Helping A Suffering Spouse
By Sue Haggerty
I was in labor with my fourth child when I had my first panic attack. I was lying on the bed in triage, calmly answering routine questions from the nurse. In my mind, however, I was fretting about the delivery, remembering the rapid arrival of our previous daughter. Worry got the best of me, and my whole body started to go numb. I managed a feeble, “Um, excuse me, something’s wrong.” The nurse looked concerned as I explained, “I think I’m just nervous.” Luckily the nurse was reassuring, and my panic attack passed in a few seconds. I really thought nothing of it.
Fast forward six months and I was again at the hospital—this time having a full-blown panic attack and without a sympathetic nurse. Two days prior, my family had been struck with a stomach virus. I had a particularly bad case. Due to dehydration, my arms began painfully cramping, and I went numb. My husband called 911 and I was admitted to the hospital. What should have been a one-hour rehydration visit became a six-hour ordeal. I could not calm down and I was hyperventilating. The lack of oxygen was causing my body to remain cramped. I was frantically yelling to anyone who would pass, “Can you please help me?” I truly felt out of control, but I didn’t care. I just wanted someone to make the pain go away. My poor husband tried his best to calm me, but the gruff nurse would just yell back, “You have got to calm down!” They couldn’t give me antianxiety medicine because I was still nursing my baby. Finally I asked the nurse if she could count with me, and she agreed. “1, 2, 3…” In a short time, I was able to finally calm down. She gave me Benadryl, and I slept.
When I awoke, I was my smiley self leaving the hospital. Unfortunately I was not the same. Panic attacks are now my body’s go-to reaction for stress, anxiety, and grief. In the context of marriage, a spouse can make these episodes infinitely better with the correct support. No marriage is immune to anxiety, stress, or hardship. Foster these important elements in your marriage to help you and your spouse through the toughest times.
Friendship. Dr. Patrick Ford, a psychologist from Brewster, New York, says that one important component to cultivate in developing a strong marriage that can mitigate stress is friendship. He says, “Mutual respect for and honor of each other, fondness and admiration for who your spouse is, and sincere enjoyment of each other’s company makes a strong marriage that can weather the storms.” Because we often get caught up in our own world, Ford says it is important to integrate 10 minutes of “couple time” each day. He says, “Spouses need to connect each day to remind each other that each is the one person who loves them more than anyone else in the world. God made each of them for each other and no one else, and their love is God’s manifestation of his unconditional love for them.”
Action item: Try one of Dr. Ford’s suggestions for “couple time.” You can use the time to talk, pray, reflect on what you’re reading, or just listen. Enjoy a cup of coffee together before the day begins, go for a walk after work, sit at the table and have dessert while the kids play in the other room, or have a glass of wine at the end of the day.Talk about hopes, dreams, stresses, fears, or successes.
Pray together. Erin Franco, a Catholic wife and mother of three who writes the blog HumbleHandmaid.com and hosts the podcast The Right Heart believes in the strength of “couple prayer” when a spouse is going through a difficult time. On a retreat for the Domestic Church Movement, Franco and her husband Michael learned how to pray together as a couple. She explains, “Part of the prayer is just spontaneous. You say what’s on your heart as far as a prayer intention or your worries and fears, as well as what you’re thankful for.” Praying together daily has strengthened their marriage and is a blessing during times of hardship. She says, “It gives you a great space to see what’s in your spouse’s heart and also for your spouse to see what’s in your heart and be able to express thankfulness.”
Action item: Try to find a prayer specific to your anxiety. Pray to St. Joseph for a job hunt, or the Divine Mercy for a lost loved one. Do a novena to St. Rita for an impossible situation. Say an Act of Hope every day.
Count your blessings. Expressing thankfulness, Ford says, is an effective way of improving mood and countering depression, anxiety, and anger. He says, “Give thanks for all that God has given you. Suffering spouses can lose sight of all that they have, and a loving spouse can be an additional blessing in reminding their spouse of all they have to be thankful for.” In their book 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage, Jennifer Roback Morse and Betsy Kerekes recommend practicing these phrases: “I really appreciate you doing that for me. I could not do this without your help. You do so much for our family. I am grateful to you.” They say that by practicing these every day, “Eventually you’ll be able to do it without even thinking, and your spouse and you will be all the happier for it!”
