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Adrienne Dellwo

Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Quality of Marriage

By January 11, 2009

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How has your marriage changed since you developed fibromyalgia (FMS) or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS)?

It's a sad reality that these conditions have destroyed marriages, especially when the healthy person doesn't believe the illness is real. However, is there a flip side to that coin - can illness improve your marriage?

A new survey says a downturn in health is generally hard on marriages, but actual disability can, sometimes, lead to an improvement. Here's a breakdown:

Declines in Health:

  • Onset of decline in health was detrimental to marriage, especially when the husband was the one with poor health.
  • The younger the couple, the harder it was for them to deal with declines in health.
  • The healthy spouses reported greater declines in marital quality than the unhealthy ones.

Onset of Disability

  • Onset of disability improved marriage when the wife was disabled, but not when the husband was.

So, essentially, declines in health and the onset of disability are detrimental to marriage except when the wife becomes disabled. What I have to wonder is what's causing the gender difference - do women have more problems handling their husband's disability, or are disabled men harder to live with? Or is it because men still earn more than women, especially among older people, so a man's disability creates a bigger financial strain?

Personally, I know my illness has been hard on my marriage, and it was extremely stressful for us when I left my full-time job because we didn't know if I'd be able to earn a living working from home. We've faced other issues as well, but we've come through it with our relationship intact, and possibly even stronger. I credit good communication, more time together, and his patience and understanding. (Truly, the man is a saint!)

What has your illness, or your spouse's illness, done to your marriage? What have your struggles been? If you've overcome them, how? Share your experiences here (click on "Comment" below) or in About.com's Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome community forum (under Newsletter & Blog Topics.)

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January 11, 2009 at 9:54 am
(1) Miriam says:


I am not married, although I do have ME (not CFS) however, I can see why men find it harder than women to cope.

They are meant to be the breadwinners, or that is how they see their role in life among other things, and if they are forced to give up work, they feel they are giving up part of their manhood.

From my understanding, mans manhood comes from having lots of sex, money, among other things, take one of those away, and they loose part of who they are. Womens identity is not like that, so it isn’t so much of an issue.

Also, if men have CFS, they can’t ‘perform’ so often, again, so again they loose part of their identity.

January 16, 2009 at 3:30 pm
(2) Mary says:

I think the gender thing has more to do with money issues than all else because money issues are considered one of the top reasons for divorce, even without illness.

My marriage has rapidly changed to the point that my husband and I are mostly just existing in the same house hold. It’s very sad. He tries to be understanding one minute, but the next – by what he says and how he acts – I can tell he really does not understand how this illness has completely taken over the me that used to be.

I am currently admitting these things to myself for the first time really. I hid behind my illnesses so I did not have to face certain facts.

Chronically ill people need understanding most of all. When you do not have that with your spouse – there just isn’t much left to hold onto.

January 16, 2009 at 4:11 pm
(3) Daniel Beegan says:

My wife became disabled from RA first and at the end developed lung cancer. She’d been disabled for about 10 years when FMS, DDD, CHF and pulmonary hypertension flattened me. I have to say the 10 years we shared when we both were disabled were the best years of our 28-year marriage. God, I miss her.

January 16, 2009 at 4:21 pm
(4) Vicky says:

I am one of the apparently rare wives of a man with CFIDS and fibro. I think Miriam’s first comment is right on. My husband’s identity was all about achieving. He made his way on a career path from the bottom up, continually advancing himself. He is so unhappy. But I want to say that his illness has taken place in my fortieth decade. It is really difficult for me to make him understand that now, in my fifties, doing it ALL is getting hard for me too! I ache and feel tired too! Sometimes I feel like he should offer a shoulder to cry on too. I know his pain must be thousands of times worse than mine ever could be, but I feel invalidated. We pretty much just exist in the same house too, and now we argue about how to raise our teenager also.

