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Stress on Marriage / Family
During Serious Illness

QUESTION: I have a question of the stresses on marriage/family when a debilitating disease comes into play. About 6 months ago, I was diagnosed with Graves Disease. I have gone through RAI and was feeling reasonable good for a few months. I've recently gone hyperthyroid, and with that have felt really terrible, tired, anxious etc. I'm told that this is normal to the condition but my husband is getting frustrated and telling me that I think about it too much. How can I make him understand that it's going to take time? I should also mention that I've started to see a counselor to hopefully work through my feelings/symptoms etc. Any advice? Thanks!

Remind your husband that this is the part of the marriage that is referred to in your marital vows, "for better or worse...in sickness and in health". Illness requires a family to reorganize. This can precipitate crisis, as the family works through the initial stages of change. Especially when the person who is sick plays a major role in caretaking others. Chronic illness can be particularly taxing due to a vacillation between crisis states and states of normality.

Adapting to your illness may bring up tremendous feelings of loss for you as well as your husband. Feelings may give birth to fears, some of which may be real while others are not. Individual therapy aimed at coming to terms with these changes and sorting through feelings will help you personally. However you may also benefit from some couples' counseling to work through the feelings brought up by your illness and its effects on your relationship. Problems which may have been at a low or latent level in the marriage will be exacerbated by your situation. The silver lining in the cloud can be found in the opportunity to flush out old resentments and make way for a new beginning. Greater intimacy and connection can result from getting through this crisis and looking back from a later point in life with pride and appreciation on how the two of you came through a difficult challenge.

Family studies have determined that there is a relationship between the family's adaptation to illness and the course of the illness itself. How members adjust and reorganize themselves to adapt to illness in the family can also play a part in reducing or magnifying stress. Naturally, a well adapted family system influences health and well-being.

In order to promote healthy reorganization, start by exploring your family history and beliefs about illness. How did your respective parents accept and handle illness in the family? Was there any significant illness in either of your childhoods? If so, how did your parents deal with it together? Were they effective at reassigning roles and responsibilities when necessary? If there were significant negative feelings left from how illness was handled in your childhoods, then much of that past experience will be coming up now for resolution.

After acceptance, one of the main challenges illness places on families is to find a healthy balance of dependence and independence between members in the family. Talk through the needs of each family member and how they are affected by the illness, practically and emotionally. Whose life is changed the most? the least? in what ways? Do not shy away from this information. In this way you will have greater opportunity to bond together to cope with the illness, to find ways that allow individuals in the family to maximize autonomy while continuing to love and help one another. Do not let the "illness" beat you as a family. It is a challenge for communicating and allowing feelings to be expressed and heard. Solutions will come out of sharing feelings in a safe and open atmosphere. The situation requires the family to be flexible and creative in finding answers to everyone's needs.

If possible, join a support group. Many have found such groups invaluable, as have their families. Family counseling, too can be a helpful tool through the transition of stabilizing your family in the face of this new challenge.

When you feel you have sorted through some of the grief in your own therapy, have a discussion with your husband about what you would like to hear others say (years into the future) about how the two of you handled this situation as a family. What legacy would you like to pass on to your children in dealing with this crisis? As you work through grief and come to some acceptance of loss, you are likely to gain a larger perspective on life. In Judith Viorst's book, "Necessary Losses" she describes life as a series of losses requiring growth. She sees maturation as a product, in part, of learning how to let go.... from seeing children off to college to growing old, losing some of the control of our bodies we once enjoyed.

Although Graves is not a fatal disease, coming to terms with any loss brings us face to face with the fact that life is finite. We all face loss in our eventual and inevitable deaths which await us at the end of the life cycle. This awareness comes dimly and gradually for most of us. Mid-life crisis is one preparation which requires us to address the profound psychological acceptance of our growing vulnerabilities, without which we do not mature. Unexpected illness is another call for such maturation.

You are dealing with feelings of loss unexpectedly, in the form of your illness. This represents a loss of control. It is natural that this process of acceptance and adaptation will take some time. Be patient with yourself and your husband. Make room for feelings and be flexible. As we travel life's road, perhaps its richness will be determined by how we deal with life's challenges. And like any challenge, whether it be having a new baby or dealing with an illness, it carries the potential to bring you closer together or further apart.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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