Sam Radford

September 5, 2023

Unable to meet the emotional needs of my poorly wife

Living with someone who is long-term sick is hard. It’s not as hard as it is for the one struggling with illness, but it’s hard none-the-less.

Over the last twelve years, my wife, Rachel, has struggled with various health conditions that have left her home-bound, unable to work for significant stints of time. Ranging from Graves’ disease, to chronic fatigue, to long COVID, Rachel has had it harder than many.

When part of a family, there is a knock-on effect to someone on the household being ill. Illness affects us all. When Rachel has been poorly, I typically end up picking up more and more of the household responsibilities and management. And it can be exhausting and wearing.

Working full time in an intensive, consuming work environment is draining enough. But add in sorting the kids, doing the food shop, tidying the house, washing the clothes, and everything else can be overwhelming.

Now, I hear you. Many women have had this scenario for years! And not because of an ill husband, but simply because it was the norm for men to do little to nothing at home!! So I’m not asking for sympathy. But where I’m going with all this is that, in these periods where Rachel has been struggling with long-term ill health, one of the hardest things to actually do is support her. Sure, I’m helping by taking as much as I can off of her plate, but direct emotional support is often the part that gets missed. 

I was chatting with a friend of mine about this when he was in a similar situation with his wife. And he pointed out the exact same challenge. Picking up all the pieces to support practically was fine—exhausting, but fine—but there was little to no remaining capacity to provide emotional support. 

He, like me, felt bad about this! But also not sure what else to do. When the tank is empty, it’s empty. And I don’t know what the answer is. Sometimes, it seems, we do just run out of anything to give. 

When I spoke with Rachel about this, she said she’s come to accept that, in these times, she needs to look elsewhere for emotional support. Which is hard to hear or accept! Yet, at the same time, she does have a rich friendship group who can give that to her. 

I don’t know what the ideal scenario is here really. There is no solution I’m offering in this post. I simply wanted to reflect on a situation I am far from alone in facing. I know I’m not the only one who carries the burden and feelings of inadequacy that living with a poorly loved one can bring. 

It also leaves me wondering whether men struggle with this emotional support capacity issue more than women, or if it’s the same if the situation is reversed. I don’t know if my inability to provide emotional support when drained and exhausted by everything else is because, as a man, I’m just not as practiced at that, or if the tank really can become emptied. 

Like I say, I am not writing to share answers. I am merely sharing what I’m pondering and grappling with in my own mind. Harder as it is to be the one who is ill, I can vouch for how difficult it can also be as the one who is well. And I’m not solely talking about the practical side. It’s mentally and emotionally hard to. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had depression, but there’s no denying I have felt close to that at times. I can find it hard to ask for help too because, well, I’m not the poorly one. 

I don’t know who may need to hear this, who may also be feeling the weight of being the one supporting a poorly loved one, but if nothing else I guess this is me saying you are not alone. Chatting with my friend earlier this week was reassuring purely on that level. Knowing it’s not just me feeling this was a gift I needed. I didn’t come a way with answers, but I did feel supported and encouraged none-the-less. 

Thanks for reading,

About Sam Radford

Husband, father, lover of books, writer, tech geek, sports fan, and pragmatic idealist from Sheffield, England.