding myself having to consider divorce not because I don’t love him anymore but because -my health is worsening every day because of this-. I wrote my own vows and said i’d stay with him as long as it wasn’t harming me, (after a previous abusive marriage I felt that was a good thing to put in vows) and now the marriage is harming me, even if not through actions of his. If the system had support for spouses of disabled/chronically ill people even if their income was a little over the federal poverty line (I’m in the US, sorry if this is not a US blog) then it would be soo much more possible to stay together. But without help the caregiving job is absolutely exhausting and even respite care costs money. Without support, people will not be able to hang in there and do it daily for years on end. I wish all those politicians who always talk about the importance of marriage put their money where their mouth is and made it possible for caregiving spouses to get some help 🙁

  5. jules says:

    I can so identify with this situation! I have been married to my husband for 37 years.Two years into our marriage he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and is insulin dependant ( 4 needles daily ).Combined with having only one kidney and a long history of self neglect and a refusal to admit that he has this condition has made our life together very challenging! We have raised 3 wonderful children which makes us very proud but looking back the strain of worrying about my partner has definitely take its toll.I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia 5 years ago so l seem to have run out of energy to cope with this situation and as his health is deteriorating things are becoming quite difficult.Quite frankly l am afraid of what the future holds.Thank goodness for forums like this where carers can vent in confidence and feel they are not alone.Thank you.

  6. Kristina Jensen says:

    Hi, I am 41 years old and was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis when I was 17 years old. Since then I have had multiple surgeries and joint replacements but have continued to work full time, work in our two businesses, take care of my daughter and 80% of the household duties. My husband is an amazing man and I was 19 years old when we got married; this year we are having our 26th anniversary. I haven’t read the above referenced article yet (I’m going to after I finish writing this post/question) but I know whole heartedly that my chronic illness has taken a toll on both my husband and my marriage. Before we married, my mother in law had a very in depth conversation with him regarding my illness and asked him to consider the possible effects of my chronic illness on himself and the marriage because I was going to get worse and not better in the future. She felt it wasn’t going to be fair to me if he decided later he couldn’t “handle” it but also wanted him to think about the possible negative effects it may have on himself. Being a young man he said he understood and it was completely ok with him, nothing would change. Flash forward 25 years, I see on a daily basis how my chronic illness has impacted him and the fear, anger, guilt, and resentment towards me that has built up over the years. I have always tried to be independent, almost to a fault, and have tried to live my life as if I wasn’t sick, also to a fault and in somewhat of denial in order to manage my own emotions about the situation and to try to be a “good” wife. After the birth of our daughter things really changed. The pregnancy negatively impacted my body in ways I never thought it would and I have never been able to fully recover. Plus the emotional and physical toll of being the primary caregiver to her while my husband traveled on business trips added more strain to our marriage and my personal stress levels. I know I have not been an easy “patient” in the sense of not always taking care of myself thru proper exercise, diet, etc. and my multiple work/personal duties has impacted my ability or choices to take care of myself in the past. After I had an emotional/nervous breakdown last year a lot of this changed for me and I am currently taking better care of myself, but I am still a work in progress. So.. Here is my question for anyone who has advice for me, (caregivers and/or chronically ill spouses), I would greatly appreciate it. My chronic illness and the way I managed it for so many years has negatively impacted my marriage and relationship with my husband to the point that our emotional connection is very low and our intimacy level is currently at zero for the last 5 years. There are other factors that have contributed to this decline but my health is probably the biggest factor. I have so many feelings of guilt and shame for being sick, not being able to take care of myself in a way he has wanted, the hurt I have caused and esp the anger or resentment I have created. When I look into his eyes and listen to him talk I hear/see the fear, anger, and resentment he has towards me for not being able to physically do activities with our family unit and what the future may hold. Since I have been taking care of myself better and becoming emotionally/physically well and whole, I have started to see the anger shift towards “why didn’t you do this sooner”. Divorce was never an option for me when I got married but approx 1 year ago I started having the conversation with him about possible separation/divorce if we’re unable to correct things and become happier people as a couple and as individuals. What would you do if you knew that your chronic illness was hurting the one you love and holding them back in life from having the life experiences they wanted to have? I know he wants to have these life experiences with me but I am also worried that he continues to stay married out of guilt or expectations to stay, esp since he knew I was really sick before he married me. Would you continue to stay married to a wonderful man and father knowing he is unhappy and hurting or would you let him go and divorce in order to allow him to have the chance for happiness in his life with another person that can give him the things that I possibly can’t? In the same respect, if you were me, would it be better for me to be single and possibly have a future relationship with someone who isn’t resentful towards me for being chronically ill or do you feel that is something that will not be possible for me, esp since that future person may end up being a caregiver also and become as equally angry or resentful. I am worried about the example as a mother, woman and wife that I am modeling for my daughter. I don’t want her to grow up thinking that it’s ok or normal for a marriage to appear “loveless” on the outside and with so much tension, sadness or anger. She has already begun to ask me questions about “why daddy doesn’t love me… Go do anything with me… Why doesn’t he talk to me.. And why is he always mad at me”. Plus, I want both my husband and I to both be happy and to to feel loved. We are both good people and I don’t want to rob him of his time in life when he could be happier with someone else. I hope my question makes sense, it’s hard to write in words how I am feeling or the complicated situation I feel like I am in. I am grateful for any words of wisdom, no matter how harsh or gently they are given. Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Kristina, I think the answers to your questions largely depend on the people who are involved. I would recommend working with a therapist (ideally you and your husband individually and with a couples’ therapist) to process your grief. I’ve heard from many couples that describe similar situations who were able to find a happy new normal in their relationships after working through the grief. It’s possible for both partners to be satisfied with the relationship and their lives even with the presence of chronic illness, but it takes effort. Finding a therapist that I connect with and who has experience with chronic illness has changed my life in so many positive ways. I can’t recommend finding someone highly enough. And if you don’t click with the first person (or first several people), keep looking. It is so worth it in the end.

      Best wishes,

  7. Mark says:

    I like reading articles like this because it makes me feel like i’m not alone in my struggles.

    My wife has a chronic illness. We have been married for almost 20 years now and She can barely function some days. Which leaves me feeling like a single parent. It can be extremely hard. What frustrates me the most is I don’t feel like i’m allowed to feel anger or frustration over the situation. It makes me feel guilty and I know it makes her feel awful too. I know it’s not her fault and I love her more than anything, but any show of anger or frustration just sends her into an even bigger depressions. She often wants me to leave her because she feels I would be happier with someone else. I really wouldn’t be happier with someone else. I may be happier with a healthy wife but she is so awesome that i would rather be with her than anyone else. I have no plans on leaving. It really frustrates me when she says that I should leave her and it almost feels like she is trying to push me to leave her at times. I feel like she isn’t as committed to me as I am to her.

    I like what Katie Burk commented…
    ““The truth will probably hurt both of you. Talk about it anyway.” Beautiful.

    Thanks for letting me vent a bit

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