Julia* watched her husband, Robert, retreat into the house for the umpteenth time and felt her frustration rise. She couldn’t understand why he was unwilling to help with the yardwork. She followed him into the house.
“Can you please help me finish moving the rock pile?” She stopped. Once again she’d forgotten. Her strong, healthy, able-bodied husband of 36 years was now experiencing intense back pain. Robert was simply unable to function like his normally active, strong and outdoorsy self.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated one out of five of U.S. adults suffers from chronic pain, with age increasing the likelihood. Usually pain occurs when the body has been injured, but it should go away once the body heals. Yet for some, the pain doesn’t leave, even after healing, and it may persist for months or even years, leading to what physicians diagnose as chronic pain.
If your spouse is struggling with chronic pain, try these tips for navigating this new way of life together.
Recognize pain is more than just physical
When Ardith began experiencing daily, often debilitating, headaches nearly seven years into her marriage, she hoped prayer and medicine would alleviate them. But when the headaches continued for months and then years, making her unable to do even the simplest of household chores or, at times, to care for her young son, she fell into a devastating cycle. Her chronic pain caused depression, and the depression caused more chronic pain.
She recalls, “I felt terrible watching my husband, Andy, take up the slack for me or have to constantly cancel plans he and I had made because I just couldn’t handle the pain.”
Caregivers need to remember that a spouse who suffers with chronic pain is dealing not only with the physical aspects but also with the emotional, psychological and even spiritual components of this journey. Know that your spouse’s inability to do what he or she once took for granted affects his or her sense of self-worth, too.
“Chronic pain can change a person’s outlook and ability to see positive outcomes—especially because nobody knows how this elusive pain got started or how it’s going to eventually turn out,” says Dr. Lydia Floren, who practices family medicine with the Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
“Many [chronic pain sufferers] struggle with the ‘why me?’ questions or blaming God when relief doesn’t come or giving in to the negative side of the pain and becoming hard and critical,” Dr. Floren says. She strongly recommends that couples seek help from a professional Christian counselor who specializes in dealing with chronic illness and pain to work through the associated emotional issues.
Talk honestly and openly
Oftentimes, hurting spouses are reluctant to admit they’re in pain. So it’s important to encourage the hurting spouse to talk honestly and openly about what he or she is going through. Living with chronic pain gives couples the opportunity to face the challenge together, improving their communication and even strengthening their bond.
In many cases, because the cause of the pain isn’t known, the treatment is focused not on curing the root issue but on managing the pain—finding ways to allow the hurting spouse to function better in his or her daily routine. But the many side effects of pain—being unable to handle ordinary tasks or experiencing depression, anxiety and loss of energy—take their toll, too.
For Ardith and Andy, who’ve now been married 41 years, communicating includes asking multiple times each day, “How are you feeling?” That became an especially important question when, a little more than a year ago, Andy began suffering with his own chronic pain, making it extremely unpleasant to walk. He had been the main housekeeper and grocery shopper, and he had to admit he couldn’t do it any longer. “We had to be honest with each other about what we both needed,” Andy says. So they talked about how they could continue to serve and care for each other.
It’s important not to suffer in silence. If you aren’t used to being completely candid with each other, now is the time to work on it. This is also a great opportunity to begin praying with each other if you haven’t
before. Andy and Ardith both say prayer is what helps them communicate better.
“Robert used to be a hobby waiting to happen. Now he watches television,” Julia says. “I never imagined us sitting on the couch in the evenings.” This once athletic, constantly active couple now live a more sedentary lifestyle.
At first, her husband’s debilitating pain was a shock, and she thought it would end quickly. Now she realizes that chronic pain is a long-term struggle, and the limits it puts on a marriage take a lot of adjustment. She says, “It’s about offering grace and knowing I need to be more sensitive.”
Julia recognizes this isn’t what her husband would choose for himself or their marriage, so she’s learned to be kinder. She says, “If anything, this whole experience has exposed my character flaws and how God still has a lot of work to do in me!”
For a time, when Andy’s pain was at its worst, Ardith offered grace by fixing his meals and serving them to him in their bedroom. “It’s a give and take,” she admits.
The couple also understands that chronic pain controls their abilities. Ardith’s headaches limit their social life, so Andy often attends events or church by himself.
But he refuses to blame Ardith or feel sorry for himself. Andy says, “She’s sacrificing, too, by staying home and being alone instead of being involved.”
If you’re a caregiver, remember that you’re on the same side as your hurting spouse, so determine to battle chronic pain together. That means practicing grace, kindness and patience.
Be careful about complaining, even in jest
Julia still feels guilty about complaining that her husband wasn’t doing his “fair share” that day in their yard. “I’ve learned a lot since then,” she says. “How can I complain when I don’t know what it’s like to hurt all the time?”
Let’s be honest: It’s difficult to hold your tongue when faced with an overwhelming and unwanted life change. Though complaining may make you feel better in the moment, it won’t change your circumstance and may actually do more harm than good.
However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t communicate. Rather, communicate in life-affirming and marriage-honoring ways instead of just spouting off frustrations. Complaining does nothing but cause anger and add guilt to a spouse who is already overloaded with physical and emotional struggles.
Focus on places you can compromise and enjoy the sweet moments you can have together. For instance, Robert and Julia now look for television shows they can watch together. She admits, “I’m learning to appreciate shows that make my husband laugh.”
It’s OK to concede this isn’t what you signed up for, says Dr. Floren. It’s a grieving process, so it’s good “to acknowledge this is the ‘for worse’ part of your marriage vows. Your feelings are legitimate, but don’t let them stay there.”
Instead, she recommends finding things you can be thankful for. “There’s great power in thanksgiving,” she says. Remember that God is still in control, and even in this, He has a plan for you and for your marriage (Romans 8:28). Then celebrate small moments and commit to expressing love for each other. After all, no one wants chronic pain to enter a marriage, but if it does, you and your spouse can remain a healthy and loving couple. •
*Some names have been changed.
How Do We Handle the Medical Part?
Along with chronic pain comes an intimate relationship with the medical field—multiple doctors’ appointments, tests, prescriptions, more tests and setbacks. It can feel paralyzing and mind-boggling. Here’s how a caregiver can help:
1. Attend appointments together.
As much as you can, accompany your spouse to medical appointments so you can both ask questions and make observations. If going together isn’t possible, write down your questions or observations to send with your spouse.
2. Help your spouse monitor prescriptions.
If your spouse is prescribed opioids, consult his or her physician to see what other drug options are available. With all medications, monitor how your spouse reacts and keep his or her physician informed about your concerns.
3. Research ways to supplement your medical care.
Other options for pain management include physical and massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic care, relaxation techniques and nutrition.