January 16, 2009 at 4:54 pm
(5) Matt says:

Personal Story: Matthew Matherne

Matt Matherne served in the military before CFS started waging its own battle with his health..
In September of 1990 there was talk of my military unit going to Saudi Arabia in support of what was then called “Desert Shield,” the precursor to the (first) ground war in Iraq.

By this time in my life, I had married a wonderful woman named Claire—an intelligent, good-hearted person and an excellent mother to our son, Keith. Still, I wanted to support our country and go where I was needed. During the Vietnam War, I only got as close as Guam, and that was only on temporary duty. So I volunteered for duty in Saudi Arabia, and was soon on my way.

As it turns out, my one trip to Saudi Arabia was to be my only trip because the ground war started in early February and was all but over in no time. Still, while deployed overseas I served in an operation called Northern Watch and did get to fly over Iraqi air space to refuel fighters who were patrolling a No Fly Zone. I also got to participate in another large operation called Joint Guard, based out of Italy, so the UN could keep tabs on Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, after a peace treaty was signed at the Camp David Peace Accord.

Little did I know when I was flying back home from my one and only trip to Saudi Arabia that what I thought was just a bad cold or the flu would turn out to be something I would battle for years to come. My symptoms got progressively worse as time went on—waxing and waning but never really going away. It got to be a rollercoaster ride with my symptoms getting worse with each bad spell I experienced.

When I finally arrived back in the States, I told my wife and family that they were all making a big deal out of nothing. After all, I was home safe and sound. But my wife was convinced and could not shake the feeling that something bad was afoot. I was soon diagnosed with what is commonly known as Gulf War Syndrome (GWS)—or as Veteran Affairs labels it, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

My case of GWS/CFS was as classic as other GIs who came back from the Gulf with this strange new disease first discounted by the Department of Defense as “being all in our heads.” The one common denominator that linked all the people who got ill was that we pretty much received the same vaccinations before we deployed or after arriving in the Gulf.

While I was in Saudi Arabia, I felt terrific, with no sense that my life and health would be threatened even though my unit could be attacked in numerous ways while deployed. Now I was so sick that my military career was over.

This was just the beginning of my work struggles with GWS/CFS. As my physical and emotional state got worse, my subsequent job as a field service engineer for a large computer company came to an end because I could no longer deal with the demands. I attempted to work at a couple of smaller computer firms, but I was still daunted by all the symptoms GWS/CFS.

I eventually went to work for a company driving a forklift. I did well for a couple of years until my supervisor wanted me to represent his department in a corporate wide quality initiative. I didn’t want to tell him that I shouldn’t take the position because of my illness, thinking that would negatively affect my chances of staying with the company. But as time went on and the demands of my new position increased—going to special training, putting spreadsheets together, making presentations to department heads—my symptoms flared up again and got worse.

I eventually used up all my sick and vacation days and took unpaid days off in the hope of making some recovery, but it was too late for that. I’m now on full disability, with a fraction of the financial income I would have if I weren’t ill.

Now, in what seems like another kick in my back, my GWS/CFS has taken its toll on my marriage. I can no longer in good conscience keep putting my wife and son through the agony of my emotional and physical battle with this illness. I’ve decided to go live by myself near my sister in Florida. In this way my family, whom I still love, can avoid the trials and tribulations of dealing with my symptoms. This illness is too complicated and too much for even me to understand and deal with sometimes, much less my wife and son. And getting away from the long winters in Maine—and the negative effects the shorter days and cabin fever seem to induce—will also be of some help. The separation will last for a year. We’ll then decide what the future holds.

As I leave for Miami to start another life, I wonder what the next chapter will bring in my “secret war” with CFS.

Editors note:

Matt Matherne is one of many thousands of men who suffer with CFS. The fall issue of the CFIDS Chronicle shares input from him and other men with CFS in a feature story called “Men with CFS.” Subscribe to the CFIDS Chronicle before
January 1, 2006, and you’ll get the “Men with CFS” story as part of your first issue of this quarterly magazine for CFIDS Association members. Visit http://www.cfids.org/support/membership.asp.

