Marriage and illness – when those vows mean everything

A while ago I told you all about my long-standing battle with depression. It was a scary, painful but wonderfully cathartic thing to do and I was overwhelmed by the wonderful, supportive messages of people who shared my journey and my story.

I wanted to tell you about my illness because it’s important to me to be able to talk to you about illness and relationships, weddings and why those vows can sometimes be so much more crucial than you’d ever realise.

When a bad episode of depression hits and John loses me to something that’s not even sadness, more akin to quiet, cold despair – when I get lost in the grey nothingness that consumes everything and makes even the simplest task feel insurmountable, it always hits me in my recovery what a major commitment we’re both making. We’re walking into this marriage knowing that at times he’ll have to be the carer – both a partner and a parent figure. At times I may be just gone. More tired than I’ve ever felt – the house may deteriorate into a messy hovel. Lacking in confidence, he may have to reassure and reassure and reassure until something permeates an emotional brick wall. We’re making a commitment to live with this illness – because it may never go away.

But while I know my own experience here is valuable, I know that no two situations are the same. So some incredibly brave, beautifully honest women have shared their stories with me and I wanted to share them with you. I hope to shed some light on the impact of illness, mental or physical, within a relationship – and coping mechanisms for couples who are in it for the long haul. Please forgive any unintentionally insensitive wording – I hope no feelings are hurt and that I’ve done these brave ladies justice. The intention is to get people talking about a very difficult issue.

 I know some people question why I went ahead and married him after seeing me go through some very tough times with him.

The simple answer to that is that I love him.

Alice* experiences the exact inversion of our situation. Her husband is a long-term sufferer of depression and Alice has had to take on the additional role of carer in their relationship.

“Living and being married to someone who has suffered with depression for the last 18 months I knew only too well how hard it can be for sufferers,” says Alice. “My husband still doesn’t admit to close friends how much he’s suffering sometimes. I know some people question why I went ahead and married him after seeing me go through some very tough times with him.”

“The simple answer to that is that I love him. I admit when he was first diagnosed it broke my heart and I thought I was to blame for some of it. He assured me I wasn’t. I made a decision then that I would stand by him and try and help him through it. I did loads of research online to try and understand depression and how best I could help him. I went to the doctors with him and tried to reassure him I would always be there, no matter what – isn’t that what I would be committing to when I said my vows to him?”

Alice admits that life isn’t always easy: “Yes, on his bad days, and believe me at the beginning there were many more than good, he is hard to deal with but the thing people need to remember is depression is an illness and like a lot of illnesses it can be treated. It’s just finding the right balance of medication to cope with it. On his good days, however, he is the kindest, most thoughtful, loving man I know or have ever met. And this is why I stand by him and continue to love him as his wife, best friend & soulmate.”

This certainly isn’t the life I envisioned for us when we got married, but its the one we’re living right now, so I’m seeing where the road takes us.

Sophie’s* story is similar. Since her husband fell into a depressive episode, she’s had to fall into the roles of both parents to their children. “There does seem to be role reversal – I’ve had to pick up everything he previously did at home including all the driving, putting the bins out, all childcare till the babies sleep (he used to help out in the afternoon and night waking) and the sometimes frequent night time crying.”

“It is a strain on our relationship, and I often find myself getting grumpy and down with it all, but I know he will get better, so there is light at the end of the tunnel. This is partly why I’m pulling out all stops to try and get my businesses off the ground so I don’t have to go ‘out’ to work and it wouldn’t matter if he had to leave work, but realistically this is some way off. “

“At the back of my mind I wonder what will happen if he does have to stop work and my income of working 13 hours a week at a supermarket becomes our main source of income.  My husband doesn’t want to stop work, but when he comes home and says he almost ‘lost it’ at work, I think it may happen sooner rather than later.

“This certainly isn’t the life I envisioned for us when we got married, but its the one we’re living right now, so I’m seeing where the road takes us. I’m not a saint – occasionally I think about what happens if this isn’t a short term ‘thing’ and that it goes on for years, how unhappy would I be? But that’s just a selfish, feel sorry for myself moment, and then I feel bad for thinking it. I’m all for keeping our little family unit together.  For better, or for worse as the vows say.”

