When the ‘wrong’ family member gets heart disease

by Carolyn Thomas   ♥  @HeartSisters

I’ve come to learn that a common reaction to a heart attack is others’ utter shock that this could happen to “YOU, OF ALL PEOPLE!”  Women in particular report reactions like this because, generally speaking, we’re used to being the ones who take care of others, and to being the strong glue that holds our family life and relationships together.

How dare we get sick?

Dr. Wayne Sotile, in his very useful book Heart Illness and Intimacy: How Caring Relationships Aid Recovery, talks about the “family scramble” that can happen when somebody in that family is diagnosed with heart disease.  And few things can heighten the family scramble, he claims, like the “wrong” family member getting sick.  Just who is the “wrong” family member? Dr. Sotile gives the example of a family that may have become accustomed to dealing with the health problems caused by, let’s say, a husband’s alcoholism. Dr. Sotile explains:

”  If  he now has a heart attack, the specific problems change, but the process of living with a husband with health problems simply continues. The shock of this cardiac diagnosis may be less than if he had never been sick before.”

But what if it’s the woman in this same family who suffers a heart attack, the one who has “never been sick”?

Dr. Sotile predicts that the rest of the family may now have far greater problems coping when the primary caretaker of the family is “temporarily unavailable to hold the family together in the face of escalating stress”. Family adjustment to this illness might be understandably more difficult.

Any time that any illness requires family members to make major shifts in how they relate to one another can be prime time for adjustment problems. People who are shocked by illness in their family often struggle to remain organized in familiar ways.

For example, Dr. Sotile tell us that some families may make one of two unhealthy choices when the “wrong” one develops heart disease:

1.   DENIAL that the illness exists: both heart patients and family members sometimes cooperate in denying that anyone in the family has heart disease. They’re playing a game of pretending that the illness is not real. This dynamic may be due to the patient’s fear of the impact that open acknowledgement of heart disease will have on loved ones.

2.  GETTING SICKER than the patient: if the “wrong” family member gets sick, other family members may develop symptoms that require the patient to maintain a sense of importance and power in the family despite their heart disease diagnosis. Dr. Sotile calls this “one-downing” the patient. He cites research reporting that over 50% of family members of heart patients develop psychosomatic ailments that require medical attention.  Many ailments may result simply from the sheer stress of dealing with a loved one diagnosed with a serious heart condition.

For some women heart patients, just the fact that we are women may still be reason enough to make the family think that the “wrong” person has been diagnosed with heart disease.

It was only in the 1980s, for example, that the American Heart Association launched its clearly male-patient-focused advertising campaign that reinforced the male heart attack stereotype by posing this question:

   “If your husband had a heart attack in bed tonight, would you know what to do?”

Find out more about Dr. Wayne Sotile’s book Heart Illness and Intimacy: How Caring Relationships Aid Recovery.


NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about common responses when a family member becomes a heart patient in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

See also:

Women heart attack survivors know their place

Looking for meaning in a meaningless diagnosis

Why hearing the diagnosis can hurt worse than the heart attack

How we adapt after a heart attack may depend on what we believe this diagnosis means

When you live with a serious illness – and a bad marriage

A wife’s heart disease teaches her husband a big lesson

Living with heart disease – and your whole family


7 thoughts on “When the ‘wrong’ family member gets heart disease

  1. Pingback: Health & More
  2. Hi everyone at myheartsisters.org – in our family, it’s not heart disease but another chronic diagnosis – and the experience sounds very familiar. I’ve been in poor health (severe COPD, several hospitalizations) for several years, but it was my wife who had a heart attack and CABGx2 last month. I’m looking up as much as I can about this shocking diagnosis (I think she’s too stunned and overwhelmed to do this herself) so I was so happy to find your site here, I’m used to being the “PATIENT” not the “CARETAKER” and its a hard adjustment for BOTH of us.


  3. Good post. My husband is a 2-pack a day smoker, overweight and a “couch potato”. I’m healthy, a non-smoker, and swim with a Masters Swim Team four days a week. When I was the one who had triple bypass surgery last year, nobody in my family could believe it. Within a month post-op, I was back to working full-time and doing all the housework and shopping and cooking as if nothing had happened. He’s still on the couch.


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  7. Great article, thanks for sharing this. I too was the “wrong” person to get sick in our family after nursing both my husband and my oldest son for decades, both with chronic health problems and multiple hospitalizations. Through all of it, like all “good” mums i kept the “home fires burning” as if nothing was amiss. When I had a heart attack and triple bypass three years ago, nobody could believe it. Especially my husband and son who were used to me being able to drop everything to care for them. Quite a stressful time. I too was in denial as this book accurately describes, once again putting myself last – even though I was recuperating from HEART SURGERY – just to keep up the illusion that all was perfectly fine again and to reduce the stress on my family and their ongoing health issues.

    Please Keep up the good work here – this is useful information for both patients AND their families/friends.


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