Program applies couples therapy to heart patients

The bickering didn’t start until nearly 40 years of marriage.

But it soon escalated so much that Doug and Bonnie Main wondered if they’d be married much longer.

“She’d put something wrong in the dishwasher and I’d go in and change it. Just anything (started an argument) because we were so on edge,” recalls the 67-year-old Doug Main.

“We were fighting a lot. We were wondering if even our marriage was breaking down. And this is just because we’re both anxious about the same thing.”

Neither was willing to address the elephant in the room: Bonnie’s health was failing.

After decades of heart problems, doctors said it was time to consider a transplant. Last year, the 67-year-old was put on a years-long waiting list and told to stay within three hours of the Ottawa Heart Institute.

Doug eagerly stepped in to take on more domestic chores, and that’s when the arguments started.

The couple needed help, and they found it last fall in a pilot project at the institute, which focuses on strengthening marriages and romantic partnerships.

Healing Hearts Together is an educational program based on the groundbreaking work of Ottawa psychologist Sue Johnson, who says marital strife is a little discussed possible side-effect of serious health problems.

“You can give people little booklets to take home when they’ve had a heart attack but the bottom line is, when they go home and they don’t know how to talk to each other and they start having enormous fights, well forget it,” says Johnson, whose book on marital bonds, “Hold Me Tight,” forms the basis of the program.

“It makes no sense for us to pour money into giving people leaflets and … not give them anything at all to help them go home with their partner and learn how to face this problem together.”

While support services are generally available to patients and caregivers individually, it’s rare to find something geared towards couples, says Johnson, who hopes to make Healing Hearts available to every cardiac program in North America.

Johnson says survivors are much less likely to have a heart attack if they are in a strong relationship. The program’s approach to couples therapy has also been adapted to help people with Parkinson’s disease in Tennessee and diabetes in the Netherlands. She’d next like to see it help those with breast cancer.

Relationships can change drastically after a traumatic health scare.

Psychologist Heather Tulloch notes that patients are often put on new medication and encouraged to exercise, reduce stress and change their diet. It often falls on the spouse to make sure those things happen.

“There’s a lot of role changes and testing of identities. And people cope differently,” says Tulloch.

She says patients often want to get their affairs in order and worry about the burden placed on their spouse. The spouse, meanwhile, can be wracked by fear their partner will die.

Doug Main knows that first hand.

“You’re laying in bed and reach over and touch her to see if she’s still breathing. It’s really hard,” he says.

“I watch her and say, ‘You sure you should be doing that?’ Because the doctor said don’t let her get over-tired because she has no reserves left in her heart, so you’re constantly (wondering): How far do I let her go? When do I intervene?… And of course I don’t want her to feel like an invalid.”

Meanwhile, Bonnie Main felt unable to discuss her health fears freely, knowing that if she cried it would upset Doug even more.

But his concern over her health was also hard to take.

“I’ve always been one to do a lot — running with the kids here and there and everything — and for him suddenly to want to do the cooking for me and do everything for me, or say, ‘Don’t go up and down the stairs,’ you know, then I really felt confined.”

Tulloch says that’s why a program like Healing Hearts is sorely needed.

“The goal is to help them work better together, help them communicate better together, enhance that relationship so that if they are coping differently that we can get them back on the same page so that they can manage their health better.”

Just Posted

After death of 8th child, Ikea relaunches dresser recall in U.S and Canada

NEW YORK — Ikea relaunched a recall of 29 million chests and… Continue reading

Red Deer agency supporting for LGBTQ2S+ youth

New report on LGBTQ2S+ youth from the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate

Decision on Haitians’ status in the U.S. has Canada on alert for asylum seekers

OTTAWA — A decision by the Trump administration to end a temporary… Continue reading

European court opens hearing on recognizing same-sex unions

BUCHAREST, Romania — The European Court of Justice on Tuesday opened a… Continue reading

German police retrieve 100 stolen John Lennon items

BERLIN — A cigarette case, a handwritten musical score, three diaries and… Continue reading

VIDEO: Replay Red Deer: Nov. 19

Watch news highlights from the week of Nov. 13

Red Deer Christmas Bureau to help 1,300 children this year

Demand is high, but Red Deer always provides

CP Holiday train will stop in some Central Alberta communities

The popular train will feature entertainment from Colin James and Emma-Lee

Kittens rescued after allegedly being tossed from vehicle

Couple finds abandoned kittens new home through Facebook

VIDEO: ‘Party bus’ goes up in flames in Vancouver

Fire crews responded to the late night blaze

Chicken crosses B.C. road, stops traffic

Rooster makes early morning commuters wait in Maple Ridge

Red Deerian honours her brother who died in a motorcycle collision

Houaida Haddad is encouraging Red Deer residents to donate blood

Red Deer County firefighters to be recognized for Waterton help

RCMP brass will give formal recognition Monday

Ron James tries to lighten humanity’s load through humour

The comedian returns to Red Deer for shows Dec. 1 and 2

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month