Q. My wife was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. I'm searching for ways to let her know that, even without that "body part," I'm in love with the real her. How can I be supportive without being offensive?
A. We compliment you on your sensitivity, love, and concern for your wife and your desire to support her during this time of loss. I (Carrie) remember when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. We spent time with her shortly after her surgery. It gripped me to hear her tearfully express how she felt looking at what she considered her now deformed body.
One of the most valuable things you can do is try to understand what your wife feels during this time of loss, transition, and readjustment. She's grieving and making adjustments, both from the mastectomy and the reality of cancer. This experience can cause overwhelming sadness, anger, anxiety, and depression.
As someone who's gone through several cancer surgeries, I (Gary) can tell you that once you've had cancer you never look at yourself or at life the same way. Don't be surprised if she experiences and expresses a wide range of emotions, and don't be surprised if you do too.
While the parts of our body don't determine who we are, they are a part of who we are. For a woman breasts are an especially significant part of her anatomy. Even with reconstructive surgery your wife will never be or look the same again. This is a significant loss she must grieve.
There are many ways you can encourage her. When she expresses sadness or grief, sit with her, hold her, touch her, and join in her sorrow. Instead of trying to make it better or "fix" something, ask first if she knows what she needs from you at that moment. Let her put that into words if she can. If she needs affirmation that she's still beautiful, tell her she is. If she needs reassurance that you'll continue to find her attractive, then reassure her. If she can't put into words what she needs, then simply tell her you love her deeply, you share her sadness, you're not going anywhere, and that with God's help together you'll grow through this.
Remember—sometimes comfort and encouragement don't require your words but merely your presence. Hold her hand. Stroke her hair. Look in her eyes. Laugh with her. Go for walks. Take her to a movie. Pray with and for her. Ask the Comforter (the Holy Spirit) to be present in ways that only he can. The most important thing you can give your wife right now is your willingness to join her in her grief and loss, and your ability to be a visible model of the eternal hope we have through Christ.
He won't bathe!
Q. My husband will go days without taking a shower or even "freshening" up. He claims he has sensitive skin and itches after showering. I buy him sensitive skin soaps and lotions, but he thinks he has to stink in order to shower. I think you should shower before you stink!
A. This is one of those difficult situations we call, "I can't get my spouse to see it my way!" You aren't the first wife with this concern. While we agree that the issue is cleanliness, it's also about honor and respect.
Since telling him he needs to change isn't changing him, it's clear you need to try a different approach. If he smells too bad, you're free to decide not to sit close to him, not to walk close to him, and not to sleep close to him. If you don't like to drive in the car with him, then you can choose to drive your own car.
It's important, though, to communicate these changes in loving ways. For example, you could say, "Honey, I love to sit by you and be close, but I can't tolerate how you smell." Or "When you choose to be unclean and have an offensive odor, it leaves me no option but to choose not to be close to you." Ask God to help you speak gently and lovingly and not in a shaming or sarcastic way.
At the same time be sure to acknowledge things he's doing that are good and healthy. It's easy to focus on an irritating or frustrating trait and ignore what he's doing right. If these suggestions don't help, you and your husband may need to talk to your pastor so your husband can hear from another person that what you're asking isn't unreasonable.
Q. On vacation, I like to get an early start, while my husband would rather lie in bed until noon. By the time he gets up, I feel we've wasted half the day—then I become angry! What can we do?
A. Oh, the challenges of being unique individuals. We too have had to deal with differing needs on vacation. Gary likes to "conquer" an area upon arrival by gathering information, making phone calls, and lining up activities, while I (Carrie) like to ease into my surroundings. I like to sit for a while, drink coffee, and watch the people.
What some couples haven't figured out is that they need to grant each other the freedom to be different. Who said that we have to be together all the time everywhere we go?
Ask yourself what you're angry about. Is your primary emotion fear, hurt, or frustration? Do you see him as insensitive to your wants? Anger can be a healthy emotion to help us identify and deal with the real issue.
After doing some emotional assessment, talk with your husband about these situations. Ask him what his needs are on a vacation, and let him know your needs. Then talk about what's reasonable and what isn't. Brainstorm what it would look like if you both could do some of what you wanted to do, even if your spouse isn't interested. Think of things you could enjoy together. This may call for both of you to compromise.
One solution may be that for part of the vacation your husband rises early to spend time with you and for the other half you're free to take that morning walk while he sleeps in. Look at your differences as an opportunity to understand and support each other in new ways. As you both consider each other's definition of the "ideal" vacation, you're likely to find ways to enjoy your time away and to honor each other.
Q. My husband and I are having difficulty getting pregnant. When he went for a "swimmers" test, the nurse put him in a room with pornographic videos and magazines. Should I have gone with him to "help," so it wouldn't be masturbation? Should my husband think only of me when "giving his sample"? And are those realistic solutions?
A. Infertility has become a concern for thousands of couples, and many aren't prepared for all the mechanics involved in trying to get pregnant. One of those is the "swimmers" test.
While there are reasons why the regular practice of masturbation can be unhealthy and/or involve sin, it isn't sinful for a man to think about and visualize a romantic encounter with his wife in order to provide a sample for fertility treatments. We've never worked with a man who had to look at porn to ejaculate. As he focuses on you, his love for you, and one of your intimate times together, he should have no problem making the necessary contribution.
From our perspective those are realistic and healthy solutions that are consistent with who God made us to be and how he's designed us to function.
Carrie Oliver is a marriage and family counselor. Gary J. Oliver Ph.D., co-author of A Woman's Forbidden Emotion (Regal), is executive director of The Center for Marriage & Family Studies at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Visit Carrie and Gary at www.liferelationships.com.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.