Marriage and Cancer 

Summary: This article discusses the stress put on a marriage when a cancer diagnosis is given. When a partner turns from an equal to a caregiver, there needs to be open communication and a real desire to work together to get health, and to keep the marriage alive and well. You will find tips on how to keep the focus going in a forward, positive direction and how to get back on track if you find your marriage has fallen off.

In the days and weeks after your cancer diagnosis, your spouse or partner will be your closest ally. They will sit with you, attend appointments with you, and educate themselves on your conditions. Your partner may even sit through your chemotherapy sessions with you, take care of the daily household chores, tend to your children, the household’s scheduling, and cook the meals.

And then suddenly and without notice, you partner may begin pulling away and creating a distance between you and your relationship. They may attend less doctor’s appointments and be less supportive then normal. They might ignore your sick moments or start spending more time away from the house and you. As disconcerting as it may be, these feelings of resentment and anger are common, and it unfortunately happens more often than not.

It is at this point in the relationship that working together becomes a must, or your marriage will most likely not survive. If you can bring yourselves back to middle ground and remember the reasons you began in this relationship to begin with and treat cancer as the only-visiting-third-wheel that it is, you may be able to fight your way back to the love and support you once yearned for.

Can you help me to understand why my partner is feeling so resentful?

When we are faced with challenging situations, we want to fix them and make everything better again. When we cannot do anything to fix something that is uncontrollable and out of our hands, we begin to panic. Illnesses that are life-long or trigger a life-fighting battle like cancer tend to be very heavy and hard to deal with. In most cases your partner’s feelings of resentment are not directed at you, but at your diagnosis and illness; even though most often the hurtful words and feelings end up in your lap.

When certain people are faced with uncontrollable situations, they want to run and find a new normal. There will be good days and bad days with feelings of resentment. Bright points in days and treatments can make the days flow smoother, whereas setbacks and new diagnoses can trigger more of the same pent up feelings.

If your caregiver or partner is exhibiting signs of resentment, anger, or aggression, consider suggesting a support group just for people like them. This might give them an outlet to released some of the pent-up aggression caused by the cancer or illness.

My spouse seems to be triggered by certain aspects of my new life with cancer, but I cannot pinpoint which of the things set him off. Can you tell me the most common triggers?

There are certain common triggers that tend to set off feelings of aggression, depression, anger, resentment and rage in those who are providing a care giving service to their spouse, relative or friend. Some of these are:

They feel they have more tasks than they can handle. When you are ill, your partner is forced to “pick up the slack” of responsibilities that were not theirs before diagnosis. They may suddenly be handling domestic duties and jobs that they are adamantly against and feel pressure to maintain in the same or similar ways that you did.

-They realize that grief is the culprit and anger is an easy way to hide their true feelings. They are grieving the old you, their “old” “normal” way of life, and the things that they might not ever get back again. Grief is often mistaken with anger and in many therapy sessions, once the grief is expressed, a certain calm takes its place.

-They start to feel the weight of their own sacrifice. Before your cancer diagnosis, your partner was able to work overtime, focus on projects, and further themselves in their career. Now they are working the bare minimum to pay for your medications, treatments, surgeries and life expenses that your medical insurance does not cover because they do not understand how cancer is affecting your family. They have no choice in the matter and while they know that you did not choose cancer, they begin to hold you accountable for the blame. Once their social and work lives are affected, the sacrifices they are making do not match the path they had planned for themselves and your family in life. This can be too overwhelming for some caregivers and cause them to walk away from the situation all together.

-They have lost interest in sex and intimacy with you. This can be a two-way street. Often times, cancer patients see a large decrease in libido due to medication, cancer itself, and exhaustion from fighting for their lives. The spouses of these patients can also be affected by this because they are now caring for their spouse. This could mean diaper changes, tube changes, dressing changes, dealing with bodily fluids not typical for intimacy, and becoming dependent in a new way to your partner. Low self-esteem, weight gain or loss, ugly skin-related side effects and depression are more ways that sex and intimacy can be affected in a caregiving situation. Dealing with constant medical issues leaves no real time to take a break and focus on the love and intimacy you once shared.

