"I'm Sick, but He Thinks It's All in My Head"
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"I'm Sick, but He Thinks It's All in My Head"

Her chronic illness is taking a toll on their relationship. Can this marriage be saved?

Her Turn

"Ryan and I haven't even celebrated our first anniversary, but our marriage is already in trouble," said Laurel, a 29-year-old who's been married for just 10 months. "Looking back, I see that our problems started during the year that Ryan and I were engaged. I lived in St. Louis then, and at first we had a great time going out with friends and enjoying city life. It was all new to Ryan, who comes from the small town where we live now. Then, about halfway through the year, I started gaining weight and feeling constantly tired. At first I figured it was because I was constantly running around and grabbing fast food. I didn't realize how heavy I had gotten until I went in for the second fitting for my wedding gown. The seamstress couldn't zip it up!

"Later, when I weighed myself, I had hit 140 pounds -- 20 pounds over my usual weight! I made up my mind to get back to 120 before the wedding. Ryan got me a membership at his gym and went on a diet with me. And it worked -- I took off so much weight that my gown was actually loose on our wedding day. But within three months, the weight had come right back. Eventually, I quit going to the gym, which really ticked Ryan off, but I just didn't have the energy. The first thing I'd do when I got home from work was lie down. Ryan would end up cooking dinner, which we'd eat in front of the TV. Then I'd go to bed. Needless to say, this didn't exactly do wonders for our sex life.

"On weekends, after dragging myself to work all week, all I wanted to do was sleep. Ryan kept asking me to go with him on his fishing trips, but I was too exhausted. Then my periods began coming every two weeks and were really, really heavy. And I kept gaining more and more weight -- some 60 pounds in all. That's when I finally went to a doctor.

"My blood tests showed that I have Hashimoto's disease, a condition where my immune system attacks my thyroid gland and causes hormone fluctuations that affect my periods and my metabolism. The doctor said it's a relatively rare condition that runs in families and usually doesn't show up until adulthood. When I checked with my mom, she said one of my great-aunts had had it, too. I'm taking medicine, which helps with the symptoms, but the disease can't be cured -- only managed.

"When I got home and explained all this to Ryan, I started sobbing. But he gave me no sympathy at all! He didn't even hug me. All he said was that I was making matters worse by lying around and stuffing my face."

Her Turn, continued

"When it comes to hormones, guys just don't get it! I still get heavy periods every couple of weeks, and even with the medications, I have next to no energy. But Ryan acts as if my disease is all in my head. The other day, he actually called me lazy! And when he's not doubting my disease, he's bugging me to try some half-baked remedy he found on the Internet.

"When I remember how great things were while we were dating, my heart just breaks. We met in vocational school, where I was doing dental-assistant training and Ryan was learning master carpentry. We went out to nice restaurants, socialized with friends, and saw plays and movies. And we spent a lot of time with our families. Ryan and I both adore each other's parents, and his folks and mine get along great. We were the 'golden couple' everybody envied.

"Not anymore. Ryan spends all his free time on his best friend's farm or out fishing. Whatever happened to dinner and the movies? The other night I got so lonely that I called two girlfriends and went out with them to a bar for a few hours. Ryan was at his buddy's house, and when he called me at home, the machine picked up. He panicked and called my cell phone. When he heard the music in the background, he was furious and said I had no business being out at a bar.

"When I got home, he started screaming at me about how it was pretty strange that suddenly I had the pep to stay out until all hours. He accused me of exaggerating my symptoms and using my illness as an excuse not to do things with him. He said he has researched Hashimoto's disease on the Internet and that most people 'don't give in to it.' Please! It's my body. I don't care what other people are saying on message boards. I know how I feel! We got into a horrible fight and I ended up sleeping on the couch. The next morning I called for a marriage-counseling appointment. I love Ryan, but why should I stay with a man who apparently didn't mean it when he vowed to love me in sickness and in health?"

His Turn

"Laurel has completely given in to her disease," said Ryan, a ruggedly handsome 28-year-old. "She says she can't control her weight or find the energy to exercise, but I think she's simply not motivated. Look at the way she managed to get into fantastic shape in order to fit into her wedding gown. I've done research and I know for a fact that the worst thing for someone with her condition is to pig out and become a couch potato.

"If anybody needs to eat right and exercise, it's Laurel. The meds she's taking help, but lifestyle changes are what make a real difference. I showed Laurel the Web sites where I found this information. What did she do? She started crying and whining that I never give her any sympathy! Come on. I've read plenty of success stories on these Web sites, about women with a low-functioning thyroid who have managed to run marathons and climb mountains. Once they got into fitness, the problems with their periods and their energy level improved. It's all about attitude and a little self-discipline. But Laurel just mopes around feeling sorry for herself.

"One day I got so mad that I told her she was lazy. As usual, she started bawling. She claimed she was upset because I think her disease is all in her head. That's ridiculous. I know she has a chronic condition. I'm not a moron. But I also know that there are ways to live well with her condition. Letting yourself balloon to 180 pounds is not one of them.

"No wonder she's too tired to go fishing with me. I work hard all week doing carpentry and I really look forward to my weekends on the lake. Being out in the country recharges me, brings me peace. It would be nice to have my wife join me. But she'd rather sleep in."

