Do you have what it takes to show empathy to a sick husband?

I was having lunch with my friend Sheila (not her real name) when she confided a secret to me about her marriage. She said she couldn’t tolerate her husband when he gets sick. She said he is a perfect husband in every way until a viral infection takes over his personality and turns him into a whiny, dependent shell of a man.

I admitted that I struggle with the same issue. I told her I try to show sympathy but after a couple of hours of shaking chills, I admonish Patrick to, ‘snap out of it and stop being so dramatic.”

I told her I have to overcome this shortcoming because Patrick has put a huge deposit into our marital bank account during the past twelve weeks while I’ve suffered from a peri-tonsillar abscess, recurrent sinus infections and an unforgiving asthma flare.

I declared my resolution to show him a softer, kinder self the next time he has an illness.

Photo courtesy depositphotos: used with permission

Photo courtesy depositphotos: used with permission

Details of his investment

I recounted Patrick’s patience and all the things he had done for me:

  • Drove me to the doctor and dragged my limp body into the exam room.
  • Fetched antibiotics, pain relievers, inhalers, nose sprays, cough syrup, and panty liners.
  • Never complained when I cried and coughed in the night disturbing his sleep, only getting upset when I settled onto the couch, urging me to return to bed so I’d be more comfortable.
  • Helped me regain my composure when I was under the influence of prednisone, exhibiting uncharacteristic irritability and agitation.
  • Accepted my ‘attitude’ when I was angry about my slow progress and frustrated with my symptoms.
  • Assumed extra duties to compensate for my exhaustion and lack of energy.
  • Insisted I stay home and rest, and became my gatekeeper against the outside world.
  • Failed to mention how frightening I looked with dark circles under my eyes and a death-like pallor.
  • Watched me raise yucky mucous and perform nasal irrigations and told me I was beautiful.
  • Encouraged me to keep in touch with my doctor and follow her instructions without telling me what to do.

Missed opportunity 

After my conversation with Sheila, I admit I was anxious for an opportunity to show Patrick the love and empathy he deserves. Of course, I didn’t wish illness to strike him, but if in the natural course of events it happened, I was ready.

That same evening as we were brushing our teeth preparing for bed, Patrick pulled down his lower lid to show me a red, inflamed eyeball.

Here’s what I believe I said with a look of concern, “Oh darling, that looks so uncomfortable. Use some of my allergy eye drops so you can get some relief.”

Here’s what he thinks I said accompanied by an eye roll, “I noticed that. Squirt some of these eye drops into it and shut up about it.”

I believe the truth lies somewhere between our polarized perceptions.

I probably did say I had noticed the red eye earlier because indeed I had noticed it. I did not, however, recognize this minor issue as a golden opportunity for me to practice my newly claimed empathy skills.

And the eye roll is definitely an unconscious act that I need aggressive therapy to defeat. Maybe even shock treatments.

I know I didn’t tell him to ‘shut up’ about his condition. Not in those words at least.

Meanwhile, I’m grateful that instead of separate accounts we have a joint marital bank account with a hefty balance funded by Patrick’s supreme efforts. And I’m determined to make a contribution the next time Patrick has an ailment.

How do you cope when your spouse or partner is ill? Do you have what it takes to show empathy?

Molly Stevens

About Molly Stevens

Molly Stevens arrived late to the writing desk but is forever grateful her second act took this direction instead of adult tricycle racing or hoarding cats. She was raised on a potato farm in northern Maine, where she wore a snowsuit over both her Halloween costume and her Easter dress.