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  • Writer's pictureMyriame Lyons

Chronic Illness and Relationships: Learning How to Cope

Takeaway: Chronic illness can often feel like an unwelcome third member of your relationship. Navigating health issues can be a challenge whether you’re living with a chronically ill spouse or you’ve recently been diagnosed yourself. In this post, I’ll explain how health problems can impact relationships and provide my top tips for how to cope.


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Understanding how chronic illness impacts relationships

As a chronic illness counsellor in Vancouver, I'm intimately familiar with how chronic conditions can affect relationships. In a previous post, I explored the challenges of dating with a chronic illness. However, it can be just as tough to navigate health issues when you're already in a relationship.


Whether you and your partner are in a new relationship or have been together for years, a newly diagnosed chronic disease can turn your dynamic upside-down—sometimes overnight. If you're feeling this way, know that you're not alone. Many couples struggle to navigate this transition. I've seen it firsthand in my counselling practice.


It is possible to work through these challenges and learn a new way of being in partnership with your partner, whether you're the spouse with the diagnosis or the caregiving partner. Yet, fully understanding and acknowledging those challenges is the first step toward allowing this reality to exist, accepting it and learning how to work with each other toward possible solutions.


While each person, relationship, and illness is different, many people with chronic illness face similar challenges in their partnerships. Here are a few common struggles I see among the clients I work with.


Emotional challenges

As you likely know firsthand, being diagnosed with a chronic illness comes with lots of intense emotions. Whether you're the ill person in your relationship or have a chronically ill spouse, you might feel sad, guilty, angry, and/or overwhelmed by the diagnosis and situation.


These feelings are normal (they are giving you important information about the changes in your circumstance) and it's important to allow them to exist, though this is much easier said than done. Navigating the range of emotions that come with a new or changing diagnosis can be difficult.


Increased anxiety and depression

You or your spouse might experience mental health issues as a result of the emotional struggles that come with a new or changing diagnosis. Unfamiliar physical sensations, health-related fears, and uncertainty about the future might contribute to anxiety issues.


Some people also experience an increase in depression symptoms when grappling with a chronic health diagnosis. Depression can be difficult to detect at times, especially since some of its symptoms (such as sleep problems, low energy, and changes in appetite) overlap with symptoms of some chronic conditions. While you have a lot on your plate at this time, it's also important to stay attuned to your mental wellness.


Changing dynamics

A relationship can change drastically after one spouse is diagnosed with an illness. The sick person might need more time to rest than they did before, which could mean less time spent doing activities together.


They might also need more practical support, like transportation to doctor's appointments or help with household chores, which may add more responsibilities to the other partner's plate. Figuring out your new dynamic will take time, grace, and some trial and error.


Some of the changes can be temporary, while others may be long-term. Either way, change is hard, and everyone involved will react differently to these changing dynamics.


Financial stress

Aside from the emotional and logistical changes, chronic illness can also come with a significant cost burden. Paying bills for appointments with specialists, time away from work, medical equipment, and other factors can all cause financial strain.


Money issues are often a challenge for any relationship, even when illness isn't a factor. However, all the additional costs that come with caring for a chronically ill spouse can add even more stress.


Learning how to cope with a chronically ill spouse

Coping with your spouse's illness can be incredibly difficult. You might feel overwhelmed by your new responsibilities, frustrated that you have less time for self-care, and sad that your relationship has changed. On top of it all, you might even feel guilty for having these emotions at all. After all, you're the healthy one, so shouldn't you just be grateful?


Thinking this way can lead to greater emotional suffering. Your feelings are valid, and you deserve support during this time. While there is no linear way to cope with your spouse's condition, there are some strategies you can try to help make it a bit easier. Here are just a few.


Educate yourself

In order to effectively support your partner (and manage your own expectations), it's essential to learn about their condition. If you're involved in your partner's health care, you may be able to ask their medical provider for handouts or information about their condition.

Books, podcasts, and online resources can also help you learn more about the illness itself and the experiences of other people who are living with a chronically ill spouse.


Identify your own needs and boundaries

Some caregivers struggle to consider their own needs while caring for their ill husband or ill wife. The healthy partner might take on additional responsibilities, both emotional and logistical, without thinking twice about it in order to support the ill spouse.


