Couples Counseling

Kirk Ditterich, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist
Kirk Ditterich, Clinical Psychologist

A diagnosis of cancer may elicit feelings of worry and stress in both the patient and the caregiver. Both partners may wonder, “how is this going to change my life? Am I going to miss work? Can we still go out to dinner together?” This is where couples counseling can be so helpful.

Each is worried for the other, yet may have difficulties talking about their concerns for fear of “bringing him down” or “making her nervous.” The underlying concern is the same: am I going to put too much stress on my partner if I talk about my concerns? Both want to care for the other person, but also have their own needs that they are afraid to bring up. Couples counseling encourages simple communications that are helpful to both parties.

Some may think a cancer patient can’t do a lot, but often times they can help the caregiver and they are relieved that they can finally give back. The patient can ask, “what can I do for you? I feel good today.” Sometimes it is just listening to the caregiver’s needs, and even if the response is simply, “yeah, I understand. It has been a tough day,” just being heard can validates one’s feelings. There may be nothing more to do to ease the struggle than to give each other a hug.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one way the caregiver can help the patient is to stop doing so much helping. One may be doing too much or assisting in ways the patient really doesn’t need, leading to a feeling of helplessness. Sometimes the caregiver just doesn’t know what to do. Caregivers may be more helpful by asking, “what do you need?”

Food can be an issue. Consider how you feel when someone tells you, “you need to eat more of this or less of that.” It can be difficult not to tell the patient what he or she likes or not to order for the patient at a restaurant. In many cases the patient could be eating whatever they want or can. Similar issues can arise about exercise, medications, money. Couples counseling explores the unspoken concerns—perhaps it is uneasiness that the patient isn’t eating or moving enough, or uncertainty of how to help.

Mortality is another concern that can be addressed in couples counseling. Even though death may be nowhere near due to the disease, death may be in the back of the mind, affecting everyday behavior. “I can’t imagine what it would be like without my partner. I’m scared. But I don’t want to talk to my partner about it.” Again, both individuals are frightened that the other person will be affected in a negative way.

Couples counseling encourages listening, acknowledgment and validation. Patients and caregivers report, “my partner is with me in a way I haven’t experienced in a while.”

For more information about couples counseling, contact Dr. Kirk Ditterich at 530-582-8207.

Read more about Kirk Ditterich, PsyD.