Fail­ing health, fail­ing mar­riage

Car­diac pro­gram helps cou­ples deal with mar­i­tal strife brought on by health prob­lems

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - CAS­SAN­DRA SZKLARSKI

The bick­er­ing didn’t start un­til nearly 40 years of mar­riage.

But it soon es­ca­lated so much that Doug and Bon­nie Main won­dered if they’d be mar­ried much longer.

“She’d put some­thing wrong in the dish­washer and I’d go in and change it. Just any­thing (started an ar­gu­ment) be­cause we were so on edge,” re­calls the 67-year-old Doug Main. “We were fight­ing a lot. We were won­der­ing if even our mar­riage was break­ing down. And this is just be­cause we’re both anx­ious about the same thing.”

Nei­ther was will­ing to ad­dress the ele­phant in the room: Bon­nie’s health was fail­ing.

After decades of heart prob­lems, doc­tors said it was time to con­sider a trans­plant. Last year, the 67-year-old was put on a years-long wait­ing list and told to stay within three hours of the Ot­tawa Heart In­sti­tute.

Doug ea­gerly stepped in to take on more do­mes­tic chores, and that’s when the ar­gu­ments started.

The cou­ple needed help, and they found it last fall in a pi­lot project at the in­sti­tute, which fo­cuses on strength­en­ing mar­riages and ro­man­tic part­ner­ships.

Heal­ing Hearts To­gether is an ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram based on the ground­break­ing work of Ot­tawa psy­chol­o­gist Sue Johnson, who says mar­i­tal strife is a lit­tle dis­cussed pos­si­ble side-ef­fect of se­ri­ous health prob­lems.

“You can give people lit­tle book­lets to take home when they’ve had a heart at­tack but the bot­tom line is, when they go home and they don’t know how to talk to each other and they start hav­ing enor­mous fights, well for­get it,” says Johnson, whose book on mar­i­tal bonds, “Hold Me Tight,” forms the ba­sis of the pro­gram.

“It makes no sense for us to pour money into giv­ing people leaflets and ... not give them any­thing at all to help them go home with their part­ner and learn how to face this prob­lem to­gether.”

While sup­port ser­vices are gen­er­ally avail­able to pa­tients and care­givers in­di­vid­u­ally, it’s rare to find some­thing geared to­ward cou­ples, says Johnson, who hopes to make Heal­ing Hearts avail­able to ev­ery car­diac pro­gram in North Amer­ica.

Johnson says sur­vivors are much less likely to have a heart at­tack if they are in a strong re­la­tion­ship. The pro­gram’s ap­proach to cou­ples ther­apy has also been adapted to help people with Parkin­son’s dis­ease in Ten­nessee and di­a­betes in the Nether­lands. She’d next like to see it help those with breast can­cer.

Re­la­tion­ships can change dras­ti­cally after a trau­matic health scare.

Psy­chol­o­gist Heather Tul­loch notes that pa­tients are of­ten put on new med­i­ca­tion and en­cour­aged to ex­er­cise, re­duce stress and change their diet. It of­ten falls on the spouse to make sure those things hap­pen.

“There’s a lot of role changes and test­ing of iden­ti­ties. And people cope dif­fer­ently,” says Tul­loch.

She says pa­tients of­ten want to get their af­fairs in or­der and worry about the bur­den placed on their spouse. The spouse, mean­while, can be filled with fear their part­ner will die. Doug Main knows that first hand. “You’re ly­ing in bed and reach over and touch her to see if she’s still breath­ing. It’s re­ally hard,” he says.

“I watch her and say, ‘You sure you should be do­ing that?’ Be­cause the doc­tor said don’t let her get over­tired be­cause she has no re­serves left in her heart, so you’re con­stantly (won­der­ing): How far do I let her go? When do I in­ter­vene? ... And of course I don’t want her to feel like an in­valid.”

Mean­while, Bon­nie Main felt un­able to dis­cuss her health fears freely, know­ing that if she cried it would up­set Doug even more. But his con­cern was also hard to take. “I’ve al­ways been one to do a lot — run­ning with the kids here and there and ev­ery­thing — and for him sud­denly to want to do the cook­ing for me and do ev­ery­thing for me, or say, ‘Don’t go up and down the stairs,’ you know, then I re­ally felt con­fined.”


Bon­nie and Doug Main be­gan bick­er­ing con­stantly once Bon­nie’s heart is­sues be­came se­ri­ous.

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