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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 Parents may become withdrawn when they are sad or worried.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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
For partners with more interest in sex, try:
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