That’s what the traditional wedding vows say, but no one really knows what “in sickness” will mean for them and their partner, until they experience it. Even a short-term, common illness like the flu upends established roles and routines and the way two people relate to each other. Someone who usually makes dinner is not able to cook; someone who usually drives the children is stuck in bed; someone who is usually available to share the day is asleep.

So, how much harder is it for a couple when an illness lasts much longer than a couple of days? As weeks turn into months or even years, schedules are constantly changing. Time and energy that previously would have been dedicated to work and play must now be directed to treatment and rest.

Furthermore, the logistical challenges are just the start — the entire balance of the relationship is upended. One partner becomes the needy one; the other partner becomes the one who is needed. One partner becomes the capable one; the other is the dependent. One partner becomes the giver, while the other partner is the receiver. While this dynamic is occasionally a part of any healthy relationship, when the imbalance becomes more or less permanent, feelings such as irritation, frustration and even resentment can take the place of love between equals. 

What should couples do when illness threatens the equilibrium? Make time, however challenging, for interactions beyond the requirements of caregiving and receiving. Share moments of meaningful experience, even if it is only listening to favorite music together. Acknowledge that even willing spouses have needs and feelings that are just as valid as those experiencing illness. Find opportunities for loving touch that go beyond the requirements of utilitarian care-giving.

Finally, remember: if we live long enough, there is bound to be better and worse, sickness and health. We can only hope to get through it with love.

Elaine Wilco is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 20 years of experience. She maintains a private practice in Alpharetta focused on helping those with intimacy issues. Follow her at facebook.com/IntimacyAtlanta.

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