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A few months ago, I excitedly stood at the altar in my wedding dress and, like many couples before me, my husband and I promised "to be true to one another in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” In those blissful moments it felt easy to be true to my word and stand by my husband and love him, no matter what life brings our way. 

But, the truth is, my husband and I don’t yet know how illness and the hardships that come with it might challenge the promise we made on our wedding day. We have no more control over sickness than we do a natural disaster, and yet we are challenged to bunker down and grow our love in the midst of even this most furious storm.

In many ways we can't prepare for the unexpected, but we can learn from more seasoned couples and take courage in their strength and love when their vows are tested. 

Five extraordinary married women who have cared for their suffering husbands, and whose marriages have weathered illness and years of hospital stays and chemo treatment, agreed to share their hard won wisdom with Verily. I wanted to know, "How has your marriage been strengthened through the hardest of times?” Here is what they said.

Your simple presence is what is most needed.

When I spoke to these women about their marriages during times of sickness, I expected to hear a lot about big undertakings, like simultaneously managing all of the finances, home details, and doctors’ appointments. And while these women did do all of those things, they all explained that their simple presence and support during their husbands’ illnesses was what was most needed.

For example, Kayla and her now-husband learned of his cancer diagnosis just one month before their wedding and eagerly anticipated married life together. Kayla shares, “Our lives quickly switched from focusing on the future to doing whatever we could in the moment to help each other get through this uncertain, difficult time.” Their beautiful wedding went on as planned with Kayla immersing herself in supporting her husband through the ups and downs of cancer treatment. She notes, “When someone you love so deeply is battling an illness, all you can do is be present and show love in any way possible.” Instead of being frustrated about what they could not control, Kayla and her husband found small ways to love and be present every day, like making each other laugh, sharing words of affirmation, and simply holding each other's’ hands.

Kaley also discovered the power of her loving presence during her husband’s rigorous chemotherapy: “I remember what he liked during the dog days of chemo: food, TV shows, and just my presence in his hospital room at the most challenging moments. It was not pretty, and it was not perfect. I wasn’t super wife. I was me, and I was at his side.”

In the face of adversity, sometimes it’s not complex heroic actions that are needed to live out our vows, but personal, loving, reassuring presence.

Your marriage needs supportive community.

When couples say their wedding vows, witnesses are present who pledge to support the couple through their highs and lows. When I spoke with the women about the challenging illnesses in their marriages, the importance of having a strong, surrounding community was an important theme. 

Linda, whose husband lived with debilitating brain cancer for seven years, notes the critical component of her community. “Family and friends became a bigger part of our lives than ever before. I made sure we would take rides or do small family get-togethers, knowing they would bring back old good memories and get him out of the house while he was still able.” Linda realized she needed the love and support from family and friends, too. It lifted her spirits and made her feel connected.

Not only that, the community around Linda and her husband offered tremendous help over the years. Linda recalls, as the nearly full-time caregiver, “Family and friends were always willing to help or stay with him so I could have a break now and then.” Because Linda’s marriage was surrounded by a community of people, they were not only shown love when they needed it most; they received some relief, too.

Barb, whose husband has had cancer for four years, agrees with Linda and recommends that couples, “surround themselves with those who are positive and make you happy.” From phone calls and cards from friends and family to their local cancer support group, Barb found her supportive community to be paramount for her and her husband during the more difficult times.

For Kaley, who was recently married when her husband’s cancer was diagnosed, she realized her wedding guests quickly became her supportive community. She states, “Little did I know that everyone in that room would not only be our wedding guests, but also our cheerleaders when life got very serious very quickly, when we struggled so much.” Kaley continues, “Our community gave us oxygen. It was too much to tackle on our own.”

Remember that challenging times have their gifts and can strengthen a marriage.

When illness, especially serious illness, becomes a part of our lives, the way in which we see and appreciate the world changes. The women I spoke to shared newfound gifts within their marriages that were unexpectedly presented during illness and treatment.

When Mary Jo’s husband, who has Ankylosing Spondylitis (fusion of the spine), was partially paralyzed after a long surgery, he was unable to work for nearly two years. Mary Jo found that a positive byproduct of her husband’s new disability was more time together, which resulted in deeper conversations and led to an incredible appreciation of one another. She recalls, “During the time of initial paralysis, we grew closer as a couple. We got to really know one another, and we appreciated each other more not only as spouses but also as the best of friends. Our communication was naturally enhanced because each of us had to practice bearing wrongs patiently and practice really listening to each other. In some ways, we began to feel even more married.”

It was similar for Barb, who found herself appreciating the little moments with her husband during cancer treatment. She shares, “Twenty years of marriage flew by in the blink of an eye! Now with my husband’s illness, I’ve learned how fragile and precious life is. We’ve become more grateful for each other and have learned that being mindful, noticing even the little things and saying "thank you’s" throughout the day, are tremendously uplifting.”

Although married life presented serious challenges, these couples were able to find pockets of joy and remain strong while living out “in sickness and in health.”

Remember to see your spouse for who they are, not what they suffer from.

Over time, illness takes a toll on the body and even the ability of the man we fell in love with. These women share an important approach on how to view your spouse during times of illness.

“Throughout our marriage the Ankylosing Spondylitis disease progressed and minor limitations became necessary, especially after the paralysis. There became a realization that my husband just wasn't going to be as physically capable as other husbands,” Mary Jo explains. While this never frightened Mary Jo, she did spend time pondering what her husband’s loss of mobility meant to him, to her, and to their children. She discovered a helpful perspective at a conference, “The speaker discussed that we need to focus on loving our spouses’ souls. He said, ‘Look at who they are, not just what they are.’” Mary Jo found that, “It was actually quite easy to fall in love with my husband in his weakest moments because I could see more than his physical capabilities. I could see my husband as the man God created him to be, not just the man who was broken. He was still such a loving, capable, accomplished man, and we had a lot to be thankful for.”

Kaley recalls a change in how she viewed her husband, too. “I remember watching my previous collegiate athlete husband walk around a "healing garden" across the street from the hospital. I didn't recognize him from behind. My strong husband was wilted away and chemo and cancer had ravaged his body.” She continues, “His hair was gone, his eyebrows were gone, he spent a majority of his time in bed; he felt terrible. And yet in the midst of such heavy chemo, I realized the core characteristics of his personality never left. He never lost his love and need for me or his humble and steady spirit.” By seeing her husband for who he was beyond his illness, Kaley found a different, unwavering love grow within their marriage. She explains, “I learned who my husband is at the core during his darkest hours and my love for him grew deeper. It was a different love. It wasn't born out of passion or emotion, but rather a partnership, a best friendship, a companionship. I was committed to him no matter what happened.”

We might not be caring for a sick spouse now, but these stories show us how to lay the foundation for tough times and be powerful in how we live out “in sickness and in health.” Rather than letting illness and difficulty infiltrate our love, it is truly possible to build strong marriages that can weather any storm. 

Photo Credit: Nirav Patel Photography