When Your Spouse Doesn’t Believe You Have an Invisible Illness

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:

  1. If you were convinced I had ___________ (fill in the blank with your invisible illness), what would be your biggest fear?
  2. What are your fears around me continuing to care for you, the kids, our house, other responsibilities, etc.?
  3. What are your financial fears around me not working or cutting down to part-time to accommodate my illness?
  4. 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. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    April 29th, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    That is a terrific article on a topic I’ve never seen addressed in print before. I’m sure it will resonate for many people, and your suggestions are constructive and proactive.

  • jacob

    April 29th, 2011 at 7:04 PM

    my back troubles me every now and then and although this doesn’t affect me everyday or my daily activities,when it does strike,I find myself in terrible pain.the wife thinks it’s just the usual back pain that many of us experience because of our not-so-perfect postures.but it is much more than that,something that is apparent from the pain I suffer.been to many doctors but none could say they is something wrong.all seemed normal.I do not know how to convince her or even get treatment for this.and as a side note,getting treatment would be much better than convincing her.is there help for these kind of things?should I give alternative treatment methods a try?

  • Danielle

    April 30th, 2011 at 9:26 AM

    What kind of spouse would not believe that the other was sick? I need a little more respect and belief than that!

  • austin

    May 2nd, 2011 at 4:39 AM

    If you can’t prove you have it then how is anybody supposed to know whether or not it is real?

  • Lee

    May 8th, 2011 at 7:38 PM

    I’m overweight and I also have a lame left leg. When I use the scooters in Wal-Mart, all I get is dirty looks and sometimes insults. I can’t prove I have a bad leg but I wish folks would be more understanding that I’m not lazy. Just because you don’t see the pain in my leg doesn’t mean it’s not there. It would be worse to be on the receiving end of that from your spouse.

  • Jim

    May 10th, 2011 at 8:11 PM

    @Lee, you have my sympathy. I see some regular shoppers who can take a far away spot in the parking lot, walk the whole way to the store, and do their grocery shopping perfectly fine. Then the next day, there’s a scooter available and they take that instead. That’s why many who use them gets tarred with the “lazy” brush.

  • Raymond

    May 10th, 2011 at 10:16 PM

    People nowadays are quick to label someone as a hypochondriac for anything less than a severed extremity. I admit I’ve accused my staff of simply acting up for attention on multiple occasions when they complained about RSI. I got it myself one day when the Universe decided to give out its karma rewards.

  • angel

    May 11th, 2011 at 11:34 AM

    @Raymond, that’s the Universe for you! LOL. You claim a staff member is an outright liar and somebody upstairs decides you need to see how it feels. You’ve got to admit that’s funny. :)

  • Chris

    May 11th, 2011 at 8:04 PM

    You’d think this wouldn’t be so common. You can’t see autism, ADHD, you usually can’t see most cancers with the naked eye, or internal pain. I would bet we’ve all been accused of making pain up, and nobody cares about your problems until you pass out.

  • Susanna

    May 12th, 2011 at 6:53 PM

    Fibromyalgia is one of those invisible illnesses. I’m not even sure it’s recognized as a real one. My sister says she has it and I don’t believe her. How can I? She’s always spent her life poring over medical books. For a hypochondriac like her, the net is heaven.

  • Colleen

    December 11th, 2019 at 12:36 PM

    You are the very kind of person that makes having a chronic illness even harder on those who suffer. People who have chronic illnesses with no treatment or cure, are obviously going to pour over medical literature to find answers and help relieve their pain-OBVIOUSLY. It is the only option, considering the rest of the world is completely heartless. Just wow, your own sister and you can’t even believe and support her. Seriously, people like you will get your karma. It is coming.

  • Elizabeth

    October 1st, 2023 at 7:49 AM

    Maybe you should do your research before being so insensitive and judgemental. Just to be clear, there are numerous studies that have found physical abnormalities in the brain of those with fibromyalgia.

  • Mary

    April 9th, 2012 at 12:07 PM

    Oy you see the prejudice and false assumptions even in the comments. As Jim says above that someone who can walk one day should be able to walk the next. Sorry, friend, but many chronic illnesses do not work that way. Ever heard of “good days and bad days”? In fact, most of your chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia, Lupus, MS… are unpredictable from one day to the next. Remember your judgments say nothing about the person you’re judging and everything about you. I’ll admit I’ve made these assumptions, too… but then I grew up out of my teens.