Day to day, life is great, things work well and I’m fine. But when I need rest, he understands, and let’s me rest. He’s supportive of the decisions I make with my treatment, and encourages me to keep on top of my medication.

Finally Hayley suffers from a rare, life-threatening blood disorder called Diamond-Blackfan Anaemia. She and her doting fiancé have made the dynamic work for them. Hayley has very bravely shared her relationship story with Under the Vintage Veil. In her words:

“I was first diagnosed when I was with my ex, I had nine months off work, got depression, and it was all a massive shock. We’d just bought a house, so the timing was terrible, but we overcame it. It eventually all got too much to cope with, I just stopped caring about anything, and my ex found someone else to fall in love with, so that was the end of that. I won’t say our relationship ended because I’m ill, but it changed the dynamics of our relationship so much, that it just wasn’t working anymore.”

“Then I met my fiancé. I met him online, which was perfect because I was off work, ill with bronchitis, over Christmas and new year. I was able to direct him to the relevant Wikipedia pages, so that he could find out in his own time, and it gave him time to digest the implications.”

“When I became single, the one thing I worried about was how do I tell him about the added extra ‘stuff’, face to face, and how do I cope with their horror or outright rejection, or worse, a patronising look that says ‘I feel sorry for you but its too much hassle’. With online dating I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I wasn’t expecting much at first, I just wanted to meet someone who found me attractive again, who saw Hayley, and not just an ill person who needed looking after.”

“I knew he was the one when he told me he’d told his parents about me and had briefly explained my illness. He told them that it didn’t make any difference, ‘she’s still awesome’.”

“Day to day, life is great, things work well and I’m fine. But when I need rest, he understands, and let’s me rest. He’s supportive of the decisions I make with my treatment, and encourages me to keep on top of my medication.”

“In terms of wedding plans, I honestly don’t mind how where or when we get married, as long as we just end up married, but everyone is telling me its my special day, I deserve to make demands for one day.”

“We moved in with my parents to save up, which is an entirely different story, but it works well and means that we’re not worrying about starting out married life in debt, it also means I have a support network of carers if needs be. We will eventually have to pursue IVF when we want children, so the opportunity to save as much as we can is one we can’t turn down.”

“I don’t know what the future holds for me health wise, or how that will affect us as a married couple, but as long as he’s there to share the journey and take the driving seat sometimes along the way, I know thats all I need.

Coping with illness in a relationship – some advice

Please bear in mind I’m no expert on the matter, but I’ve collated, from a number of support groups and therapists, advice for couples where one partner is sometimes or frequently unwell and dependent on their significant other:

Don’t go it alone – there are support networks out there for both partners, no matter what their illness. It helps to talk – and there are groups who meet regularly to do just that. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – from professional networks and from your friends and family.

Treat the illness as an illness. The toughest thing for both partners is dealing with the idea that an illness, mental or physical, is nobody’s fault. Treating it as an outsider and yourselves as a team can help to stop you from imploding from the inside. It will also take away the feelings of guilt and responsibility – that’s not to say you can’t beat it, but it’s nobody’s fault it’s there in the first place.

If you’re the carer, don’t let your own health deteriorate. Look after yourself, which occasionally means breathers and time out.

Develop a routine – even if the unwell partner is unable to contribute to things like housework and childcare, routine is still important to everyone and can help to get you both through each day. 

Talk to each other. I understand (believe me) that with an illness like depression, talking can be off the table. But as much as you can, try to talk things through and keep that communication open.

Say thank you. When I’m at my most hopeless, John ends up having to pick up a lot of the pieces, particularly cooking for me, cleaning, looking after our pets. It’s important to remember that, while this doesn’t make me indebted to him or “wrong” in any way, hearing a “thank you” or even an “I love you” lets him know how much I appreciate his care and support.

Like I said this advice is collated from a number of support groups and therapists but it’s by no means a conclusive help sheet – if you or your partner is suffering from an illness, and you’re struggling to cope, visiting your GP and going for counselling are the ways forward. If you have any advice or experiences you’d like to share, please leave me a comment in the box below. Please remember that people have bravely and honestly shared their experiences and so please make sure your comments reflect this. 

*Some names are changed to protect my lovely, brave friends’ anonymity

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment *