For Better Or For Worse, In Sickness Or In Health

As many celebrate Valentine’s Day on 14 February, we thought it would be apt to revisit an article by Khoo Khee Ling, the head of SPD’s Community & Social Service [...]

As many celebrate Valentine’s Day on 14 February, we thought it would be apt to revisit an article by Khoo Khee Ling, the head of SPD’s Community & Social Service Department, who gave her insights on the realities of couples staying together in a marriage even after one acquires a disability. This article was first published in ExtraPage in July 2008.

A marriage begins with a vow on the wedding day, in the presence of family and friends, ‘to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, to love and to cherish till death do us part’.

While the wedding vow is said in an atmosphere of joy and excitement of a new life together, it is a solemn promise to stay faithful and committed come what may. However, when a disability strikes, the vow that was made so eagerly on the wedding day is put to the test. What will one do when the marriage seems to be ‘for worse’, ‘for poorer’ and ‘in sickness’? Can one still hold to the promise ‘to love and to cherish’ a spouse who has become disabled? What does it take for a marriage to survive the ordeal and last ‘till death do us part’?

“For worse…”

When a spouse sustains a physical impairment, it is an emotionally, physically and mentally traumatic experience for the marriage. Life takes on a sudden turn in another direction when a life partner loses the ability to function the same way before the disability sets in.

Today, there are still many women who choose to stay at home to be a full time mother and home maker. So when the husband acquires a disability, the family is thrown into instability as the breadwinner can no longer play the role of the provider. The wife now has to shoulder the responsibility of caregiving for her family, and that of a breadwinner as well. If it is the wife who acquires the disability, the husband takes over the role of nurturing and caregiving for the children, on top of being the main provider for the family.

Besides the stress of taking on new roles, the spouse of the person who had acquired a disability may also face a different kind of stress – that of losing a companion, someone who can reciprocate emotionally. In a normal, healthy family, a spouse is usually seen as a confidante, someone to discuss important matters with and seek support from when the going gets tough. But when either one becomes physically impaired, the other is expected to give more than before, and yet to expect lesser in return. It is in times like these that the relationship is thrown out of a healthy equilibrium of mutual support.

“For poorer…”

When a spouse becomes disabled, one area which is deeply impacted is the family’s finances. At the onset of the disability, one is likely to be unfit for work for a period of time, if not permanently. This often results in a sudden loss of income, which the family will need to react to in the midst of grief and anguish that accompanies the disability.

At the same time, finances may increase in more than one aspect: medical attention for the disabled spouse, alternative child care arrangements, specialised transport requirements, modifications to the home environment and more. The family faces the challenge of meeting these new financial demands, while possibly having to work on a smaller budget than before.

In order to deal with the sudden change in their financial situation, families with a member who has recently acquired a disability will need to make changes in their lifestyles and spending habits. Often, the task of managing the family’s finances lands in the hands of the spouse who is well. This new responsibility can be stressful especially when the spouse with the disability has been the one managing the money matters for the family.

“To love and to cherish…”

Seeing a spouse become disabled is an unpleasant experience that is not easy to come to terms with. A healthy marital relationship is one where there is mutual support, intimacy and shared dreams and goals.

Often with the presence of a disability, the support becomes one sided, there is a loss in intimacy and dreams and goals may have to take a back seat. Many times, the spousal relationship changes and the married couple will need to find new ways to support each other, have intimate moments and rebuild their dreams. This would mean that the spouse who became disabled needs to learn to come to terms with the loss of his or her physical functions, and find ways to adapt and ’move on’ in life. External support like counselling can help the person with disability to re-look at options and make responsible choices for self and family.

Likewise, the spouse who is well will also need to accept the disability of his or her partner, and learn to see potential and possibilities beyond the disability. He or she will also need to learn coping strategies to deal with the increased responsibility and changes in familial role. The need for self-care is even more important than before because only when one learns to take good care of himself or her self, is he or she then able to be a good and supportive caregiver to the spouse with the disability and the family.

“Till death do us part…”

Having a spouse who acquires a disability does not mean the end of a marital relationship. It is possible to remain supportive to each other, enjoy intimate moments together and rebuild dreams or even make new goals together. What helps to keep the marriage together despite the disability is the commitment to each other in the face of difficulties.

When the situation proves too demanding or stressful, the couple can seek support from social workers or counsellors. These professionals will walk with them through the tough times, talk through their difficulties and help them to see options and possibilities.

When the couple is ready to move on, the counselling ends and they re-embark on their journey of life together, now with the support of each other. We wish all our clients and their spouses a loving and long-lasting marriage!