How to cope when your spouse is the heart patient

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

I’ve heard it said, as bizarre as it may seem, that it may be easier in some ways to be widowed than to be the spouse of a recovering heart patient.

If your spouse has survived a cardiac event, you may even feel grief that seems entirely inappropriate to you, even as you also feel intense relief because he is still alive. You may also experience what’s known as hypervigilance – that sense of dread that yet another crisis is about to happen.

There are role models, as author Rhoda Levin explains, for widows’ behaviour, and appropriate ways to express difficult emotions:

“People respect the time it takes for the widowed to adjust to the changes in their lives. But cardiac spouses have no role models, teachers or mentors.  No one, professional or friend, can tell you what changes you will face as a cardiac spouse – and yet change is now your reality. The challenge of any cardiac crisis is facing this reality, letting go of what is lost, and developing new ways to live your new life together.”

If your spouse has recently had a cardiac event, you might find one of these three books helpful:  

  • Heartmates:  A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient (3rd edition) by Rachel Freed:   This book takes you from the acute days of your partner’s health crisis through personal feelings, issues and concerns, providing support for the “heartmate” as well as for the patient. Relationships and family concerns are major topics of this self-help book. You can attack this book in one piece, or in snippets as you become ready to struggle with the ongoing issues of your own psycho-social-spiritual recovery. There is frank discussion here of the most difficult issues, including the return of trust and sexual intimacy, or feeling isolated and crazy.
  • Mainstay: For the Well Spouse of the Chronically Ill  by Maggie Strong:  The author describes what it’s like to watch her husband become increasingly debilitated by a chronic disease, to deal with the financial burden of illness, to realize that their and their children’s futures are changed forever. Personal accounts are interspersed with practical advice about dealing with physicians, treatment procedures, or just coping. Not a happy book, but well written, moving, and helpful.  One reader wrote: 

“When my husband was diagnosed with a chronic illness in 1992, I was totally unprepared for the major lifestyle changes that it brought about, even though I am a nurse. When I found this book, Mainstay, it was as though I was no longer alone. There was someone who not only understood but who was able to clearly articulate the experience. The illness and the circumstances were different but the feelings were so similar.”

  • When The Man You Love Is Ill: Doing Your Best For Your Partner without Losing Yourself  by Dr. Dorree Lynn and Florence Isaacs:   You can take a mini-test in this book to evaluate your own coping style, ways to maximize the help you’re able to give, and to seek help for your spouse based on your style. The first part of this book looks at how to effectively provide care, as well as how to be a champion for your spouse’s care – ideas that are useful for parents, sibs or children of heart patients, too. The second half addresses the concept of transformational love, exploring the idea of how your man’s illness can lead to a deeper relationship bond rarely explored when you and your partner are in good health.  A common reaction:

“I loved the notion of self-care in this book. I am no good to anyone if I can’t sleep or if I am overwhelmed with grief and anxiety. I learned the things that I can do to take care of me and to maintain my own health.”

NOTE FROM CAROLYN: All of these recommended books are essentially aimed for the wife of a male heart patient. If you’re the partner of a female heart patient and need to know a lot more about what’s going on for her, read my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017). 

See also:


Q:  Is your spouse a heart patient?

4 thoughts on “How to cope when your spouse is the heart patient

  1. I’m so happy I’ve stumbled upon your website. Your posts are just so real and smart about the whole process of change after a heart event – whether internal or external.


  2. I also wanted to add, that Mainstay is out of print now, but for those who join the WSA as a supporting member, extracts of the book — all the chapters (13) that relate to Maggie Strong’s personal experiences — have been mounted on our website to view.


  3. Following up on Dr. Aletta’s comment, I’m the past president of the non-profit Well Spouse Association, and one of its founders was Maggie Strong, who wrote Mainstay, the book.

    We provide peer emotional support for husbands, wives or partners of people with chronic illness and/or disability, and one of our mottos is You are not alone. The other: When one is sick two need help, pretty well says it, too. Rhoda Levin is correct that no two illness situations are alike in every respects. I think the WSA provides a good road map for well spouses (spousal caregivers) to regain the balance in their lives that the “elephant in the room” has taken away.


  4. Carolyn, Thank you for writing this. The subject is a difficult one and needs attention.

    While I totally agree that there is no clear social map for how person is supposed to handle the grief surrounding serious illness in a spouse, I don’t agree with this statement from Rhonda Levin: “No one, professional or friend, can tell you what changes you will face as a cardiac spouse – and yet change is now your reality.”

    Everyone’s experience, and pain, is unique, that is true. However to say so strongly that “No one…” can understand, or help guide is a bit strong, don’t you think? The evidence is in the books you cite and in the work many mental health professionals in hospitals and communities offer every day.


Your opinion matters. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s