Keeping Your Relationship Intact During Chronic Illness

Posted by on Apr 30, 2015 in Couples Counseling | Comments Off on Keeping Your Relationship Intact During Chronic Illness

As Baby Boomers enter their 60s and 70s, and Generation X moves into middle age, more and more couples are facing the challenge of chronic illness.

Partners may be dealing with physical problems like diabetes or multiple sclerosis, managing mental health crises like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or  struggling with chronic pain.

Currently, the divorce rate is 50% among the general population. For couples managing chronic illness, the divorce rate is 75%. The younger the couple, the greater the risk the relationship won’t survive.

Making it through Chronic Illness Together

As it turns out, the odds of staying together are increased by some key skills and behaviors that have nothing to do with the type of illness, or problems related to the illness itself.

Relationship survival comes down to this:

Do you take advantage of the illness as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship? Will you become closer, or let the challenges pull you apart?

Healthy couples commit to the following things:

  • Talk.  Lots of negative feelings accompany chronic illness.  You and your partner will likely feel tremendous loss, fear, anger, regret, and loneliness. You may also feel a mutual reluctance to discuss your feelings because you don’t want to upset each other.

However, a lack of communication only creates distance. Leaning on each other keeps you connected. Still, It’s not always easy to do. Try to remain present, and demonstrate a willingness to work through your emotions.

Tell each other what you need, so resentment doesn’t build. Share honestly when you need help or time alone.

  • Adjust expectations. Usually, partners enter a relationship as equals. Illness skews the balance of power, affecting relationship roles profoundly.

The healthy partner often takes over the finances, caregiving, and household duties, while the ill partner may feel bad emotionally and physically, and become increasingly dependent on their partner.

The changes to lifestyle, freedom, and availability may be radical. Your relationship seems ruled by the illness:

  • Certain fun activities may no longer possible.
  • Intimacy may be a challenge.
  • Income may be compromised, if the ill person’s income is lost.

Healthy couples who can accept their circumstances, do better. Problem solving and playing to each other’s current strengths is most helpful. Consider ways the ill person can contribute meaningfully to your household.

  • Rediscover your friendship. Allowing illness to be the only thing you share is destructive. Focus instead on how you like to spend time now. It’s vital to take the focus off the illness.

It is also important to note that intimacy during chronic illness tends to decrease. For many chronically ill people, the desire still exists, but abilities change. Couples can still creatively and satisfactorily enjoy intimacy, and protect their sexual connection, throughout illness.

  • Seek support. Chronic illness can be frightening and unsettling for both partners. Focused emotional support makes a huge difference to the success of the relationship. It’s a fact that couples who receive support do better.

Seek out a therapist, illness advocacy group, or online support resources who can help you. Even just one supportive person outside your situation is very helpful.

  • Make sure the caretaker takes care of him or herself. Necessarily, when illness hits, the ill partner becomes the focus of a couple’s life. Often the caretaker’s needs are pushed to the side. Evidence shows that many caregiving partners experience a distinctly worse quality of life, and a significant risk for depression.

In order to take care of others,  caretakers must take care of themselves physically and emotionally. It’s okay to take a break, and participate in enjoyable activities outside of caretaking. Your partner wants you to be cared for too.

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