Bond through life passages — 09 December 2005
When your partner is hospitalized

Part of my professional experience includes many years of working with medically hospitalized patients and their families. It was only after I recently assisted my husband through surgery, setbacks and recovery, that I felt the emotions I helped others resolve.

It suddenly made full sense how families used to describe the fluctuation of feelings: from intense fear to deep relief, from feeling overwhelmed to being in control, from despondence to optimism and hope, from impatience to calmness, from vigilance to exhaustion, from disbelief to deep prayer. These fluctuations ebb and flow with the introduction of new information. Patients and families wait impatiently for the treating professionals progress report and hang onto every word uttered by their physicians, nurses, and all other health providers as cues for hope. Any modified enthusiasm by the staff is taken as possibly ominous.

The enmeshment between the patient and the partner is another unique psychological phenomena that became clearer to me. As though the patient and the spouse are one entity synchronized to reach one goal with two delicately balanced roles. The patient is focused primarily on healing and the partner on facilitating this process. The common reports of the healthy partner’s sleeplessness, hyper-vigilance, loss of appetite, excessive energy and disregard for personal needs, often seen as a depressive reaction, may actually be an adaptive way to abandon one’s needs in deference to those of the recuperating patient.

Partners of hospitalized mates serve a crucial function both practically and emotionally. They learn quickly the medical routines and procedures involved in the care of their loved ones so that they can be of assistance. The partner is the patient’s voice for small and large needs; from fluffing up pillows and securing greater physical comfort to monitoring the need for pain reduction, observing and reporting changes to the staff and representing the patient’s wishes to those who can accommodate them.

It appears that the hospital staff is very appreciative of the assistance that family members give. It facilitates their ability to concentrate on the more professional tasks, that only they can provide. The nursing crew is often very kind, understanding and considerate of the family members’ plight as well.

Emotionally, the supportive spouse may be essential in cheering up the patient, highlighting evidence of positive progress, delicately phrasing the meaning of setbacks, while containing his or her own fears and worries. It is also important for the physically healthy mate to not indulge in excessive anger, blaming, accusations or entitlement. As natural as it may feel to find a scapegoat for the misfortune of pain and suffering it serves no one. An agitated mate may only compromise the patient’s capacity to stay calm and receptive to healing and may antagonize others who are charged with providing care for the patient.

It is actually very easy to extend yourself for someone you dearly love. When your focus is the ultimate recovery and well being of a loved one, no strain is too taxing and the helpful energy as well as the wisdom of actions and words flow naturally.

When your partner is hospitalized:

• Realize that you, too, are going through a traumatic event. Watching helplessly as your loved one suffers is a painful and devastating experience.
• If you experience physical symptoms that parallel those of your recovering spouse, you are being empathic, not crazy.
• Your presence is practically and emotionally essential for the smoother recovery of your mate. He or she is supported and more secure when you are by his or her side.
• What may seem like small contributions loom large for the patient who is temporarily unable to fend fully for him/herself.
• Your optimism and encouraging words may help boost your partner’s resolve and expedite healing. Comment enthusiastically about the smallest measure of improvement- it is a confidence builder. Reserve your worst fears to yourself, you will have a chance to share them later, after they had not occurred.
• Highlight to your recuperating mate that all the cards, flowers, calls, visitors and prayers are evidence of his or her worth and significance to others. Being of value may help the immune system and speed recovery.

• Be aware of your vulnerable state and accept help from family and friends to preserve your ongoing capacity to care for your partner.
• As hard as the hospitalization is on both of you, it is also an experience that deepens your bonding, love and intimacy for life.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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