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What Happened to My Marriage When My Partner Got Sick

What does "just be there for them" even mean?


When you marry a serious athlete, you pretty much know you’re signing up for some surgery. The amazing physique, adorable jerseys, and sexy competitive drive come with a price. In our case, it’s my husband, Brian’s, hips. As long as I’ve known him, Brian has had arthritis in his hips and micro fractures in his lumbar spine: byproducts of too many years of diving across fields in the name of good (no, great) Defense. Brian’s first hip resurfacing was pretty straightforward, and so when it came to the second I was confident I would know exactly how to be there for him. I thought with two more years of togetherness under our belts, I would just KNOW what to do to make him feel supported. I had also been through my own battle with pain, and so I assumed that I would be really empathetic about how difficult it is to be a prisoner in your own body and happy to reciprocate the unconditional love he showed me during my struggle.

Maybe that would have worked had the procedure been a cut and paste repeat. But this time things were different. Bad different. Just before the surgery we discovered he had a bum hip AND a badly slipped lumbar disc parked on his sciatic nerve. So instead of limping toward the hip resurfacing like last time—in pain but relatively functional—this time Brian was in agony, bed bound for weeks and on disability.

Now, being in bed for a few weeks—and being there for someone who is in bed for a few weeks—is not that big of a deal, especially in the context of a lifetime together. But as Brian’s pain went from barely tolerable to agonizing, as the drugs became more narcotic and less effective, and as the specialists squinting over x-rays multiplied, it all began to feel like a very big deal indeed. And as it turns out… I was not as good at supporting him as I thought I would be.

Riding a Stolen Bicycle

In Kenya, where we have been living together for the last nine years, and where we got married five years ago, there is a saying: “Having a younger wife is like riding a stolen bicycle.”

Since I am nine years younger than Brian, he calls me his “stolen bicycle” and he relishes every opportunity to crack cheesy jokes about it. He even gave me a little silver bicycle pendant with wheels that spin. It’s part of his shtick, and when things are fine, I think he wears my “youth” (I’m forty, so really, this is relative) as a badge of pride. When people ask why a man so young and fit needs a new hip he glances suggestively in my direction, winks and whispers, “Have you SEEN my wife?” Or “She may kill me, but I’ll die a happy man…”

The nine years between us are really almost imperceptible; we are both Gen X-ers to the core, we share most cultural references, and with his lanky, muscular frame and full head of brown hair he seems genetically predisposed to non-aging. To my chagrin, I have to really work to look as young as he does. When things are going well, there is a sweetness to the joke. I think he is saying that I am beautiful and desirable and that he feels lucky to have me. (Believe me, I’m the lucky one.)

But when he could barely make it downstairs for the fifteen minutes he could endure sitting up for dinner, the joke became almost as uncomfortable as the dinner.

The problem with pain is that it robs you of all of the things you would normally do to stay psychologically buoyant. A great workout, a solid night’s sleep, a naughty romp, a fun dinner out with friends—none of these were on the table. And the drugs bring you down too (not to mention making it hard to poo). When, on top of this, your identity is wrapped up in physicality, sexuality, strength and work, getting immobilized in bed is more than a bummer—it’s a threat.

It was very hard watching my strong and confident husband become increasingly depressed and insecure as the pain spiraled out of control. I knew he needed my steadfast love and support. He needed sultry glances and suggestive kisses. He needed—more than anything—reassurance that his bicycle wasn’t stolen.

Just Be There

“Just be there for him,” everyone said, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out HOW. What does “being there” mean practically? What does it look like in observable, behavioral terms? What should I DO, day after day?

These were the things I tried: Sitting next to him for hours. Working from home as often as I could. Plying him with baked goods and comfort food. Assaulting him with platitudes and pep talks. Pretending to love grocery shopping—normally his job. Researching safe lovemaking positions. Affirming over and over that pain would not change our relationship. I encouraged him to fly both of his sons out to be with us for several weeks during the summer, and promised it would be a joy to care for the family while he recovered from the hip and figured out WTF to do about the back. I wanted to be the valedictorian of supportive wives, and project to him a perfect picture of unflagging devotion.

