The Forgotten Spouse
The Bible describes a married couple as becoming “one flesh” (see Genesis 2:24). And the union that marriage brings is felt keenly when one has to battle cancer. Although only one of the members of that union may be diagnosed with the dis-ease, both are profoundly affected by it. In fact, many cancer patients say that the cancer battle is actually more difficult for their well spouse. One patient said, “My wife has suffered more than I have. She is the one who has had to deal with the issues of life and the ramifications of my illness. I have been too busy fighting the disease to deal with anything else.”
Yet while the cancer battle rages, the needs of the well spouse are often overlooked. And those needs are great. When one spouse is diagnosed with cancer, the scales of responsibility tip heavily in the well spouse’s direction. The well spouse runs from home front to battlefront offering updates, providing moral support, and stocking both fronts with necessary supplies.
Comfortable and secure daily routines are upended for everyone in the family, particularly the well spouse. The wife who stayed home to care for her family may find herself struggling to adjust to her new role as sole provider. She may feel guilty over her inability to “be there” for her children. The husband whose wife has handled most of the household and family responsibilities suddenly finds his orderly and efficient home in chaos. He struggles to balance career, household duties, and family activities.
Even more unsettling are the sudden, dramatic changes that occur in the couple’s relationship. The primary caregiver in the family may become the care receiver. The breadwinner may be unable to work and may watch helplessly as the well spouse increases the workload in order to make ends meet. In addition to role changes, the well spouse must carry the additional load of routine tasks that the sick spouse can no longer manage. The relational stresses that these adjustments bring are significant—even when circumstances are ideal. Imagine going through them under cancer’s looming shadow!
So it’s not uncommon for a well spouse to feel utterly overwhelmed and totally alone. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to realize that your feelings of inadequacy are not due to weakness or lack of character—the reality is, your life has been turned upside down. Furthermore, much of what you face you face alone. Your spouse is often unable to provide adequate support and most people around you don’t realize the burden you carry.
But you are not alone. Many other husbands and wives walk the same lonely, difficult road. They, too, are weighted down by a similar burden. At the Outreach of Hope, we hear the anguish of your hearts:
We can’t talk about my fears. She has her own. And if we combined our fears, the emotional weight would bury us alive.
We never talk about the little things anymore. There are too many big things clamoring for our time and attention.
We haven’t held each other for so long. Our time is totally consumed with treatment schedules, trips to the pharmacy, insurance paperwork, and trying to juggle our dwindling resources.
I feel so selfish if I share my needs. They can’t begin to compare with her daily struggle of treatment, its side effects, and the emotional and spiritual weight of her cancer battle.
It’s confusing, frightening, and exhausting to be the well spouse. As the main support person for the family, the well spouse often “runs on empty”—meet-ing everyone’s needs but his or her own. They may deny their own pain or the severity of their condition in order to keep from adding more stress to an already stressful situation. But just as the deposit/withdrawal principle applies to a bank account, it applies to our emotional, physical, and spiritual health. When a well spouse neglects taking time for rest, reflection, or refreshment, the account will eventually be overdrawn, putting the well spouse at risk for illness or depression. While others focus their attention on the battlefront—on the cancer patient—the needs of the well spouse remain unnoticed and unmet. But when the well spouse suffers, everyone in the family suffers.
So those who would be encouragers to a family or couple suffering under cancer’s attack would do well to step back from the battlefront and notice the weary soul behind the action. As one cancer patient said, “People always call and want to know how I am doing. But I want them to ask my wife how she is doing. I want someone to worry and fuss over her. That’s the best thing they can do for me.”