However, it's important to remember that your needs matter, too. Reflecting on what you're willing and able to take on will help prevent resentment from building between you and your partner. Remember, there is a difference between capacity and capability; just because you can, doesn't mean you should.


Find outlets for emotional support

Similarly, some caregivers have a hard time asking for help. You might feel pressure to "keep it all together" for your spouse and yourself. While it makes sense for you to feel this way, know that spouses of chronically ill partners deserve support, too.


There are support groups specifically for people with a chronically ill spouse. Building relationships with other people in the same situation can help you feel validated and understood throughout this adjustment.


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How to cope when you're the chronically ill spouse

Dealing with a new diagnosis of chronic pain or other chronic illness is stressful enough. You might be experiencing severe pain, mobility issues, or other intense symptoms. Plus, you have all the emotions that come along with health issues.


On top of that, you have to learn to cope with the ripple effects your illness has on your relationship. Again, each situation is unique, but many people with chronic conditions have similar experiences with how their condition affects their relationships. Here are a few of the strategies I give the clients I see in my Vancouver counselling practice.


Set realistic expectations

Oftentimes, your abilities or capacities may change after being diagnosed with a chronic illness. This can be a tough adjustment, but managing your expectations can help. For example, it might not be realistic for you to take on the same household chores or involvements at work you were doing before you got sick.


If you hold yourself to your pre-diagnosis standards, you'll likely set yourself up for increase stress and pressure. Plus, you could make your symptoms worse if you try to push yourself past your limits. Being honest with yourself about what your capacity is can make it easier to be honest with your partner.


This is easier said than done. Many of us resist or avoid facing the reality of our life with a chronic condition. This is because it’s a vulnerable experience, and no one likes to feel uncomfortable. In fact, we are wired to move away from discomfort, hence the development of coping mechanisms. Even though it’s hard to face the reality of a diagnosis at first, it can become easier with time and open up some helpful doors you didn’t know existed.


Practice open communication

On a similar note, it's essential to communicate openly with your partner about how you're feeling and what you need. This however cannot be done effectively if you aren’t willing to face the reality of your chronic condition. It can be difficult to admit when you need a break, can't do something, or are struggling emotionally. However, being clear about what's going on because you know intimately what you are facing will be helpful to both of you. Having an awareness of each other's needs, capacity, and boundaries will enable you to work together as a team.


Get support for your emotional and mental health

When you first get diagnosed with a chronic condition, you'll likely be laser-focused on your physical health. However, caring for your emotional and mental health is just as important. While you and your partner can act as a support system for each other, it's important to look for support outside of your relationship as well. It’s not fair to put all the onus on one person; that’s too much pressure. We need to spread it out and find others that will walk the journey with us.


Consider joining a support group or working with a therapist to help you process your experience. Seeking support outside your relationship can allow you and your partner to be more emotionally present for each other when you really need it.


Special considerations for when both partners are chronically ill

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So far, we've discussed strategies for coping with chronic illness when there is one chronically ill spouse in a relationship. But how can you cope when you both have a chronic condition? Thankfully, many of the same strategies apply. Getting emotional support, having open communication, and being honest about your boundaries and capacity are important whether one or both partners are sick.


At the same time, there are unique considerations that can make this situation painful and challenging. For example, you have the dual role of being both the patient and the caregiver at the same time. You'll likely move back and forth between these roles depending on the day. When one partner has a high-symptom day, the other might step in to care for them.


However, if both partners experience a flare-up at the same time, it can be difficult to balance these roles. If applicable, you may want to seek support from other family members or other trusted loved ones who can help. As you know, there's no guidebook to navigating chronic illness. My best advice is to find support—both emotional and practical—to cope with those extra-tough days.


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Chronic illness counselling can give you the support you need.

As a chronic illness counsellor, I hold space for people like you who are struggling with all the challenges that come along with health problems. I've worked with people who have multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s, Lyme’s disease, and more. Together, we can process through all the layers of emotion that come along with a new or changing diagnosis.


If you're interested in learning more about how I can help, I encourage you to reach out. I offer free consultations so you can ask questions and get a sense of whether we might be the right fit for each other. I look forward to hearing from you.


Best,

Myriame

Founder and Counsellor



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