CPN | On top of it all, the Marriage!

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On top of it all, the Marriage!


When my husband, Charlie, and I heard that our six-month old daughter Cameron had a rare and fatal disease, one of our very first thoughts was Oh God, how are we as a couple going to do this? Will we each survive and will our marriage survive????

Of course, there was no immediate answer to this question, nor was there a guidebook.

Even for questions that are impossible to answer, there are things that can be done to try to answer them with the best outcome possible. Charlie and I knew we needed help and we were very open to therapy. I wasn’t looking for a marriage therapist, but I did think that it would be helpful for us to talk to someone as a couple. Someone told us that there were therapists who helped couples process their grief during periods of illness, so I went in search of such a person.

Let me just say, they are not easy to find. The first person we met with spent the entire hour dead-heading potted geraniums in her office and telling us that her granddaughter had been sick but got all better with an operation. Ummm, this was not relevant to our situation and was certainly not helpful. We left her office incredulous and laughing. As my anxiety about my future increased, I despaired that we would find someone.

But shortly thereafter we did. And she made all the difference. Her specialty is families of children who have serious illness – both the patient, the siblings and the parents. Charlie and I met with her monthly, then bi-weekly, and by the end of Cameron’s life we were meeting every week. I like to joke that we would have moved her into the house if that had been an option.

As a grief therapist, she helped us understand our feelings and our fears and recognize our strengths and vulnerability. She told us that what attracts us initially to our partner is typically how we complement each other— how we differ from each other— but how initially in a crisis, we want our partner’s emotional reactions to mirror our own so that we feel understood and on the same page. We want our partner to be able to RELATE to how we feel. Different isn’t helpful when we’re upset. And yet different is what we typically get. It is typical for parents in a crisis to show different emotional responses, and this difference is often based on gender. This was certainly true for us. During Cameron’s illness journey, my husband and I frequently responded so differently to a significant crisis—seizures, pneumonia, feeding challenges—that I wanted to run screaming from the house, one scary feeling on top of another. This therapist helped us understand what was happening and find common ground instead of anger.

During the 18 months that we worked with this therapist, we were mostly focused on processing our anticipatory grief and, as her disease progressed, preparing to let our daughter die.

And in so doing, we were also working on our marriage. Pediatric illness puts tremendous pressure on a marriage and this was so true for me. I am not entirely sure my husband and I would still be married if we hadn’t had such an incredible therapist. Thankfully we did and thankfully we are.

I appreciate that therapy isn’t for everyone and that good therapists aren’t easy to find. But if you think it would be helpful to you, I encourage you to seek a grief therapist and to do that work with your partner. And if they resist, do it by yourself.

And most immediately, I hope you will find the marriage videos in the CPN library very helpful. In them, psychologist Nancy Frumer Styron shines a light on many of the issues that typically confront parents in their marriage, including differences in how men and women react and ways to come together. And parents share their own experiences about how they responded as a couple.

We also have a downloadable guide with tips for tending your marriage during this stressful journey.

Finally, I want to end on a hopeful note: conventional wisdom says that pediatric illness ends more marriages than not. The research does not bear this out. Yes, certainly, some marriages cannot bear the stress and grief, and eventually end. But plenty of couples find that their marriage is ultimately strengthened by the journey. Whatever lies ahead for you, I remind you that you are not alone and you can do this, one way or another.