The French film Amour is a touching, realistic window into the world of a committed marriage in which one partner has suffered a stroke.
The elderly couple are music lovers, their apartment chock-full of music books, records, and CDs, plus a concert-size grand piano. Yet the film has no musical score, just the mundane sounds of everyday life. The couple’s need to cope with change is so profound that the music of life fades, replaced by the clinking of forks against plates, sweeping away crumbs from the kitchen table, or shower noise as a caregiver washes Ann’s back. The story gently unfolds, depicting the couple’s commitment and love as the outside world shrinks, startlingly magnifying their life lived in three rooms. There is no shaking of fists at their plight, no angry outbursts from either partner.
How Stroke Affects Marriage
When giving talks on how stroke affects marriage, I say, “When one partner has a stroke, both partners have a stroke.” The stroke survivor grapples with loss of bodily function, speech, and often dignity, and the caregiving spouse must come to terms with the magnitude of the change in their lives.
A stroke can alter two people’s lives in an instant. For the person with the stroke, simple tasks suddenly become difficult or impossible. For the person’s partner, life revolves around the stroke survivor’s needs, requiring many adjustments.
And while stroke (like any chronic medical problem) affects marriage, it can also open a gate to improving communication and building and strengthening skills that were taken for granted.
Empathy on both sides is needed for the marriage to survive. Learning new ways to communicate fondness and appreciation serve as protective factors. Building new rituals of connection and remembering the positive aspects of your marriage before the stroke are necessary to keep your relationship healthy.
Coming to Terms with Suffering
While stroke can create strain, frustration, and distance in your marriage, coping with its effects is an opportunity to reset your priorities and goals. You may be able to strengthen your marriage as you and your spouse work together on common problems you will face. It is by accepting the limitations that life imposes on us that we can overcome them. As we learn to carry our burdens well—in the yielding and in the striving—we become whole.
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust; his parents, brother, and pregnant wife did not. In his remarkable memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, he discusses how people face unavoidable burdens. Why did some crumple beneath the horrors of the death camps, while some comforted others and gave away bread?
“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden. . . . The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified, and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity.”
I do not mean to minimize the great accommodations that must be made in marriage when a stroke occurs. But there is a phenomenon seen in marriage counseling that often predicts good prognosis; therapists term it “glorifying the struggle.” This describes a couple that comes to therapy with a crisis, but they can talk about how they see the struggles that they have gone through as ways to grow and that they can grow together. The likelihood of that couple being able to keep their marriage whole and strong is better than when there is bitterness and resentment toward their marriage struggles.
Of course, sometimes caregivers can’t look after a stroke survivor at home. In Amour, the husband was the caregiver until he could no longer tolerate bearing her pain for her. In the United States, if a caregiver is no longer available and/or funds have run out, the best option is a skilled nursing facility (or SNF in the medical jargon). But in many families, life must go on: living together, but with tremendous challenges for both partners.
Ways to Cope When Stroke Strikes
Here are some issues to consider in coping with the aftermath of a stroke.
1. Spousal support: This is a powerful aid to stroke recovery for several reasons, including a spouse’s ability to improve the stroke survivor’s mood and increase physical and social activity levels.
2. Role changes and division of labor: Most couples must change their usual division of labor. Tasks and duties that were previously performed by one spouse may need to be reassigned. Outside help should be considered when possible.
3. Emotional support: High levels of emotional support lead to the best possible recovery after a stroke, and support is most effective when it is seen by the stroke survivor as meeting his or her particular emotional needs. Empathy—your ability to see things from the other person’s perspective—is important for both partners. Even a stroke survivor with speech problems (aphasia) can still listen. To truly listen is a great gift, even when your replies are non-verbal.
4. Counseling and group support: Both partners can benefit. There are many great agencies that offer classes following a stroke, and ongoing groups to help maximize coping.
In the best of circumstances, marriage is challenging. When couples face chronic medical problems such as stroke, the marriage vows -in sickness and in health are tested to the limit. Compassion by both partners for each other, as so tenderly shown in the film Amour, is imperative to preserving love.
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Dr. Susan J. O’Grady has practiced psychotherapy,
couples counseling, and Mindfulness-based therapies in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 20 years.
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As a seasoned expert in the field of psychotherapy and couples counseling with over 20 years of experience, I've had the privilege of delving deep into the intricacies of relationships, particularly when faced with challenging circumstances such as chronic medical problems. My expertise extends to understanding the profound impact that events like strokes can have on marriages, encompassing the emotional, psychological, and practical aspects of navigating such difficulties.
The French film "Amour" serves as a poignant and authentic portrayal of the complexities within a committed marriage, specifically one where a partner has suffered a stroke. The film masterfully captures the essence of the couple's life, emphasizing their shared love for music and the transformative effect of a stroke on their daily existence. What stands out is the absence of a musical score, replaced instead by the mundane sounds of daily life—underscoring the profound changes the couple undergoes.
In my talks on how stroke affects marriage, I often emphasize the interconnected impact on both partners. The stroke survivor grapples with significant losses, including bodily functions, speech, and dignity. Simultaneously, the caregiving spouse must come to terms with the magnitude of life-altering changes. This dynamic shift in roles and responsibilities can either strain the marriage or open avenues for improved communication and the development of essential coping skills.
Empathy, a central theme in the article, becomes a crucial element for the survival of the marriage. Learning new ways to express fondness and appreciation, establishing rituals of connection, and reflecting on the positive aspects of the relationship before the stroke are highlighted as protective measures. The article rightly points out that the challenge lies not only in accepting the limitations imposed by stroke but also in using this adversity as an opportunity for personal and relational growth.
The reference to Viktor Frankl's insights from "Man's Search for Meaning" provides a profound perspective on facing unavoidable burdens. The article draws parallels between the resilience exhibited in the face of suffering, as discussed by Frankl, and the phenomenon observed in marriage counseling termed "glorifying the struggle." Couples who perceive their struggles as opportunities for growth and view challenges as ways to strengthen their bond often demonstrate better prospects for maintaining a healthy and intact marriage.
Furthermore, the article addresses practical considerations and coping strategies when stroke strikes, including spousal support, role changes, emotional support, and the potential benefits of counseling and group support. These insights reflect a holistic understanding of the multifaceted challenges that couples may encounter during the aftermath of a stroke.
In essence, the article underscores the complexity of marriages facing chronic medical issues, emphasizing the importance of compassion and mutual understanding, as exemplified by the characters in "Amour." My extensive experience in the field aligns with the insights shared, making me well-equipped to provide nuanced perspectives on the intricacies of relationships in the context of challenging life events.