“You want to see my new girlfriend?” My friend’s husband teased his wife one day as I was visiting her in the hospital. He is her caregiver, her husband, her lover, her muse and mentor of 40 years, and her illness had put a real strain on their relationship.
He pulls out his wallet, takes out a picture and shows it to her. I can tell it’s a joke because he’s grinning from ear-to-ear. She breaks out in laughter despite her pain. They show me the picture.
It was a picture he had taken of his hand!
My friend was in the hospital–that time for close to three weeks. She has a chronic disease that has attacked her intestines. Her husband had sold his business and they had rearranged their life to accommodate this hostile addition to their family–illness.
Both of them had visions of their golden years–traveling in their RV, grandchildren, financial security, and lots and lots of leisure and fun. Hospitals, drugs, and pain was not what either had in mind.
To say that their sex life diminished is an understatement.
To say that sex doesn’t matter in the face of disease and pain is to not look at the whole situation. Sex does matter. It’s the one thing couples do together that they don’t “do” with anyone else. It’s a glue, a bond, a secret language, a healer of life’s wounds…to simply and biologically state it, sex is a needed release.
More magazine has an interesting article in September 09’s issue on this very subject. They state that 75% of all marriages that are dealing with chronic illness long-term end in divorce.
These aren’t shallow people. This isn’t Jon and Kate splashing their news on the headlines (not that they’re shallow, marriage is tough and I hurt for them and their children). These are quiet, hard working, family oriented people who face surmounting, mind-boggling stress, heartbreak, financial ruin, unbelievable and unrelenting pain. And the one thing that can combat all this–their marriage and the healing powers of sex and intimacy–are taken from them.
I observed my couple friends and this is what I’ve gathered.
You let go of what you thought life would be.
You dig deep to find your integrity.
You find joy in the smallest of things. You find purpose as a caregiver.
You use your anger not at each other like weapons of mass destruction, but together, to get things done, to let off steam, to keep from going crazy…and you turn that anger into humor–maybe a little sick and twisted–but it keeps it from turning toxic inside you.
You do what you have to do to get by–and it’s nobody’s business. How you define sex may be different than other couples, and how and when you’re intimate may not fit the national average.
You get strong and tough and tender and real all at the same time.
I have no big answers here. It’s too complex and too gritty to give you bullet points–as if you could fire them on target and make it all instantly go away. What I have gathered from my friends and others I’ve seen going through years of what illness can do to a relationship is that the ones that make it create this circle of energy around themselves. They are one.
Couples who face caregiving challenges together have come through the fire, and on the surface, no, life didn’t turn out like they thought it would–but in many ways, it’s better. I witnessed it in my parent’s marriage. The unity, the simplicity, the bond they have, they earned. You can see it in their eyes, they familiar gestures of thoughtfulness, the resolve in their voice. They have something profound.