To keep your relationship healthy is to honour one of the most important areas of self-care. Especially important when you’re chronically ill.
It sucks to be sick. No question. It hurts, it’s exhausting, and sometimes downright depressing.
When you’re sick you often can’t do what “normal” people take for granted, like spend the day shopping. Managing your illness can take all your focus and energy. And if the illness hasn’t already taken a bite out of your sex life – that will suffer too.
Having a strong, healthy relationship with someone you really feel connected to is a major contributor to good physical and emotional health. People with strong social connections, including intimate relationships, where they feel supported and cared for tend to live longer, happier lives.
There are four key steps you can take to safeguard your primary love relationship against harm while you’re chronically ill.
1. Take Responsibility
No, it isn’t your fault you’re sick, but it is your responsibility. It certainly isn’t your partner’s fault either, and other than caring for and supporting you, managing your illness isn’t their responsibility either. How can you be sure you’re taking responsibility?
First, it helps to view your illness in a detached way. That means understanding it is not part of you. Think of it as a guest. Invite it in, and ask why it has come knocking at your door.
Listen to what your illness is telling you. When my fibromyalgia flares, for example, I am pretty good at looking back and tracking what caused the flare. And then I do my best to avoid that thing. So you too might be able to hear your illness tell you about something you can avoid to prevent or manage better in future.
And then, don’t engage in behaviours that you know will trigger a flare-up or make your pain and fatigue worse. For me and my fibromyalgia, that includes drinking coffee, because I already have trouble getting good sleep. If you typically over-exert yourself or consume foods or alcohol that goad your body into rebellion, stop.
2. Include Your Partner
When you’re feeling poorly, don’t have energy, or are in pain, remember that it is hard on your partner. Understand their helplessness. Men, in particular, want to fix and solve problems. It is very difficult for partners to sit and watch the person they love suffer day after day knowing they can’t fix it or solve it.
Be clear and explicit about what they can do that is helpful to you. They aren’t mind readers, no matter how well they know you. They’ll appreciate knowing exactly how to help, especially when the message is delivered without judgment or blame.
Next, discuss boundaries and balance. Be open, honest and transparent with your partner and understand that he/she will want and need to take a break from your illness. You can’t, but they can: you must let them.
3. Don’t Lay Guilt Traps
Did you know that guilt is a form of judgement? And then when we feel guilty, we are most often applying someone else’s standards or assessments of our behaviour rather than relying on our own internal compass and code.
Guilt is a dangerous charlatan: it makes us think we are different/better humans that we actually are. Do you feel ‘guilty’ you can’t help as much around the house? Be honest now: does the ‘feeling guilty’ actually help you feel better about the work you’re not doing? Guilt is a sign you haven’t accepted the truth about your life and your health right now.
Watch that you don’t lay guilt traps for your partner, either, in an effort to make them feel bad somehow that you feel bad. According to Psychology Today, guilt trips are a damaging form of coercion and manipulation that can have long-term damaging impacts on the relationship.
4. Don’t Use Your Illness as an Excuse
What does your fibromyalgia let you avoid doing? For me, it’s emptying the pee bucket from our composting toilet on the boat. (Yes, we live on our sailboat full time.) On bad days, I literally do not have the strength to lug the bucket up to the deck and dump it overboard. So my husband does it. The truth is that lately there are days when I could, in fact, do it. Most of the time I let my husband do it anyway. I hate the smell. So that’s definitely a payoff for me.
Take a good look at your own ‘payoffs’ in having this illness. (They exist for everyone in every circumstance, so you don’t get off that easy.) Then be honest with yourself and step up to do your part. Be sure having a chronic illness doesn’t become an excuse for you to get out of things you find difficult in your relationship.