Many forms of suffering are quite adept at catching people’s attention. The twisted metallic crunch of cars colliding, the sheer devastation of neighborhoods pummeled off the map by spiraling winds, the shock of a spectacular sin that can no longer be hidden–all capture people’s attention and, most often, their help.
But not all forms of suffering are so spectacular enough to warrant recurring news articles. Some exist only in quiet whispers, unseen by most harried passers-by. Debilitating chronic pain and illness is one of those quiet sufferings, a trouble that most commonly draws its victims from the center of the room to its outer edges. As pain rewrites a person’s possibilities, the boundaries of their lives shift in such a way that naturally leads to forgottenness and neglect.
But running parallel to this is another quiet suffering, one almost less seen than that of chronic illness and pain. Chronic illness is one of the leading predictors of divorce, with research showing that 75% of marriages end in divorce when a life-altering chronic illness afflicts one spouse. As Christians, we look at this statistic and shudder. And yet, we’re also wise to recognize that it highlights the great amount of stress that chronic illness and pain infuse into a couple’s relationship.
My wife and I have been married for almost ten years, seven of which she has been beset by increasing levels of chronic pain. We’ve wandered the maze, and, as it stands, there still doesn’t appear to be an exit. Maybe one day, the Lord will carve a new path that leads out or show us a corridor we’ve missed. But that time is not now. What follows are seven points that I’ve learned amid the sorrows of living as the spouse of a chronic pain sufferer.
1. Your Life Has Changed
The diagnosis (or symptoms that defy diagnosis) that has befallen your spouse is their burden to carry in their body. It is their nerve endings, not yours, that scream late into the night. It is their mind, not yours, that disappears into dense clouds of mental fog. It is their deteriorating systems, not yours, that shut down the normal joys of normal living. Their life has been and will be upended in significant ways–perhaps in every way.
As this happens to them in their body, your life is upended as well. When you entered into marriage, your solitary self was joined to another. Your lives are now inseparably intertwined, and their hurts are your hurts. Indeed, if their suffering has little impact on your emotions and daily life, it should serve as a flashing light warning that you’re dangerously disconnected from your spouse already.
But assuming that you are well-connected to your spouse, their chronic suffering will upend your life in many unpleasant ways. Things you enjoyed together may have to change in significant ways or may fade from life altogether. Energetic workouts, the hum of having others over for fellowship, service in a favorite church ministry, sexual intimacy, your personal routines and daily schedule, parenting, hobbies, job arrangements, household chores, and a thousand other things are all up for redefinition. Life has changed. Nobody wanted it to change, but the unstoppable tide of chronic pain and illness will change your coastline regardless of all your effort and energy.
2. Your Heartbreak Is Real
Your life being upended is naturally heartbreaking. We choose hobbies because we enjoy them. We’ve organized life a certain way because it works and helps the family flourish. But debilitating chronic pain and illness can quickly leave your well-manicured life a smoldering ruin.
Beyond this, the truth is that your spouse very well might have become a rather different version of themselves. The slow and steady drip of constant pain changes people, and you might terribly miss the version of your spouse that you married and built a life with. Truth be told, they likely miss the old version of themselves quite terribly too.
In our goal-oriented, task-focused culture, it’s easy to simply stuff our griefs and fixate on what needs to be done. After all, who has time for grief when the kids’ lunches need to be made, laundry is piled in a heap, and extra money needs to be made to shore up the budget? Most of us can bear down and grit through suffering for a while. But chronic pain and illness likely aren’t going anywhere, and we can’t ignore heartbreak forever. An enormous portion of the Bible focuses on the deep griefs people face in life–books like Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job, and Lamentations. Lament, the process of grieving sorrowful losses, is a healthy part of working through your losses. God sees your tears, holds your heart, and promises His presence. In the midst of all the care and courage you offer your spouse, take time to grieve yourself. It’s important for you to have someone to talk to, whether it be a counselor, mentor, or good friend. You often are left having to be strong for your spouse; make sure to have someone who can help bear your weaknesses, worries, and sorrows too.
3. You Did Sign Up for This
In dark moments, it’s easy for the drumbeat of “I didn’t sign up for this, I didn’t sign up for this, I didn’t sign up for this” to begin stirring in the depths. We have to be honest; that voice lies. After all, on a much happier day, words like these probably passed from your lips:
In the name of God, I take you to be my lawfully wedded spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, forsaking all others, until death do us part. This is my solemn vow.
These words were spoken in the sunshine, in a time when dark clouds seemed to have passed beyond possibility. But the words spoken in the sunshine are binding in the gloom. In fact, they serve as a place of stability in the midst of the gloom. When you can’t see the way forward, when it seems like there’s no firm footing anywhere to be found beneath you, when you cry out, “I don’t think I can do this!” those vows are a rope to hold onto and follow to safety.
The truth is that you now have an opportunity to care for your spouse in often heartbreaking ways. But that’s the reality of marriage. You are now called to care for your spouse as Jesus cared for you. And like His road, that road is likely a road of significant suffering for you. But remember, your spouse’s illness isn’t an inconvenience for your life plan. It is your life plan–you just didn’t know it yet. Placing a ring on someone else’s finger is a risky endeavor. But it’s a risky endeavor with a glorious reward. You get to help bear someone’s sorrows, and Jesus is forming His character in you as you do so.
Chronic illness or pain is not an insignificant unwelcome guest that has taken up residence in the story of your marriage. The burdens and suffering it brings are real and painful. This article looked at the first three challenges that you face as the spouse of a sufferer. Part Two will look at four more points, with an eye toward your relationship with God and your spouse.
Questions for Reflection
- What parts of life that have changed cause you the deepest grief? What about for your spouse?
- How do you see Jesus comforting you in the midst of that grief?
- What truths from God’s Word help you combat the idea that you “didn’t sign up for this?”
 A. Karraker and K. Latham, “In Sickness and in Health? Physical Illness as a Risk Factor for Marital Dissolution in Later Life,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 56 (3), 2015: 420-435.