His Turn, continued

"At this point, I think she's avoiding me. She goes to sleep before I do, so we almost never have sex. This is definitely not how I imagined married life. I'm young and healthy and have a normal sex drive. The fact that my wife would rather sleep than make love is a huge issue for me.

"But it's not only that. The night she went out to a bar without telling me, I was pretty peeved because going out drinking and staying up late is not going to do her any good. But she hung up on me and turned off her phone. I do not deserve to be treated like that when all I'm trying to do is get her to take charge of her health.

"The sad thing is that if Laurel could get hold of herself, we could have a great life together. I just got a union job with an excellent salary and benefits. That means we can afford to start a family soon. In fact, that was the first thing her dad said to me when I told him about my new job. He's a fantastic guy, and I love him and Laurel's mother as if they were my own parents. It's amazing how similar our families are, even though Laurel grew up in the city and I grew up on a farm. We share the same values.

"If Laurel and I got a divorce, it would be the first ever in either of our families. When I proposed to her, I pictured us together for the rest of our lives. I can't believe it's come to this and we haven't even been married for a year!"

The Counselor's Turn

"Listening to both Laurel and Ryan talk about their marital discord, I heard a subtext that I sensed neither one of them had acknowledged," said the counselor. "While Laurel's illness seemed to them to be the cause of their conflict, on another level each of them had a hidden agenda. Ryan had assumed that his wife would join him on his fishing trips, yet he never communicated that to Laurel during their courtship. For her part, Laurel had assumed that because Ryan had seemed to enjoy city life when they were dating, he would want to go out to restaurants, movies, and plays after they got married. Instead, he surprised her by retreating to exclusively nonurban forms of recreation.

"Of course, Laurel's symptoms made the situation worse. If she hadn't been so sluggish, she might have been willing to try fishing. And if she hadn't been dozing off in the evening, Ryan might have suggested one of the urban activities they'd once enjoyed. As it was, neither fulfilled the other's expectations, causing them to slip farther and farther apart. Even their sex life disappeared.

"I sensed, though, that this couple loved each other very much and, as Ryan pointed out, shared core values. I began by encouraging both of them to express their hidden agendas. At first they fell into fight mode, using accusatory language. Ryan said, 'You're too lazy to get up and go fishing with me,' to which Laurel retorted, 'You acted like you enjoyed city life but now you never take me anywhere.' I taught them to rephrase their statements to be less inflammatory, so that Ryan might say, 'I think you'd have fun going fishing with me.' Laurel, in turn, could say, 'I'd love to do the things we used to do in the city, at least every now and then.'

"As soon as I explained this to them, Ryan actually burst out laughing. 'Man, that seems so simple and obvious,' he said. Yet to them it had come as something of a revelation. With very little relationship experience between them, these two newlyweds were still figuring out how to be married. Something as simple as being polite to one another had eluded them. I pointed that out, and Ryan nodded. 'Both of us had parents who taught us respect, but I guess we lost it somewhere along the line.' Then he took a deep breath and said softly, 'Laurel, I'm sorry I called you lazy. That was a rotten thing to say. All I meant was that I want you to put as much effort as you can into being well. I can't stand to see you let this disease get the better of you.' Laurel's eyes welled up and she fumbled for a tissue in her purse. He pulled her close. 'I love you,' he whispered. 'I'm so sorry I seemed unsympathetic to your illness.'

"'I love you, too,' Laurel finally managed to choke out through her tears."

The Counselor's Turn, continued

"After that breakthrough moment, Ryan and Laurel still had to make some practical changes. I asked them to begin eating dinner in the dining room rather than in front of the TV so that they could practice their communication skills and thereby cement their emotional bond. I also urged each of them to try to fulfill at least some of the other's formerly hidden expectations. To that end, Laurel got up early one weekend and accompanied Ryan on his fishing trip. 'It was a lot of fun,' she reported, 'and it was so nice just to have that quiet time in the boat together.' The couple also committed to a once-a-week 'date' in the city for dinner or a play or a get-together with friends. Additionally, although I knew he meant well, I advised Ryan to cut back on his Internet research and refrain from offering Laurel a lot of unsolicited advice about how to handle her disease. And I counseled Laurel to start eating sensibly and get back into some kind of exercise regimen. As a result, she joined Weight Watchers, and she and Ryan started an early-morning routine of brisk walking together.

"At a session a few weeks later, the couple was all smiles as they told me about a long weekend trip they took to Branson, Missouri, for their first anniversary. Branson is a resort town where they were able to fish on three magnificent lakes, as well as go to nice restaurants and live stage shows. 'We both had a great time,' Ryan said, 'and we made good use of the king-size bed.'

"Laurel blushed and nodded. 'I have to admit I'm feeling better now that I'm losing weight and doing the walking,' she said. 'I see now that all his research and advice weren't meant as put-downs -- he was just worried about me. But I had to be the one to help myself.'

"'I just hope that someday I can teach our kids to treat themselves better than I was treating myself,' Laurel continued, 'especially if they inherit my condition. I know now that it's not impossible to control.'

"'Not impossible, but not easy, either,' Ryan said, squeezing his wife's hand. 'I'm so proud of everything you've accomplished.'"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2007.

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