Helping Can Hurt When You Fail to Communicate With Each Other

husband reading to wife
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Jeff and Karen married 25 years ago and are now both in their mid-50s. Their kids are grown and out of the house when Karen learned she had stage 3 breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy.

Jeff wanted to show how much he loved and cared for Karen. So when she started chemotherapy, he told her not to worry about doing anything around the house, that he would do the cooking, cleaning and shopping. He wanted to do everything he could for her, and to do so with the right attitude, always being upbeat and positive.

When Jeff had been doing these things for about three weeks, he noticed that Karen, while being appreciative, didn’t seem to be impressed by all he that he was doing. She seemed more and more introspective and withdrawn during those three weeks. He wasn’t sure what was going on with her, thinking maybe it was just the chemotherapy treatments getting her down, both physically and emotionally. Though she seemed not to be having any real side effects associated with her treatment, Jeff was left wondering what he'd done wrong.

Ask the questions

Jeff hadn’t asked Karen how she felt about his decision to take over her “duties,” or if there was anything else she might want or need. He thought that what he was doing was the best thing he could do for her. So, he asked her if she would tell him what was on her mind — and about the distance he was feeling in their relationship.

What Karen said blew Jeff away. She told him that aside from being tired, physically she was doing OK. But there were actually a few things she had wanted to tell him. She didn't want to seem ungrateful, but she wished he would have just asked her what she needed — or might have wanted — in the beginning, instead of just telling her what he was going to do for her. She felt well enough to do most, if not all, of the things that he was now doing “for her.”

Karen told him that her sense of identity in their marriage was wrapped up in taking care of the home and the family, and that she enjoyed being able to do those things. After all, that was what she had been doing for the last 25 years, and it gave her a real sense of value and purpose. She felt like she was being stripped of that identity when Jeff started doing “her things.” Now, because she had so much empty time, her mind went back more often to her diagnosis and her fears about all the things that might happen to her.

Jeff had never thought of it in that way. Knowing how Karen felt, they agreed that she would return to her normal activities. If she needed any help, she would ask him. She also told him that because of how great his attitude had been while doing all that he had been doing, it would be easy for her to ask for any help that she needed.

Listen to the needs

Karen also hoped that she and Jeff could do a daily devotional or Bible study together because of the uncertainty of her prognosis. She wanted to keep the Lord at the center of their lives and wanted Jeff to work with her toward having the same peace they had felt in the Lord before the cancer diagnosis.

Finally, when they talked about their fears, Jeff said he thought that Karen’s greatest fear would be the thought of dying. She surprised him by telling him the one thing that she feared most was becoming a burden to him and the rest of the family. As she watched him do all the daily responsibilities around the house that used to be hers, that fear became even more real.

As a result of their conversation, Karen was able to express her thoughts, wants and needs, which allowed Jeff to be able to support her in a way that she truly desired.

Weeks later, Jeff noticed that Karen seemed to have a real peace for the first time since the cancer diagnosis. They also seemed closer emotionally — and more connected than they had been in 20 years.

Dealing with a major illness or other crisis puts significant stress on even the healthiest marriages. The tension can cause couples to drift apart; some even separate or divorce. In most of those cases, the couple hadn’t been able to adequately communicate their feelings or needs, or were miscommunicating those thoughts and emotions. Use the "Shared Journeys Communication Guide" to help start a conversation with your spouse.

Pastor Ken Wolter has more than eight years experience as a hospital and outpatient oncology and palliative care chaplain. He is the founder of Esperas4Cancer.


If you or someone you know needs marital help, Focus on the Family has resources and counseling to assist. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) or


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