Better Marriages Prepares us for “In Sickness and in Death” | Articles | Blog | Better Marriages | Educating Couples - Building Relationships

Better Marriages Prepares us for “In Sickness and in Death”

Huw Christopher, Pasadena, California

My wife, Rachel, was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2018. Having spent years nurturing and growing our relationship, we’d never quite considered that one day one of us would end up alone.

When Rachel was diagnosed she was referred to City of Hope in Duarte, California.  Soon after her initial consultation with her Breast Cancer Surgeon she received a letter from the Women’s Clinic at City of Hope in which the doctors were encouraging both of us to participate in a Couples’ Support Group offered by the social workers in the Department of Supportive Care Medicine.  The letter outlined the fact that a cancer diagnosis not only has a dramatic effect upon the patient but also upon a spouse or significant other.  While recognizing this fact, we may well have been reluctant to become involved in such a support group had it not been for Better Marriages.  The beneficial experience which Rachel and I had found in Marriage Enrichment Groups, State Conferences and Couple Retreats made us more than ready to take advantage of this opportunity of a couples’ support group, especially since moving to Pasadena, California we had not been able to connect with a Marriage Enrichment Group connected with Better Marriages.

Unfortunately, unlike most Marriage Enrichment Groups in Better Marriages, this Couples’ Group was an open monthly group so that there was no assurance that the same couples would be in attendance at any meetings.  At times, even one person from a couple, the patient or the caregiver, would be in attendance alone.  The dynamics of the group meant that the couples dialogue which we had known as a hallmark of Better Marriages could not take place.  One of the interesting things for us, though, was something we never recall hearing in a Marriage Enrichment Group.  This was that in the introduction to each group meeting one of the two leaders would remind the couples that each partner entered into this relationship knowing that one day it would end. Possibly the reality of a cancer diagnosis made everyone there more conscious of this reality than couples in most Marriage Enrichment Groups. In order to facilitate discussion that was related to each person’s needs at that time everyone was given a card and asked to write on it the concerns he or she would like to discuss with the group that day.  One of the leaders then reviewed the cards for common themes and set the discussion topics for the time together in this way. As people introduced themselves, they were frequently asked to state what they appreciated about their partner.

While not the same as a Marriage Enrichment Group in Better Marriages, Rachel and I found this group to be most helpful to us as we tried to cope with her cancer diagnosis and treatments.  We were happy that even with the restrictions of Covid-19 the group was able to continue virtually.  Out of our frequent reference to our “knee to knee” dialogues the leaders, who were not familiar with Better Marriages, would often start to make reference to this way of talking about an issue as a couple! Besides being able to talk with other couples about cancer diagnoses and treatments, one of the other benefits to us was the opportunity to get to know the social workers who led the group and to be able to count on their friendship and support through Rachel’s times in the City of Hope Hospital and through her various treatments.

For City of Hope this Couples’ Support Group is one of several strategies that they have introduced and found to be helpful to cancer patients and their partners.  It is this concern not just for the patient but also for the caregiver that they have been seeking to model to other cancer institutions and hospitals because of their recognition of its benefit to both the patient and the caregiver.

After Rachel was later diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer, we were able to find virtually a weekly Patient and Caregiver Support Group through the Cancer Support Community of Los Angeles. Our experience with Better Marriages and with the Couples’ Group at City of Hope made us very ready to take advantage of this group as well.

Out of our experience, Rachel and I would certainly encourage couples to use any opportunity they have to share in a Couples’ or Patient and Caregiver Support Group.  Such groups are not limited to cancer patients but are available for many critical medical conditions.  We would encourage couples to check with their doctors or social workers or with their local Cancer Support Community or support organizations for other medical conditions to see if such a group is available. So many support groups are either for patients or for caregivers and not so many invites both to participate and to be able to share together.  Participation in such groups now that many have gone virtual and may continue to be so in at least in a hybrid version can become more difficult when couples are living in small living spaces and the facilitators request that no one else be present or when one partner relies upon the other one for technological help. Maybe information about such couples’ groups and the development of more is something that Better Marriages can also help to encourage. Certainly, out of our own experience of the support we have received from Better Marriages and from these Couples’ Support Groups during Rachel’s sickness, I have found now that I have been more ready on my own to participate in Grief Support groups since her death and was particularly appreciative of the invitation to the Better Marriages Emeritus Group.