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Boomer Couples: Deepening Your Conversations about Serious Illness

Jan 24, 2008
As Baby Boomers continue to age, the rise in incidence of serious illness affects nearly every family - especially if you're a member of the Sandwich Generation. When you or your spouse develops cancer, heart disease, stroke or another chronic illness, it can change every aspect of your lives together. How to talk meaningfully with each other about the situation is a common concern.

Dialoging with your partner in the midst of a health crisis often reflects rather typical differences between men and women - particularly in what they want from each other. Whereas a woman may need to be heard and understood, a man may be intent on finding a solution to the problem.

The result is that, even though your partner wants to be supportive when you are sick, you may be surprised to find that it is difficult for him to talk with you about your deepest thoughts and worries. This can lead to conversations that are not authentic and cause you to feel your emotions are being discounted.

After her surgery for ovarian cancer, Ella thought that her partner acted in ways that downplayed her anxiety and angst. Intellectually she knew that the operation had gone well and her prognosis was good. But she was depressed and needed to express her negative feelings. If she was going to feel better, she knew that she had to begin dealing with them. "He didn't want to talk about my fears and even withdrew from his own emotions. It upset him when I felt scared or cried. All he could focus on was my being fine and us getting on with our lives."

Serious illness can lead to unique struggles in your communications. Consider the following possibilities about why you may be having trouble talking openly and honestly with your partner. Then put these issues on the table so that you both can see what is going on.

1. Your spouse is in denial about the seriousness of your condition because he himself needs to believe that everything will be ok. He is motivated to use this kind of coping strategy in an attempt to minimize his own sadness and fears, as well as yours.

2. Naturally, it is painful for your partner to see you vulnerable and distressed. His reaction to this is to try to talk you out of your negative feelings in a misguided belief that, by being overly protective, he can take away your suffering.

3. As in other circumstances, your husband wants to fix everything when you instead need him to listen and provide support as you unburden yourself. You can gently remind him that what you want is for him to be quiet and focus on really hearing what you have to say.

4. Your partner feels threatened, fearing that he could lose you. When he sees how difficult the process is for you, he pulls back emotionally to protect himself and cover up his anxiety. Unfortunately this feels like rejection to you, further complicating your own emotional reaction.

5. The added responsibilities of taking care of you and the house in the midst of his worries about your health may be taking a toll. Feeling exhausted often overcomes caregivers and resentment builds. The challenges both of you are facing may lead to negative feelings, including anger and guilt.

6. Not surprisingly, your spouse is unable to fully comprehend what your illness is causing you to give up - feelings of control and invulnerability, your self-identity as a well person or expectations of a disease-free future. Consequently he may expect that you will be over your upsetting emotions sooner than you are. It's up to you to explain to him the depth of your losses, both present and future.

7. It may help to think about how you would react to a decline in your partner's well being, were the tables turned. It could easily threaten your sense of stability and change the role you play in your marriage. Blaire found herself pulling away from her husband in fear and anger. "Since my husband's heart attack I hold back on love. It's self-protective. He's not taking care of himself - he won't lose weight or stop smoking. I'm afraid I'll lose him to an early death."

Facing a serious illness together leads to a complex set of reactions by both. This makes it even more important for you to reveal your feelings to each other, frankly and candidly. As you begin to accept the difficulties in your conversations, you will also become aware of the positives that accompany the health challenges you have met together. Coping with a major disease often leads to a new perspective - with a greater appreciation of the preciousness of life - and a sense of increased intimacy with your partner. As you continue to move forward, your emotional closeness will be reflected in the deeper conversations that you share.

(c) 2008, Her Mentor Center
About the Author
Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. is a co-founder, with Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D., of http://www.HerMentorCenter.com, a website for midlife women and http://www.NourishingRelationships.Blogspot.com, a Blog for the Sandwich Generation. They are authors of a forthcoming book about Baby Boomers' family relationships. They offer newsletter Stepping Stones.
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