January 16, 2009 at 5:17 pm
(6) Dena says:

Matt: I just want to say that we all appreciate your sacrifice for our country. The military has behaved in an ABSOLUTELY UNACCEPTABLE way toward those of us who are suffering with these symptoms that they for so long have passed off as psychological. I know its been almost 20 years but we WILL pull through! It may take a while longer, but at least know you are NOT alone! Hang in there buddy!

January 21, 2009 at 11:00 am
(7) eleoh says:

I have a hubby like your saint. But he still gets a bit frustrated with the restrictions sometimes. But I must say he is a miracle man!

January 21, 2009 at 11:21 am
(8) eleoh says:

Matt, so sorry to hear your level of agony. You sound sad deep in your soul and I have felt the same burden to my family too in the past and I want to say that when I’ve expressed it I actually find out that my family would rather have me with them sick than not with them at all. I apologised to my son for having to have a mum that was ill so much and he sarcastically replied “Yeah mum it’s been real hard!–laughing” He felt that it hadn’t been a problem and that other kids have had it alot harder. So that was re-assuring. Maybe our condition, and frustration, makes us see ourselves as inflicting pain on our family when maybe they don’t see it that way. But whatever you all work out I hope it goes well for you all. I thought once that they’d be better off with me in a flat on my own so they could get on with their lives. But I’ve come to the old saying, Better a live dog than a dead lion.
I like this verse because life is useful even if it is just to listen, to love with your heart, to be there and hold fast to them.
Many blessings for your health and family!

February 23, 2010 at 10:15 am
(9) Bob says:

I have Fibromyaligia and Chronic Pain. My wife has seemed to me given up on our marriage. It is very hard on me which has increased my depression. She blames me because the meds. I was on Morpheine for years and she conviencied me to go through detox. She told me abt a pain management doctor and I went to see him. He prescribed some medicine because she was not seeing immediate improvement. She started to blame the medicines were making me more sleepy. In addition, I had Cancer and a heart attack before that. Bills started to mound up and I could not cope with looking at them. Then her claim came up before we even started to see each other, a “friend” said my previous wife said I was an alcholic even though I did’nt drink all the time. Alot of people I knew back then did not think I was that way. Anyway she said I lied to her and that she doesn’t like liars. Since we have been together I have only drink socially a few drinks maybe during the weekend. It was not always. She said I lied to doctors because I only put drinks occassionally. Now after close to 15 years together she wants a divorce.

July 17, 2011 at 2:36 am
(10) Micheal says:

My wife has been suffering from Fibromylagia for the last few years and getting worse. She has also depression that makes our marriage worse. Not enough with that, our only daughter has been diagnosed with autism. There is almost no single day without chaos, arguing, etc. Due to two persons with dissability, our financial is now ruined, although I make quite good of money (if living in good situation).

It’s very hard for me to understand what she thinks. Although I can learn about her disease and try to understand how bad her pain, but I still cannot think clearly what is in her mind (perhaps because of her depression). We’re living just like roommates, no life as a happy couple anymore.

August 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm
(11) Beth says:

My husband has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It has never been formerly diagnosed until now but it has been about 10 years of frustration since he hit 40. First you wonder if your spouse is just depressed and try to figure out what you can do. I realize it is more than that. I believe his lifestyle has had something to do with it. Not eating through out the day then over eating in the evenings. Not exercising enough and likely food allergies that we did not know of for years. He’s thrown a lot of things out of wack in his system. He now works at eating right and getting some exercise. I have to understand his limitations. When he needs a rest, he needs a rest. As his spouse it can be very exhausting as I have had to be the breadwinner for the past 5 years. Sometimes I feel alone and desperate as others do not understand and probably think he’s lazy but he’s not. He helps out where he can. I love him dearly and even if I knew when I married him that this was going to happen I would still marry him. He is my closest friend. I don’t know what the future holds for us but I know that God holds us in his hands and even if we lose it all and I can’t keep up, I am commited to my God and my husband for the rest of our lives.

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