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Supporting Marriages While Children are in Treatment

Marriage relationships can suffer when a child is diagnosed with cancer. Cancer brings extra stress on a marriage at a time when the support of a spouse is more important than ever. Caregiver demands make it hard for parents to have time to devote to each other. Parents may become withdrawn when they are sad or worried. In general, issues that affected the marriage before cancer are still there and may even get worse.

However, there is no evidence that a pediatric cancer diagnosis increases the likelihood of divorce. While some couples see their marriages suffer after a child is diagnosed, many marriages become stronger by sharing the journey together.

Children Benefit from Healthy Marriages

It is understandable that parents feel they should pour all their energy into caring for their sick child. They may feel guilty or selfish spending time on anything else. However, a loving relationship between spouses or partners has a number of positive benefits:

  • Good communication enables parents to be better caregivers.
  • Children feel less guilt over how their illness is affecting the family.
  • Siblings who are supported by parents can feel more secure and adapt more easily.
  • A more welcoming environment allows friends and family to provide help and support.
Mom and dad stand while holding their son in his hospital room.

Helping a partner deal with difficult emotions can sometimes be more important than solving a problem. 

Steps to a Better Marriage

Relationships are never perfect. There will be ups and downs. Most marriages experience some strain when a child becomes ill. But, parents can take steps to maintain a strong relationship, even when their family is facing cancer.

  1. One of the most important ways parents can connect with one another is to have meaningful conversations. During cancer, many parents find that conversations revolve around daily tasks and medical needs. Treatment decisions, responsibilities at home, and daily routines get the most attention. It is natural to fall into these patterns. Here are some things that can help promote better communication.

    • Talk 1-on-1. Set aside at least 15 minutes per day to talk to each other. Use video or phone calls if needed. The key is taking time to connect.
    • Minimize distractions. When possible, speak privately. Parents often avoid topics or speak in “code” around children. When in person, put the phone down and turn off the TV.
    • Make physical contact. Holding hands or sitting close can create a deeper emotional connection.
    • Discuss feelings. Talk less about what each person did or needs to do and more about how each person feels. The longer people go without sharing feelings, the harder they can be to talk about. Make sure to give space and support for negative emotions.

    Simple Ways to Show Support

    During cancer, many conversations require parents to make decisions about treatment or other key courses of action. Other times, parents may just feel overwhelmed. Supporting one another through difficult times is hard. Parents can do this more effectively by:

    • Knowing when to listen. Helping a partner deal with difficult emotions can sometimes be more important than solving a problem. A safe space to share emotions may be all someone needs. Expressing feelings may allow a parent to think more clearly and focus on decisions.
    • Repeating, not responding. Mirror back what the other has shared. This demonstrates hearing a partner and can increase mutual understanding.
    • Focusing on solutions not problems. Under stress, it is easy for conversations to become arguments. Avoid blame and talking about who is at fault or is right or wrong. Many decisions in childhood cancer are unclear, from treatment options to financial concerns. Focus on addressing issues directly to reduce unnecessary strain.
    • Offering to take on more. When a partner feels overwhelmed, offering to help is a great way to show understanding support. Offer specific ways to assist with family responsibilities. Encourage the spouse to spend some time away from the house or hospital. Even if the offer is not accepted, this sends an important signal of concern and love.
  2. Even though there is far less time when caring for a sick child, couples still need time together. Time together provides the opportunity to refresh and deepen an emotional connection as partners instead of parents and caregivers.

    Ideas to spend more time as a couple include:

    • Enlisting the help of friends or family to organize regular dates. This can even include a night away if possible.
    • Spending only a portion of time on the date talking about children.
    • Setting aside time after the kids go to sleep to be together. Plan a simple activity, from watching a movie to enjoying a dessert.
    • Planning kind gestures. Small actions like leaving a nice note, making coffee, taking care of things on a partner’s to-do list, or picking out a small gift can demonstrate that the relationship is important.
  3. During times of stress, spouses often become targets of frustration and anger. This can happen for different reasons. Some partners may use conflict as an emotional outlet in an attempt to relieve stress. Others may direct negative emotions toward a spouse instead of the actual cause. Sometimes, parents misinterpret their own emotions and express worry or fear as anger instead. Over time, being a target of negative emotions can push people away. Identifying underlying feelings and expressing them more accurately can be an important tool to reduce conflicts and encourage positive interactions.

  4. Each parent reacts to a child’s illness differently. Some withdraw. Some work a lot to keep their mind off the illness. Others appear outwardly angry or sad. These responses are natural. However, a spouse’s reaction can sometimes be surprising and unsettling to partners. Understanding and accepting other coping styles gives people space to adjust and work through difficult emotions and problems.

  5. A physical connection is important in marriages. However, romantic relationships and physical intimacy typically change when their child is fighting cancer. Caregiver demands can make it hard to find time alone. Some parents may be less interested in sex because of sadness or fatigue. Others may actually want more physical intimacy to relieve stress or emotionally connect with their partners. These are natural feelings, but difference in desires can cause stress in a relationship. It is important for parents to communicate about physical intimacy and discuss needs and expectations. Couples should try to avoid taking long breaks from physical intimacy as much as possible.

    For partners with less interest in sex, try:

    • Finding ways to show a partner there is still attraction. Give a compliment, show appreciation, or say, “I love you”.
    • Holding a partner tenderly, as this can increase a feeling of intimacy.
    • Finding a common ground regarding expectations about sex.

    For partners with more interest in sex, try:

    • Touching a partner affectionately without expecting sex. This includes hugging, cuddling, holding hands and sitting next to each other.
    • Paying attention to friendship. Doing things as a couple, helping more at home, and doing small things can bring couples closer physically as well as emotionally.
    • Backing off for a while. This is not always easy, but sometimes taking a break from sex can help reduce tension and pressure for intimacy.

Hear how others have supported their marriages through a child's serious illness.

For strong marriages, open and honest communication is key. Unresolved conflict and lack of intimacy (emotional or physical) cause additional stress on the family and limit the support that parents can provide one another. But something does not have to be “wrong” to seek help. Marriage and family counseling can be an important source of strength during childhood cancer. Psychologists and other mental health providers can provide practical skills and resources to help couples talk about feelings, address concerns, and cope during difficult times.

Reviewed: June 2018