Relationships often encounter various seasons of difficulty. Many couples may face financial challenges, loss of family members, struggles with intimacy, or lapses in communication, and eventually, the declining health of a partner. Chronic illness or health issues in any form can challenge relationships. When dealing with chronic illness in a relationship, the couple must learn to cope in new ways. Whether you were in the relationship prior to the diagnosis, or the illness was discovered after the relationship developed, coping with chronic illness in a relationship requires patience, understanding, and resilience from each partner.
Chronic illness can be a life-altering experience, not just for the person suffering from it but also for their partner. It can take on various forms, from autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis to mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Cancer survivors can also experience symptoms that become chronic or lifelong. Regardless of the specific illness, the impact on a relationship can be overwhelming.
Struggles within the partnership may result from chronic issues, such as new communication challenges, issues dealing with energy levels, waning or erratic emotions, problems with intimacy, and potential caretaker fatigue of the partner without the illness. Having established reliable communication can make coping with these problems more manageable; however, each partner must know and understand the challenges they may each face independently.
Partners often hurt in silence, as they do not want to “burden” the other. Many partners do not fully express their needs which can result in feeling ignored, neglected, or rejected within the relationship. Some challenges that can occur within the relationship when dealing with chronic illness are:
Chronic illness can lead to changes in communication patterns. The person with the illness may struggle to express their needs and emotions, while the partner may feel uncertain about how to provide support without overstepping boundaries. This may lead to a disconnect in communication in the relationship, where other problems may stem from.
Living with chronic illness can bring about a rollercoaster of emotions. The person with the illness may experience frustration, anger, sadness, and guilt, while the partner may feel helpless and emotionally drained.
Chronic illness often requires significant lifestyle adjustments, including dietary changes, medication regimens, and mobility restrictions. These adjustments can affect daily routines and shared activities within the relationship.
Managing a chronic illness can be expensive, with medical bills, medications, and therapy costs adding up. Financial strain can put additional pressure on the relationship.
Intimacy and Sexuality
Chronic illness can also impact intimacy and sexuality. The chronically ill partner may experience pain, fatigue, or body image issues, leading to feelings of frustration and isolation and impacting physical intimacy.
Strategies for Coping with Chronic Illness in Marriage
Open and Honest Communication
Communication is the foundation of any healthy relationship, and it becomes even more critical when dealing with chronic illness. Both partners must create a safe space for open and honest discussions about their feelings, needs, and concerns, and encourage each other to share thoughts without judgment.
Empathy and Active Listening
Practice empathy by trying to understand your partner’s perspective and emotions. Active listening involves not only hearing their words but also paying attention to their tone, body language, and unspoken cues. Let your partner know you’re there for them.
Take the time to educate yourself about your partner’s chronic illness and get involved in support groups for the illness. Learn about its symptoms, treatment options, and potential challenges. This knowledge can help you provide better support and show your commitment to their well-being.
Set Realistic Expectations
Chronic illness can lead to unpredictable fluctuations in health. It’s essential to set realistic expectations for both partners regarding what they can handle on a given day. Be flexible and willing to adjust plans when necessary.
Seek Professional Help
Consider seeking the guidance of a therapist or counselor who specializes in chronic illness and relationships. A trained professional can provide valuable tools and strategies for coping with the emotional and practical aspects of the illness.
Divide household and caregiving responsibilities as evenly as possible. This helps prevent one partner from feeling overwhelmed and fosters a sense of equality in the relationship. Consider seeking support from friends, family, or hired help when needed.
While it’s important to provide support, it’s equally important to allow the person with the chronic illness to maintain their independence and make decisions about their care. Respect their autonomy and involve them in treatment decisions.
Finding New Ways to Connect
Despite the challenges, find creative ways to connect and maintain intimacy in your relationship. This might include scheduling date nights at home, practicing mindfulness together, or exploring new hobbies that accommodate the illness.
Manage Stress Together
Chronic illness can create a high level of stress for both partners. Explore stress management techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises together. These practices can help you both cope with the emotional toll of the illness.
Celebrate Small Victories
In the face of chronic illness, celebrate small victories and moments of joy. Whether it’s a good day without pain or a milestone in treatment, acknowledging these moments can boost morale and strengthen your bond.
Most importantly, believe your partner when they are discussing symptoms that you cannot see. Many chronic illnesses can be “invisible” or have symptoms you may not be able to see such as fatigue, numbness, migraines, etc.
Coping with chronic illness in a relationship is undoubtedly a challenging journey, but it can also an opportunity for growth, empathy, and resilience. By fostering open communication, empathy, and a willingness to adapt, couples can navigate the complexities of chronic illness together. Remember that you’re a team, and together, you can face the challenges and create a loving and supportive environment where both partners can thrive, despite the obstacles that chronic illness may present.