1 out of 2 people in the U.S. has a chronic illness and in 96% of these cases, the chronic illness is invisible. This means the illness is not readily apparent to others because the person doesn’t use an assistive device like a cane or a wheelchair. Most people with an invisible illness can tell you story after story of family members, friends, co-workers, bosses, etc. who don’t actually believe they’re ill. They’ve been given snide looks when exiting their car after parking in a handicapped spot. They’ve been told by their friends that they look too good to be sick. They’ve been questioned by bosses as to why they miss so many days of work when even a doctor can’t determine an appropriate diagnosis.
These scenarios are all too common and happen to millions of people every day. Most of us are able to shrug it off and move on in spite of anger, frustration and hurt. But what happens when the person who promised to love you in sickness and in health doesn’t believe you’re actually sick?
Few things hurt more in life than when your spouse expresses doubt about your illness or worse yet, accuses you of making it up! “Are you kidding me?” you want to shout at the top of your lungs but even that consumes too much energy when you’re already feeling rotten. “Can’t he see how fatigued I am every day?” you wonder. “How can I live with someone who shows me no empathy?” you think to yourself as you contemplate your next move.
Before you throw in the towel too quickly on your marriage, consider these options:
Take a trust inventory. Have you ever been less than 100% honest with your spouse during your marriage? Is it common for you to tell “little white lies”? Has your spouse expressed reasons to distrust you in the past? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to do some damage control. Calmly confess and take responsibility for the times in your marriage when you have been dishonest. Ask for forgiveness. Tell your spouse that although you haven’t always been trustworthy in the past, you are now being completely honest and upfront with him regarding your invisible illness. Explain that you are 100% committed to being open and transparent and that you hope he will join you in learning more about your illness.
Go way back. Most of us fail to ask our spouses about their childhood experiences with illness. Why would we? It seems like such a strange thing to inquire about. And yet, our past holds important clues to the way we behave and respond today. If your spouse is having difficulty believing you have an invisible chronic illness, ask him these questions:
- Were any close family members ill when you were a child?
- How were these family members viewed by the extended family?
- Did these family members need a lot of care? Were they difficult to care for?
- Did they complain a lot? Were they in much pain?
- What was the outcome of their illness? Chronic? Death?
You may be surprised to learn that your husband’s great Aunt Edna had a host of chronic illnesses that no doctor could accurately diagnose. She was unable to care for herself and had to move in with your husband’s family. Not only did she require a lot of care, but your husband lost his bedroom and was forced to bunk with a younger brother resulting in a ton of resentment.
Fast forward to today. Your husband’s Aunt Edna story is playing itself out all over again except this time, it’s not Aunt Edna but YOU! The point is that there is usually more to a reaction than meets the eye. Before you accuse your spouse of being the most selfish and insensitive person to ever walk the earth, do some digging to see what may be behind his refusal to acknowledge your illness.
Tackle the fear together. You know the old saying “ignorance is bliss” right? Well, I might add “denial is bliss” for many people. If they can deny something is happening, then they don’t have to deal with the fear. The problem with this strategy is that it simply doesn’t work. We have to live in reality and face our fears no matter how big they are.
If you’ve told your spouse that you have an invisible illness and he doesn’t believe you, invite him to meet with your doctor so that he can get his questions answered firsthand. Give him printed materials that not only explain the illness but how to manage it. Tell him you are committed to managing this illness to the best of your ability but that you need his help and support.
To elicit some of his concerns/fears, try asking him the following questions:
- If you were convinced I had ___________ (fill in the blank with your invisible illness), what would be your biggest fear?
- What are your fears around me continuing to care for you, the kids, our house, other responsibilities, etc.?
- What are your financial fears around me not working or cutting down to part-time to accommodate my illness?
- What are your fears around possibly being a care-giver to me?
You may be hurt, angry and frustrated at first by your spouse’s refusal to see your invisible illness as real. Give it some time and try to remain patient. The truth always comes out in the end.
© Copyright 2011 by Helena Madsen, MA, therapist in Gilberts, Illinois. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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