Talking with Your Spouse When Your Child Has Cancer

By Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. and Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D., California, USA

Are you having trouble talking meaningfully with your spouse about your fears these days? You've probably found that when your child develops cancer, it changes every aspect of your family life, threatening your sense of stability and changing your parenting roles.

Dialoging with your partner in the midst of a health crisis often reflects typical differences between men and women - particularly in what they want from each other. While women need to be heard and understood, men are often intent on finding a solution to the problem.

The result is that, even though your partner wants to be supportive when your child is sick, it may be difficult for him to talk with you about his deepest thoughts and worries. This can cause conversations that aren't authentic and cause you to feel your emotions are being discounted.

After their child's surgery for bone cancer, Janice thought her husband downplayed her anxiety and angst. Intellectually she knew that the operation had gone well and their son's prognosis was good. But she was depressed and needed to express her negative feelings. If she was going to feel better, she knew she had to begin dealing with them. "Ted didn’t want to talk about my fears and even withdrew from his own emotions. It upset him when I felt scared or cried. All he could focus on was our son Greg being fine and us getting on with our lives."

If you find that you're struggling to communicate, consider the following possibilities about why it may so hard to talk openly and honestly with your husband. Then put these issues on the table so you both can see what's going on.

  • Your spouse is in denial about the seriousness of your child's condition because he himself needs to believe that everything will be ok. He's motivated to use this kind of coping strategy in an attempt to minimize his own sadness and fears, as well as yours.
  • Naturally, it's painful for your partner to see you vulnerable and distressed about your child. His reaction is to try to talk you out of your negative feelings in a misguided belief that, by being overly protective of you, he can take away your suffering.
  • As in other circumstances, your husband wants to fix everything when you instead need him to listen and provide support as you unburden yourself. You can gently remind him that you want him to be quiet and focus on really hearing what you have to say.
  • Your partner feels threatened, fearing that you could lose your child. When he sees how difficult the process is for you, he pulls back emotionally to protect himself and cover up his anxiety. Unfortunately this feels like rejection to you, further complicating your own emotional reaction.
  • The added responsibilities of taking care of your child's medical needs in the midst of his worries may be taking a toll. Feeling exhausted often overcomes caregivers and resentment builds. The challenges both of you face may lead to negative feelings expressed to each other, including anger and guilt.
  • Your spouse may be unable to fully comprehend what your child's illness is causing you to give up - feelings of control, dreams for your child's future. Consequently he may expect that you will be over your upsetting emotions sooner than you are. It's up to you to explain to him the depth of your losses, both present and future.

Facing your child's cancer together as parents leads to a complex set of reactions by both of you. This makes it even more important for you to reveal your feelings to each other, frankly and candidly.

As you begin to accept the difficulties in your conversations, you will also become aware of the positives that accompany the health challenges you have met together. Coping with a major disease often leads to a new perspective - with a greater appreciation of the preciousness of life - and a sense of increased intimacy with your partner. As you continue to move forward, your emotional closeness will be reflected in the deeper conversations that you share.

© 2012, Her Mentor Center

Rosemary Lichtman, Ph.D. and Phyllis Goldberg, Ph.D. are family relationship experts who have developed a 4-step model for change. If you are coping with acting-out teenagers, aging parents, boomerang kids or difficult daughters-in-law, we have the solutions that make family rifts disappear. Visit our website, www.HerMentorCenter.com, to subscribe to Stepping Stones, a free ezine and our blog, www.NourishingRelationships.blogspot.com, to receive practical tips and our free e-book, Courage and Lessons Learned.