- When one member of a marriage suffers dramatic physical changes, both partners need to reconsider their relationship and how it can aid healing.
- Strategies that have helped them historically can be adapted to bring strength, comfort, and energy to the new situation.
- Internal, external, and relational resources can foster healing and reinforce the marriage's romance, love, and caring.
In January, my husband entered the hospital for what we expected would be a straightforward hip replacement.
His stay expanded into 18 nights, beginning with nearly six hours of orthopedic surgery and then expanding from what his surgeon labeled “speed bumps:” a pulmonary embolism, a hematoma of his spine that created a “medical emergency” requiring a neurosurgeon to compress the invader, and a preventive surgical insertion of a “filter” to minimize the possibility of further blots clots rising from his legs to his lungs.
Finally, he entered a skilled nursing facility. There he worked with physical and occupational therapists nearly every day, regaining strength, endurance, and mobility and tightening the loosened screw on an array of lingering medical issues.
I joined him at the nursing home for at least a few hours each day. He introduced me to staff who were caring for him, the locations where he relearned to walk and climb stairs, ways he could use clever gadgets to work around surgically mandated restrictions on his movements, and the strange experience of having meals prepared and presented three times a day at regular (although early) hours.
We relied on skills we had developed during our two-year long-distance courtship when he was living on a converted barge moored near the center of Paris, and I was an empty-nested psychologist seeing patients and doing epidemiological research in Connecticut. You can read more about those pre-internet skills from more than a quarter-century earlier from "Refracted," here and here or in my memoir.
This week my beloved came home. We embraced the opportunity to rediscover each other, rejoice in being permanently together again, soak up each other’s energy, and celebrate the life that we continue to share.
After twenty-six years of practice, we knew to expect changes in ourselves, each other, and our relationship. Practice in dealing with those changes helped us navigate the new waters. We followed a few rules of our relationship that have stood us in good stead:
1. Be honest and do not hide realities. Pretending that any experience is not what it puts an imaginary elephant in the living room, demanding attention while people attempt to ignore its presence. Why siphon off precious energy from where it is needed?
2. Think creatively. Through the years, we had developed routines and patterns — both individually and together — that had served us well in problem-solving and living. Now new ones were necessary as we confronted challenges requiring competence in new areas and demanded new ways to work together. Experimentation was essential — and, with it, mishaps were inevitable as we figured out what worked well and what did not.
3. Routines and agreements can be your friends. Before my husband’s surgery, we had developed patterns that helped us care for ourselves, each other, and our relationship. Aware that the “we” was as important as the “me” and often more so, we had each maintained our own style, passions, and relationships beyond each other, knowing that doing so enriched not only our souls but also our marriage.
During our separation, we lived in different worlds, facing different goals. He needed to relearn basic movements, accept help, foster new independence, and develop patience and compassion for himself and others. I needed to cover responsibilities that he had prided himself on managing and to follow an agenda that could lead to a new home, lifestyle, and opportunities that would nurture what was reality now. We both needed to let go of lingering attachments to past identities, activities, sources of pride, and ego-gratification while building others that would sustain us in the future.
4. Remember Gottman’s 5:1 Rule. In their massive research program, John Gottman, his wife, and colleagues have consistently documented the importance to well-being — both individual and relational — of engaging in five experiences that evoke positive effects to counter-balance a single negative activity or interaction.
Just because so many moments of fear, pain, sadness, and loss had bombarded us both as my husband has fought his way through this journey, we needed to guard space for the precious moments of joy — the brief ones of looking into each other’s eyes or finding we could hug more and more closely as the IV’s and tubes became history, sutures were removed, his increasing strength allowed touch and then kiss and then eventually an all-out embrace.
5. Respect and be grateful for your respective resources — Internal, external, and relational.
Internal resources. We each have developed skills, talents, and habits that help us navigate our lives, identities, and relationships. We continue to tend and nourish them so that they can be called into service using old resources in new ways.
External resources. They can vary from environmental aids like my array of teas or my husband’s physical tools and gadgets; the beauty of a sunrise or the sound of a robin’s greeting; the delight of a familiar perfume or sharing a favorite meal.
Relational resources. Perhaps support from others has been our most valuable resource — friends and clergy who reached out with caring, a diversion here or resource there; our children who offered phone calls and/or physical help; colleagues who brought me Covid test kits and taught me how to use them so that I could meet the requirements for a negative test each day I signed into the nursing home.
My daughter’s close friend brought us a meal for his Homecoming, eliminating any need to think about cooking when so many other adaptations warranted attention. Above all, we are grateful for the professionals who have helped him listen to his body and partner with it in helping him heal.
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