The stress of being a caregiver has become overwhelming. There is no question that caring for another adult human being is a hard, challenging job. They may doubt their ability to do a quality job and give their patient, you, exactly what you need. They may have trouble organizing their own lives and feel like they have lost their own place in the world taking care of another. Caregiving is a hugely demanding role and even in the best of circumstances can lead to a bad outcome.

I want to save my marriage, so what are some tips for coping in a stressful caregiving situation?

The truth is, any resentment or feeling that are similar towards your spouse or partner need to be addressed and dealt with as they happen. These feelings are likely due to both or one of you feeling some mental, physical and emotional unease. While no one enjoys having these types of feelings, they are normal in these types of situations.

Here are a few ideas on how to keep those feelings of resentment and anger out of your marriage while you fight cancer and reclaim your marriage, intimacy and life.

-Communicate your feelings whenever they arise in an open, honest and calm manner. Burying your emotions to deal with later or completely ignoring them will not make them go away. In fact, that action in itself tends to make everything even worse! Express your feelings, whether positive or negative, and share how you feel about something, rather than the incident itself. Focus on the emotional and connective side of things. Emotions are changeable and fixable. Events and situations that have already happened are not.

-Commit. This above all else, you must be committed, and so should your partner. Commitment does not just automatically happen after you have said ‘I do,’ but instead is something that needs to be proven over and over again through the years, diagnoses, and life changes.

-Give yourself scheduled caregiving breaks. These breaks are essential to your own well-being, mentally and physically. Do not allow your guilt to tell you that you cannot or are a bad person for needing the break to begin with. These breaks will let you clear your mind, heart and body from the circumstances and give you fresh eyes and insight in to what needs to and should be happening in regard to their partner’s care. There are many local home health agencies that can be scheduled to come in and give breaks a few times a week or month, or whenever you determine to need the assistance. Or ask other family members and friends if they could help out with basic tasks to ease your load.

-Ask for help before you need it. Many caregivers wait until they are close to exploding or combustion before reaching out for help. Some people feel bad about not being able to be their spouse’s sole support person and therefore just suffer alone for years trying to keep everyone alive and happy. It is often life’s littlest frustrations that build up to the biggest, most emotional blowouts. Do not be afraid to reach out for support and assistance before you think you will need it.

Seek out and follow through with support, whether singularly or in a group setting. The spouse of a person with cancer must understand that they cannot deal with all of the aspects of this alone. Whether they find a support group that meets locally, or they find one to attend and join online, seeking out like-minded individuals going through the same sort of situation can often help the psyche and provide a calmer outlook. If they are not comfortable with support groups, consider talking to your church outreach person or pastor. Trusted friends can also provide a shoulder to lean on and an ear to gab in to when needed. It is less important how the stressed and resentful partner reaches out and more so that they do!

-Make plans for the future and keep your eyes on the prize. While cancer may be a part of your marriage and lives now, it surely does not define them. Remind yourself that cancer treatment advances have skyrocketed, and survival happens more and more. Quality of life issues are being resolved and even with certain cancers, many go on to live full and productive lives. Make simple plans to carry out in one year, two years, and five years. If your partner is open, discuss a ten-year plan and how you will celebrate when you reach that milestone. Focus on the qualities that brought the two of you together, that make you both laugh and smile. Do not lose sight of the things you are trying to save: your life and your marriage.

If you find yourself in a marriage that is struggling since you or your partner’s cancer diagnosis, know that you are not alone. Reaching out to a marital therapist or counselor is not a sign of weakness but rather one of a couple who is desperate to stay together and fight the good fight to win. Together. Because that is what marriage is about: fighting together so that no one ends up alone.

Resources Used:




Reclaiming Intimacy

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