The truth, of course, was far more complicated than the glaring “All is well!” I was trying to project. While it is absolutely true that I do not need Brian to be a world-class athlete to be attracted to him, it was dishonest to pretend like everything was okay, or that our relationship was unchanged. I deeply missed Brian’s presence in the everyday tasks of cooking together and grocery shopping and walking the dogs. I missed the athleticism of breathless, off-the-hook sex. Brian tried hard to contribute, but it was a lot of work caring for four teenagers, mostly alone. I silently, internally mourned the possible death of dreams of activities Brian and I would do together—climbing Mount Kenya, wandering for hours on cobblestoned streets, doing The Amazing Race, and exploring far-flung shores. I didn’t want to visualize a future together defined by pain, when our togetherness had always been defined by wholehearted adventuring. I was exhausted, worried, stressed, a little resentful, and a lot sad—for both of us.

And all of that made me feel guilty. I wasn’t the one in pain, after all. There are couples who are dealing with permanently debilitating and terminal conditions—some of our friends and relatives to be exact. Most people on this planet don’t have access to the medical and financial resources we have and have no choice but to suffer through chronic pain and continue their very physical jobs and lives to survive. How dare I feel anything but grateful? I shamefully concluded I was a selfish, and started circling the drain in that psychological toilet. And how could I talk any of this out with the person whose struggle was the cause of it? A person who was already worrying I was going to get fed up and leave him? I didn’t reach out. I pulled inward and filled the space between us with cheerful puttering.

Our relationship, normally so honest and authentic, harbored things unsaid. He could feel the knife-edge of my agitation. I could feel the soft darkness of his disappointment. We both avoided the hard conversation. And in spite of endless hours together, we grew apart, and for the first time, marriage felt a little hard.

Finally, our longing for each other—or our mounting frustration and loneliness—crested and spilled over. It wasn’t one of our better fights. We didn’t use the right “I statements”; we both cried a lot and held back things that we feared would be hurtful—until we didn’t. All of my feelings came tumbling out—as did his fears. We had a big mess of feelings between us, with no real way to mop them up or eliminate the problem.

However, once the truth was out, we were able to get real. We decided we must work on crafting a new vision of an exciting future together that could accommodate physical changes and challenges. Because even if this current episode passed, age catches up to us all, and the fact is that old men and old women aren’t effective bicycle thieves. This represented a bigger struggle than sciatica or a bum hip. This was a taste of growing old together—and us figuring out how to make the operative word in that phrase the word TOGETHER.

Through Thin and Wrinkled

In sickness and in health. Be there for each other through thick and thin. Cherish each other’s bodies. Care for each other. Hold each other up. These are the fundamentals of marriage. When we are young and flushed with effortless health and beauty and vitality, these promises roll off the tongue like poetry, like metaphor. Somehow we imagine that when we deal with these things, it will be as a matched pair, and perhaps even cute. We will both get wrinkled, both trade in our fashionable shoes for orthotic sandals, both get reading glasses then dentures, both go grey then bald, both develop a curious love of square dancing and swimming caps, and ultimately, die within minutes of each other, holding gnarled hands. I’m coming to realize that the rhythm will more likely be syncopated—and that although that is hard it is also good. I lean on him, then he leans on me. I worry about him, he worries about me, and we worry about the other worrying. And together we move forward.

Brian has my whole heart for his whole life. Right now his essence is as important to me as his body. In the future it will need to be more important. And really, do we have any choice but to make that the truth in the face of our ephemeral youth and mortality? We must find a way to amplify the importance of the essence, even as we enjoy the heck out of the bodies.

Marriage is Hard?

Maybe this is why some people say that marriage is hard. But I disagree. It is life that is hard. This is a fact, and it is not a fact that changes because you happen to be married. Marriage does not make us immune to the human condition, to the excruciating, painful, humbling reality of our mortality. We have both experienced pain, and we will certainly face more of it. This doesn’t mean we’re failing in some way, it means we’re alive. Being married to Brian makes it bearable.

Miraculously, after eight months of struggling (including four months of Pilates and using a standing desk) Brian’s back seems to have healed itself. His neurosurgeon is stumped, and we are giddy with gratefulness for a return to full activity. But we have been wizened by this round, roughed up and toughened. We know it’s only a matter of time before another event occurs. Hopefully, we will be a little better at it next time—but I’m not going to assume anything. What I do know is that we will hold each other up, bring each other crutches and brownies, take careful steps, tell the truth—even when it is hard—and reimagine our future as many times as it takes.

And we will trust that no matter what happens, we will get stronger and better at getting weaker together.

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