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.

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 still beautiful to him.
  • 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?

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35 thoughts on “Do you have what it takes to show empathy to a sick husband?

  1. I am married to an Engineer. Even his list of symptoms becomes a spreadsheet. He had an Ophthalmologist who use to tease him about his list of questions. He is amusing at times. He just had serious ocular surgery, and I am over babying him beyond psychologically healthy. Men, they can’t handle health vicissitudes. And more thing, why do men hate going to the doctor when they have something going on? No wonder we live longer, we’re the stronger gender.

    He was on Diamox to keep his IOP down, and he’s lucky I am committed. That drug threw him off -center. My divorce would have read “DS”, Diamox Syndrome. OMG, it was nuts.

    • Wow! Your husband takes things to a new level. As a nurse I appreciate people being clear about their symptoms so to the spreadsheet I say Yeah! Yes we are the stronger sex and if they listen to us, married men live longer. You cracked me up with the Diamox Syndrome. LOL.

  2. Heh I have like negative empathy when my husband gets sick. I try to force it but as a wahm with no such thing as “sick days” in my life, it’s hard to feel bad. Maybe something I should work on…Maybe. 😉

  3. I am the most apathetic person my husband knows. haha! Or at least in his version of the story. 😉 My husband is chronically ill, and we have toddlers, so there are many times that I don’t give him the attention and care he really needs. But when he gets a cold, lawd…better believe it might as well be pneumonia.

    • Yes, this is the ultimate wifely challenge: dealing with a husband who has a cold. You have a lot on your plate for sure so empathy must be the first to slide off if you are going to get anything accomplished, right?

  4. Actually I believe the eye rolling was very empathetic. Empathy being the ability to understand how others are feeling, Patrick was feeling that he had a problem with his eye, and you were able to understand having a problem with your eyes when yours wouldn’t stop rolling.

  5. Once again, I’ll say St. Patrick is a keeper.

    I’m a huge baby when I’m sick, so I do appreciate a significant other who will put up with such behavior. 🙂

  6. What a lovely husband you have. I, too, admit at not having much patience when my husband is ill. He says that I use all my compassion up on my patients(I’m a nurse) and have none left for him!

  7. When my husband had a triple by-pass 17 years ago he was so independent it got on my nerves. He came out of intensive care and said ‘I think I will have a shower on my own’ to which the nurses replied ‘I don’t think so’. When he is ill he is grumpy so i usually stay out of his way!

  8. My husband shows my zero empathy. There have been a number of times (hospital visits included) that he hasn’t even asked me if I needed anything. I now counter act with the same amount of empathy for him. The difference is, he is a hypochondriac 😉

  9. My husband actually develops a limp when he gets so much as a head cold so you could say it’s hard for me to garner much sympathy after 25 years. To his credit, he does admit that he has no coping skills when it comes to being sick and he’s extremely tolerant of anything I do so I try to keep the eye rolls to a minimum. I don’t always succeed. Loved the post – looking forward to reading more!

    • From your description of your husband we have a lot more in common than our first names, Molly. Picturing your husband limping while snorting into a handkerchief had me snorting with laughter! I just checked out your blog and it is delightful. Looking forward to reading more of your posts, too!

  10. Great post!
    I’m afraid neither of us are very sympathetic towards each other. I think it’s because neither of us have time to be ill. Our daughter is seriously ill and we just concentrate on her, no time for each other.
    Hopefully we will stay well until the children are old enough to take care of themselves!

  11. You have no idea how alike we are! My husband has been hospitalized ten to twelve times since we got married. I rarely get sick. He is a wonderful man, who had also made a huge deposit into our marital account during a bad bought of depression that I went through. I finally determined that when I was put with this man to learn compassion and oddly enough, when I got more compassionate, he got sick less often. Go figure! He’s a good man. I repeat that when he gets sick…over…and over…and over…
    Great post!

    • Patrick really is the best, Terri, and I’m glad you have a husband who is rarely sick. That saves you from the perils of spousal ‘support.’ I am determined to do better the next time Patrick has even the tiniest problem. Yesterday he fell on the ice and banged his elbow and I offered to put ice on it for him. 🙂

  12. You hit the jackpot when it comes to having a loving caregiver-spouse, Molly–I’m envious. Hubs does try, but at times he tends to sound more irritated than empathetic if I’m sick. If HE’S sick, however (and he recently had a bout of shingles that lasted a few weeks, the poor guy), he’s incredibly thorough at detailing every symptom (and like you, I struggle with the eye roll). I’ve learned to do it behind his back, however.

    • You are very advanced to be able to control the eye roll until you are safely unobserved, Roxanne. Maybe you could do a youtube on how you’ve evolved to this level to help some of us who are failing miserably. I think your husband has real potential to make it as a shallow person, though. He’s got a lot of my traits when it comes to spousal empathy. LOL! P.S. Sorry about his bout with shingles.

  13. I came out into the living room this morning to find Richard softly chuckling, “What is so funny?” Response, “You are going to like Molly’s latest post ”
    You are too funny! You crack me up!

    • Oh how my heart warms at the thought of you and Richard having a chuckle this morning while reading something I wrote. Reading your comment was like finding a handwritten letter in the mailbox! XOXOXO

  14. Haha! Love it! And can definitely learn from this….especially the unconscious eye rolling! (And sounds like you had an awful time..hope all’s completely well now!)

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