"His Cancer Is Ruining Our Marriage"

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The Counselor's Turn

Recent therapy sessions had strengthened this couple's relationship," said the counselor, "but Jeff's diagnosis left them too overwhelmed to tap the skills they'd learned.

"In a society where sick people are constantly urged to 'be positive,' those unable to see the silver lining may feel like failures. But sometimes the best you can do is hold the other person and say, 'this stinks.' That said, Amy and Jeff needed to focus on what they could do rather than on what they'd lost. They also had to understand that different approaches to the crisis didn't have to threaten their marriage. It wasn't Jeff's nature to calmly accept his fate -- he needed to act to feel less helpless. But their relationship would fare better if he listened to Amy's suggestions -- taking time to rest, for instance. Amy was particularly confused about her role. When she played the cheerleader, Jeff snapped at her. Instead, she needed to encourage him to talk.

"One key skill they worked on was 'checking in' with each other. Its purpose is to find out what a partner needs to feel loved, rather than falling back on past assumptions. 'You'll still fight, but this way, your partner feels prepared, not ambushed,' I said. Jeff especially needed to be able to say how scared he was of dying and know Amy was strong enough to hear it.

"Jeff has been dealt a double whammy: a life-threatening disease that may also leave him impotent. For now he and Amy connect physically through hugging, touching, and cuddling. They still hope to have children but don't want to rush the decision. Fortunately, the frozen sperm gives them leeway.

"To counteract Jeff's depression, I had them begin each day with a gratitude exercise. 'Sit quietly, hold hands, look into each other's eyes, and think about how lucky you are to have each other,' I said. In time Jeff was able to glimpse that elusive silver lining. 'Having cancer has made me reconsider what's important,' he said recently, 'and it's made me appreciate the uniquely wonderful woman I'm married to.'

"'Right now, Jeff is cancer-free,' Amy said. 'That fact alone makes us incredibly thankful.'"


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2009.


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