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Keep Your Marriage Strong During a Crisis of Illness

Happy parents receiving good news from a doctor about their daughter who’s lying next to them in a hospital bed
Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock
Health scares can test the strongest of marriages. So, when someone — or everyone — in the family becomes sick, what are the best ways to manage the marriage relationship and remain a strong team?

“I don’t feel good about leaving Garrison,” my wife, Erin, said. She sounded worried.

Garrison, our 16-year-old son, was feverish. The side of his neck was a little swollen. He was in pain. But Erin and I were about to fly out of town to speak at a marriage seminar. Folks were counting on us. We couldn’t just drop the trip.

“You’re being paranoid,” I said. “It’s just the flu. He’ll be fine. Besides, he’s staying with Taylor.” (Our daughter Taylor is a pediatric nurse.)

I was certain Erin was worried over nothing. We went to the conference as planned, leaving Garrison in the capable hands of our daughter. But during the conference, Erin had a hard time focusing.

On our way home, we landed in Denver and arrived at Taylor’s house. When we saw Garrison, we were shocked. His neck looked as if it had a golf ball buried underneath the skin. He couldn’t move his neck, and he was in serious pain.

“We need to get him to the ER,” Erin said. “Quick.”

I could see Garrison needed medical help, but I argued that it’d be better to drive back to Colorado Springs, about 60 miles south of Denver, and take him to a hospital there. We’d be closer to home, our kids and our support network. It just made sense.

But Erin didn’t back down. She wanted him to go to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver, one of the best hospitals for kids in the country.

I’m so glad I listened to my wife’s instincts.

It turned out that Garrison had a massive abscess that required surgery. We spent the next four days at the pediatric hospital — the first of two different hospital stays that Garrison required.

It was the beginning of a tough stretch for the Smalley family. In addition to Garrison (whose illness was eventually diagnosed as mononucleosis), Erin and our 20-year old daughter, Murphy, came down with pneumonia. I got the flu.

Most couples pledged to be with each other “through sickness and in health” when they said their marriage vows. It can be a tough pledge to keep: Health scares can test the strongest of marriages. So, when someone in the family becomes sick, what are the best ways to manage the marriage relationship and remain a strong team?

Erin and I concentrate on eight important strategies:

Embrace the differences

Erin tends to become concerned quickly. I don’t worry until it’s painfully obvious we have something to worry about. When Erin and I disagree on how to handle a health concern, as happened with Garrison, we’ve learned that we need to have room to express what we feel and allow each other space to be who we are in our marriage.

Make caring the goal

I want Erin to see me as someone who really cares — not just as a problem solver. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to connect with Erin’s heart. As we drove Garrison to the emergency room, still not knowing what was causing the swelling, I asked her to talk about her fear. “How are you doing?” I asked. “What are you feeling?” A better understanding of Erin’s emotions was important. I couldn’t solve anything for her — but I could listen.

Accept your spouse’s influence

When dealing with health problems, I could argue with Erin, insisting that I know what’s best — or I could choose to accept her influence. Before we took Garrison to the ER, I minimized Erin’s hunch that something was seriously wrong. I’m so glad I did eventually listen, and not just because she turned out to be right. Sometimes in a marriage, the decision is less important than how we arrive at that decision. Accepting Erin’s influence makes her feel safe with me and strengthens our unity — the very unity that Satan so often wants to destroy.

Talk to doctors together

Erin and I both met with Garrison’s physicians and medical staff. Not only did that help us form a united front, but it also allowed us to have the same level of information, which was important for making informed decisions together.

Support each other

As Erin and I face health crises and other challenges, we sometimes have unique support needs — the stuff that helps settle us. Erin might want me to grab a snack from her favorite restaurant or to make her a cup of coffee. Or it might be something much more significant.

One night during Garrison’s stay at the hospital, Erin knew that Murphy, our pneumonia-stricken daughter, wanted to come home from college to recuperate. Erin asked me if I’d pick her up. The problem: Murphy was two hours away, meaning a four-hour round trip. But I gladly made the drive, both to help Murphy and to give Erin a little piece of mind.

Meeting our spouse’s support needs allows us amazing opportunities to live out our calling to sacrifice — to give up something we value and own (our time, comfort, money) and to give it to someone we consider more valuable.

Take care of yourself

Sometimes we give without allowing time for rejuvenation. After the first night, Erin and I decided that only one of us needed to sleep in Garrison’s room. We switched off: One would stay at the hospital while the other went home to recharge. It’s the same basic principle as putting on your oxygen mask before helping someone else in an airplane emergency: You’re no good to anyone if you pass out.

Repair your mistakes

Even when you’re trying to take care of yourself, it’s easy to become exhausted. And — if you’re like me when you’re tired — you have the capacity to behave selfishly.

As you become annoyed, frustrated or angry with your spouse, realize that your fuse might be short. As you react to the people in your life, accept responsibility for your actions, apologize when necessary and seek to make it right. Remember what Jesus said, “First be reconciled to your brother” (Matthew 5:24).

Receive help

We love our independence. We pride ourselves on our ability to cope with problems. But God didn’t create us to be a bunch of lone rangers. He wants us to be a body of interconnected believers who assist one another when we need it.

Erin and I would have struggled to survive our health crises without the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our close friends and church small-group members brought us meals, ran to the store and pharmacy, cleaned our house, picked up Annie (our 10-year-old daughter) from school and even stayed with her so we could be with Garrison.

I love how Erin and I supported each other and kept our team strong through these health crises. You can do the same in your marriage. It reminds me of 1 Peter 5:10, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

If your marriage is in trouble, our Hope Restored marriage intensives can help put you on the path to hope and healing — call Focus on the Family at 866-875-2915 or visit

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