    And yes, Jacob, you should. I also recommend Dr. John Sarno’s books on chronic pain and back pain. Completely changed how I look at pain and is helping me recover from fibromyalgia and disc disease-related pain (with many other methods including chiropractic which is a must). But it takes open-mindedness and a bit of hard-headedness (not believing everything the doctors tell you) to improve chronic ailments. Honestly, my problem with a sick spouse would come when they stopped working to make themselves better. This is why I can’t tolerate most “support” groups.

    And Susanna, your distrust will only make her symptoms worse… mark my words. Wanting to understand your body, and even having an intuitive fear that something is wrong, are not crimes. Of course there’s a higher incidence of fibro in people who come from dysfunctional families, so a lack of family support is very common. Sometimes it’s best for these people to let these toxic family members go.

  • Rita M.

    May 10th, 2020 at 6:03 PM

    Exactly. Mary. I’ve had Lupus for 45 years (am now 65) and feel really, really tired right now. I don’t usually talk about it but if I mention it, people always say “but you look so good”. There was a newspaper article I saw once that said Lupus people look really good but feel awful. So true!

  • Judith

    July 13th, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    @Susanna – You don’t deserve to HAVE a sister.

  • Dree

    March 19th, 2017 at 11:50 AM

    @Susanna–I hope Karma get you.

  • Stephanie

    October 22nd, 2017 at 6:39 PM

    I have Fibromyalgia and I hurt everyday I told him I hurt so bad (as i was in tears,) I cannot do this anymore, he said to me… You need to work out! No empathy, I cannot deal with this!!

  • Clay

    April 2nd, 2020 at 11:48 AM

    My wife knows I have liver disease. And also a crooked leg bad back. But when I come home early from work which is driving a gravel truck, do to pain. She gets mad and basically says I’m lazy and don’t want to work. To make matters worse she is even a nurse.

  • Rayla

    September 13th, 2021 at 3:32 PM

    It’s very real for spouses to deny your ill. We have been married for 37 years and the last 7-10 have been very trying. My health has diminished and my husband acts like he cares and helps all the time around the Drs and friends and family. I enjoy being around people but I’ve gotten to where I can’t stand it because we soon as we get home my husband starts in on me. He will ask me why I can be so nice and help at home like I do when we’re at other peoples houses. He says I can’t do a damn thing around our own house. He will also ask how come I can always go do things I want to do but I can’t do anything here to help keep things caught up. I do things but not like I used to. I wash and dry the laundry, it doesn’t always get put up immediately but it’s clean. I take the cars to get the oil changed to get the tires rotated. I do this because I’m not working anymore but I also did it when I was working, all of this. One day he will do something wonderful that just makes me feel so good and says he wants to because I don’t ask for much. But by the end of the day it’s like he expects intimacy as a thank you and I’m tired, I don’t feel good, my muscles and joints and everything hurt. We are just starting to find out a final diagnosis that I’ve been chasing for a long time. I have a total hip replacement that is gone bad. But on top of that I also have had gluteal tendons torn, hamstrings torn, knuckles removed in my thumb because they were bone on bone, knee scraped for the meniscus being bad and torn. I also have bulging discs and compression in my back. My husband has trouble understanding why I want to rely on him to try to understand and be there for me and help me and be patient with the things I do and not come down on me because I didn’t do it right or as fast as he wanted. It’s really hard to want to keep going. Thank heaven I have two grandchildren that I really want to be around to make some of these days a little easier. I’ve been diagnosed with Elher-Danlos Syndrome and I’m going through the genetic testing right now to find out what genes have been affected. He was at the doctors office with me when they told me and we picked up the kit but today he just said you don’t even have a diagnosis and I don’t know why you’re so damn lazy and can’t do anything around here or care about me. I want to leave but I don’t believe in just running from problems. I want him to care for me like I thought he was the day I married him and that I have for him when he has been ill. it’s true I may not look ill, and I may not act it all the time you have a good and bad days before the one person did you pray will help you chooses not to and to back you up it is the hardest thing in life you can deal with. So those of you that think your families faking it step back and put yourself in their shoes. Maybe they have just had a feeling that something still isn’t right because the way they feel inside the way the body hurts. That may be why they looked up things trying to get some help because generally a doctor looks at the simplest explanation for things and diagnosis they don’t look at the big picture and dig deep they only scratched the surface of the soil. My GP just told me a couple months ago I had lupus and now my rheumatologist and geneticist can’t believe she made that diagnosis because this is nothing like that. Try to be there for your loved ones they really need you.

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