THE FOLLOWING GUEST POST is written by Helena Madsen
When we live with chronic illness, we often daydream about quitting our jobs. We’re tired of constantly having to juggle sick days, the fatigue that predictably sets in, and the less than stellar performance reviews as we struggle to keep up with our work load.
Not working sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? But few couples consider the impact it has on their marriage relationship. As with any major life change, shifting from working to non-working status has ripple effects on every area of life.
When I met my husband thirteen years ago, I viewed us as equals. Even though I had my physical limitations to deal with, I never felt inferior to him in any way. I earned a good salary at a company where I had worked for thirteen years. I owned my own home. I had great friends and lots of free time to pursue interests and hobbies. I felt capable, empowered and independent. In sum, my life was full.
Shortly after our wedding, my employer went out of business and I was left without a job; a job that gave me a sense of identity and accomplishment. We suddenly went from a two income household to relying solely on my husband’s salary.
Around this time, new physical limitations as a result of my muscular dystrophy appeared that made me doubt my abilities and question the future. Fear, anxiety and depression crept into my life, making both of us miserable. I wish I could tell you that it was only a matter of months before we regained our equilibrium. Unfortunately, it took much longer than that.
Leaving a fulfilling job where I had created a strong sense of community did a number on my self- confidence. And the biggest surprise was the impact it had on my marriage. I allowed my loss of identity to dictate how I related to my husband, made decisions and viewed my own competency.
Relationship dynamics inevitably shift when one partner in the relationship stops working.
Just like when illness first entered your marriage, a new version of balance needs to be negotiated. If not, old relationship rules can create stress, frustration and a whole lot of conflict.
Of course, the decision to stop working doesn’t just affect self-identify or the balance of power in a marriage. It also directly affects your finances. Most likely, you entered your marriage as two income producing adults. You quickly grew accustomed to a certain standard of living and all the things these incomes afforded. Perhaps you stretched a bit on the purchase of your home. Or you have debt consisting of school loans, car payments or credit card purchases. You’re treading water financially; not feeling entirely secure but not panicking in the deep end either.
Then illness hit and you lost your financial footing a bit. Chronic illness is expensive. There are treatments not covered by insurance, costly medications, and assistive equipment to help with mobility. None of these are cheap. Immediately the questions come: Can I cut down to part-time work? Will I have to quit my job altogether? How can we possibly get by on one income?
These issues have the potential to drive a wedge between the two of you if you’re not careful. Having honest and thoughtful conversations around work, finances and lifestyle are often difficult for many couples but it’s critical. Addressing these important factors will help you avoid getting stuck in the blame/shame cycle.
Here are some questions to ask each other when deciding whether to keep working:
1. How is the illness currently affecting my/your job in terms of performance, productivity, and output?
2. Is my/your job adversely impacting my/your health? How?
3. Are there ways my/your employer can accommodate my/your health needs? e.g. less stressful job duties, a reduction in hours, work from home arrangement, etc.
4. If I/you need to quit my/your job, how do we both feel about this decision?
5. Is seeking Social Security Disability payments an option for us? If so, how do we go about getting more information?
6. Are there immediate steps we can take to reduce our household expenses to compensate for one income? What about long-term strategies to reduce expenses?
7. One spouse having to shoulder the income producing responsibility can cause huge resentment and guilt in a marriage. What are some ways we will avoid this trap?
8. Can we think of any ways to generate additional income? E.g. a side business at home pursuing an interest, passion or hobby?
The decision to continue working when chronically ill is uniquely personal. No one can or should make that decision for you. If unsure, consider career counseling or coaching to help you make a well-informed decision.
In addition to physical symptoms and limitations, it’s equally important to consider the role work plays in your self-esteem and marital relationship. No matter what you ultimately decide, you want to feel confident knowing you considered all your options and made your decision as holistically as possible.
How does working with chronic illness currently play a role in your marriage? Please leave a comment!
Helena Madsen is a wife, mother, counselor and blogger who lives with Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy. For more resources on marriage and illness or to download her free e-book For Better or Worse: A Guide to Talking About Illness in Your Marriage, visit www.ChronicMarriage.com.