Your spouse might be your best friend and confidant, but do you have the right to know everything? If they are protective of their health information, respecting your spouse’s medical privacy can be a sign of healthy intimacy and respect. But sometimes a husband or wife’s medical secrets can affect you too. Knowing when to press, and when not to, is important for maintaining a healthy marriage in the face of medical challenges.
Wanting Medical Privacy is Healthy
Intimacy is an important part of any close relationship, especially marriage. However, even intimate partners naturally need and want privacy. Individual spouses’ level of comfort discussing difficult or personal topics may differ, but few would truly feel comfortable discussing every wart, wrinkle, and bodily function. Maintaining a certain degree of medical privacy is a healthy boundary even in the closest relationships.
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When to Respect Your Spouse’s Medical Privacy
Respecting your spouse’s medical privacy shows that you care about their comfort and their health. It shows that you believe they are their own person, and that you trust them to come to you if they need help. Fighting the urge to press for medical secrets can prevent codependency and encourage both spouses to develop as individuals and trust one another as partners.
The days around an initial diagnosis are an especially delicate time. Respecting medical boundaries during this period allows your partner to process what is happening to their body in their own way and their own time, with the assistance of doctors and, in some cases, therapists.
When Your Spouse Should Tell You About Their Medical Conditions
While everyone is entitled to their medical privacy, certain issues should not be kept secret:
Medical Conditions That are Contagious or Could Hurt You
Just as you should respect your spouse’s medical privacy, your spouse should respect your medical autonomy. You need certain information to make your own health decisions, including when your spouse’s medical condition may put you at risk. For example:
- Exposure to COVID, the flu, or another contagious disease
- A history of unprotected sex with other partners or a sexually transmitted infection (STI or STD)
- A condition that causes them to lash out physically or emotionally
- A diagnosis that could put you at risk (such as narcolepsy when your spouse is driving)
Medical conditions that could cause a spouse to hurt themself
Other medical and mental health conditions depend on the support of others to maintain their health and happiness. This might look like:
- Asking a partner to commit to joint sobriety to fight alcohol or drug dependency
- Needing assistance with executive function around necessary food, sleep, or medication
- Avoiding triggering words or actions with PTSD or anxiety disorder
- Preventing self-harm or suicide attempts
Unfortunately, in some of these cases, your spouse may feel ashamed of their situation, or unwilling to share their struggles. You may need to gently encourage your spouse to let you help them manage their condition, while at the same time respecting their medical privacy and right to say no.
Life-Changing Serious Illnesses or Medical Conditions
In addition to health and safety, you and your spouse should also discuss medical conditions that will affect your long-term life goals. When your spouse gets a life-changing diagnosis for a chronic condition or terminal illness, it is important that you discuss together what that means for your future.
However, even in these cases, you should still respect your spouse’s medical privacy. While it is appropriate for them to tell you about the diagnosis, prognosis, and possible treatment options, you don’t necessarily have the right to know everything they discuss with their doctors. It is important to remember in these cases that your spouse will be grieving, and may experience medical trauma, as a result of their diagnosis.
Finding the Balance to Respect Your Spouse’s Medical Privacy
The balance between concern and invasiveness can be hard to find. If you and your spouse are struggling to talk about a medical condition, couples’ counseling can help. Working with a psychotherapist can help both spouses draw healthy boundaries, find ways to share difficult information, and learn to respect one another’s medical privacy, while protecting your relationship.
David Stanislaw is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience. He helps couples and adults deal with medical trauma and learn to respect one another’s medical privacy and autonomy. Contact David Stanislaw to get help for your relationship today.