Traditional wedding vows include a promise to stay together in
sickness and in health. But cancer, heart disease, major
depression, substance abuse, and other types of serious medical
illnesses can create stress in a marriage or in any type of
committed relationship. Illness affects not only the person who
receives the diagnosis, but his or her partner as well.
For example, a woman receiving treatment for breast cancer may be
physically uncomfortable, constantly tired, and worried about her
sexuality and body image. Likewise, a man undergoing treatment for
prostate cancer may experience unpleasant side effects such as
impotence and incontinence. Both are likely to worry about the
future and their mortality. Although these concerns may surface at
various times during cancer treatment, they can become especially
troublesome once treatment ends, as couples make the transition to
a "new normal."
When the diagnosis is diabetes or heart disease, one or both
partners may need to make significant lifestyle changes such as
quitting smoking, losing weight, and adopting new dietary habits.
Although some couples function as a team in response to these
challenges, others may find themselves at odds over food choices,
leisure activities, and the like.
Many couples are able to manage the challenges of illness
reasonably well and can find ways to cope on their own, but some
will need help. For those who do, couples therapy can enable
partners to cope with the stress of medical illness or addiction.
The methods are similar to those employed in individual therapy:
interpreting emotional conflicts and the influence of the past;
understanding fixed patterns of relating; encouraging insight and
empathy into how those patterns may derive from early life
experiences of each partner; assigning exercises for behavior
change; challenging beliefs; offering advice, reassurance, and
support; and teaching social skills and problem solving. All of
these skills may be useful in helping couples to deal more
productively with a serious illness.
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