Action item: Start a gratitude journal. List all the blessings in your life from the simple day-to-day to the more profound.
Pray for each other. Praying for your spouse, especially when he or she is suffering, is extremely important. Dr. Ford says, “Success in marriage is more likely when we invite God to be an active participant and guide. This principle is not complicated, but it requires our close attention. We’ve become so accustomed to hearing about prayer that its importance often passes us by.” Franco points out that it’s important to remember that some crosses and trials can take a long time to resolve themselves. She recalls one particularly grace-filled moment where she was able to trust in God’s timing. She says, “I was praying and said, ‘God, I don’t know when this is going to work out, but I am praying for good things. And I believe that you have those for us. I trust in your timing that we’re going to have them, and if we needed them now, we would already have them.’”
Action item: If your spouse has an important meeting, say a prayer. If your spouse is having a hard day with the kids, say a prayer. Offer your day for each other. Let each other know that you are seeking heaven’s help on each other’s behalf.
Communication with your spouse. When one spouse is suffering, communication is essential, but it can be difficult. Franco says, “Always speak the truth to your spouse when it naturally arises in conversation, but just know that you can say things in the perfect way possible, not be any clearer, or feel you could not have any better timing, but sometimes it’s going to bounce off of them.” In those times, she says, it’s important to be humble enough to recognize that they may need to hear it from someone else. Dr. Ford suggests allowing God to guide your communication. He says, “Most of us tend to inevitably sin in our communication with each other. When we begin to drift away from God’s intended purpose for it, we have a choice: Will we be puffed up with pride or will we have the humility to stop right where we are and ask God to help redeem our conversation?”
Action item: What can you do to reduce stress or suffering in your spouse’s life? Every person and situation is different. Finding what works can provide a much-needed lifeline. If you are suffering or feeling stressed, let your spouse know. Suffering in silence will bring you both down, while together you can raise each other up. Sometimes you can’t fix the problem. Sometimes you can’t make your spouse feel better. Just listen. Let your spouse talk things out.
Sacrifice. When Franco was watching her husband go through a hard time, she recognized the cross of having a suffering spouse. She says, “One day, I realized that supporting a suffering spouse or a spouse who’s unhappy is a cross in itself, and it helps if you call it by its name. It helps to really identify with Our Lady who had to watch her son suffer and couldn’t really do anything but pray for him and be present with him. I’ve grown closer to her and learned to identify with her through that experience with my husband.” Although you may know your spouse is suffering from something that has nothing to do with you, feelings of inadequacy may creep in. Push them aside. Thoughts of “Aren’t I good enough?” or “I’ve been doing so much” will only drive a wedge where your spouse needs you most.
Action item: Sometimes when your spouse is suffering, you’ll have to take over some extra responsibilities. Offer to clean the dishes or put the kids to bed. Encourage your spouse to get out of the house for a walk, a night out with friends, or a trip to Adoration.
Letting your spouse know you love them. Dr. Ford says, “Regardless of what the physical conditions are, what generally causes suffering is feeling unloved and/or unsafe. A loving spouse who can remind his or her spouse that they are loved and establish a sense of safety and security in the face of adversity will both support each spouse and strengthen their marriage.” Franco says it’s important to speak all the love languages—even the ones that may be difficult. She says, “It means so much to your spouse if you can make that effort, and even if they don’t notice that it’s harder for you, God notices. He rewards that and honors and multiplies every small effort we do. He sees it.”
Action item: The security behind a hug, a pat on the back, a small gift, or an acknowledgment of the way your spouse is feeling means so much without saying a word.
Encourage your spouse to seek professional help if needed. Some anxiety can work itself out over time. If it does not, help your spouse discern if they need professional help.