When Cancer Affects Your Marriage

Learning to Cope During Your Partner's Cancer Treatment

Waiting room
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In the days following a person's cancer diagnosis, the partner or spouse will usually be fully invested in seeing his or her loved one through the crisis. It's not unusual for couples to go to every doctor appointment and chemotherapy session together, or to see a partner taking charge of medications, housework, children, scheduling, meals, and a host of other duties with neither hesitation nor complaint.

But then, after months or even years of devoting one's time and energy as partner and caregiver, feelings of resentment and anger can begin to seep in. Suddenly, fractures in the relationship start to form, bringing in doubts as to whether the marriage can actually survive the cancer treatment. 

As disconcerting as these feelings may be, it's important to know that they are completely normal. We may not like them — they may even mortify us — but working through the feelings together allows you to keep your marriage and personal relationship intact.

Understand the Reasons for Resentment

When faced with something as big as a loved one's cancer treatment, we often try to take hold of the situation and make things right. We read every book, study every fact, and do everything we're supposed to do to reach the final finish line: recovery.

But it doesn't always work out that way. In the end, cancer doesn't have a set course.There will be good days and bad, and recovery can extend well beyond what either of you could ever have expected.

Faced with these realities, it would fair to feel frustration — even resentment — as the physical and emotional exhaustion begin to take their toll. 

In most cases, these feelings are displaced, meaning that the real object of your resentment is not your partner but your partner's cancer. Your loved ones simply give the cancer a face and name to which you can point and vent your anger.

Triggers for Resentment and Anger

Certain events or situations can trigger these feelings, some of which you may be aware and others which seem to come out of nowhere.

Some of the most common triggers include:

  • You start to feel the weight of your sacrifice. Before cancer, you may have worked overtime to save for a new house or a vacation; now you are working to pay for medications and treatment your insurance won't cover. You have no choice; you need the money. Before long, your social and work life begin to suffer, and the sacrifices you make suddenly seem forced and overwhelming.
  • You feel you have more tasks than you can handle. When your spouse is ill, you are often forced to take on responsibilities you never had before. You may suddenly find yourself juggling domestic duties and a full-time job. In time, you may begin to doubt whether you' are doing either well. Insecurities start to set in.
  • Your spouse has lost interest in sex and intimacy. A low libido can be a side effect of cancer treatment. It can also be caused by low self-esteem due to hair loss, weight loss, and the everyday stress of being ill. If you had a healthy sex life prior to treatment, it may be difficult for you to abstain from intimacy for longs period of time. The more you try to hide these feeling, the worse the feelings get.
  • The stress of being a caregiver has become overwhelming. Caring for your spouse's daily needs can be stressful. You may doubt your abilities, have trouble organizing your time, and feel like your life isn't yours anymore. Caregiving is a demanding role that even in the best of circumstances can lead to caregiver burnout.

Tips for Coping Emotion When Your Spouse Is Ill

The bottom line is this: any resentment you may be feeling toward your spouse is likely due to mental, physical, and emotional state you're in. Certainly, no one enjoys having these feelings, but if you are overtaxed and exhausted, they're likely to pop up whether you like it or not.

There a few things you can do to better cope with these feelings:

  • Keep your eyes on the prize. Cancer may have become a part of who your spouse is, but it doesn't define them. Focus on the qualities you've always love about your other half, be it a laugh, smile, or a personal quirk nobody else can get. Those qualities are still there. 
  • Make plans for the future. Remind yourself that there is a future after cancer. Try to make plans with you spouse. If he or she resists, accept it as something that you can return to later. You may be surprised that the second (or third) time around, your spouse will be right there with you.
  • Communicate your feelings. There is no way to handle your emotions if you swallow them. Expressing your feelings, both positive and negative, allows you to share how you feel rather than focusing on an event that may have spurred those feelings. Emotions are things you can address and change; events and situations often aren't.
  • Seek support. As the spouse of a person with cancer, you can't pretend to go it alone. Support groups, whether traditional and online, are excellent ways to share your feelings freely and without guilt. Members of the clergy, counselors, and trusted friends are also good outlets. The more support you have, the better equipped you'll be to support your loved one.
  • Get help before you need it. In today's online marketplace, there are plenty of ways to find assistance with cooking, cleaning, childcare, shopping, and other chores you may find overwhelming. Reach out to friends and family, or turn to neighbors for help with the lawn or shopping. It is often these little frustrations that build up to the big emotional blow-outs.
  • Take breaks. Relief from caregiving is essential for your emotional and physical well-being. Even if you feel guilty about it, taking occasional breaks allows you to step back and gain perspective in order to better manage stresses at home. Local home health agencies can help find caregivers able to step in for an hour or two, assisting with housework and other chores while you give yourself the time to recharge your batteries.

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