Tips and Advice for Couples Dealing With Chronic Illness
Dear April Masini,
My boyfriend of three years just found out he has cancer. It's been a really difficult couple of months for us trying to understand what this chronic illness will mean for our lives and our future. I'm trying to be there as much as I can for him, but the problem is he has been so mean to me. He barely talks to me anymore and when he does, he's short and rude. It's not like this is easy for me either; I'm still trying to deal with the news and how it's affecting my life. What can we do to make this easier for both of us?"
Sick of Sickness
April Masini's Advice :
Dear Sick of Sickness,
Chronic illness can be very hard on a relationship -- especially when that illness is unexpected. In the case of couples, the illness is hard on both the person with the illness and the partner of that person. It might help you to understand why your boyfriend is acting differently to you if you can understand why he's having a difficult time with the news of his illness.
Reasons chronic illness is hard on the person with the illness:
- Fear of escalation of the illness. Most people don't "go with the flow" very easily and discovering that they have a chronic illness means loss of control. Whether the illness is arthritis, Parkinson's disease, leukemia, or something else, it changes a person's life, and escalates -- usually in one direction: downhill.
- Guilt. Many adults who get chronic illness feel very undeserving of their partner's help and support as well as their company and commitment. This feeling of being undeserving leads to guilt. There can also be a sense that they have imposed a lifestyle change on their partner as their chronic illness changes their own life and because they share a life, their partner's.
- Disappointment. The onset of chronic illness and various escalation points along the way may force a person to realize that dreams and plans made will not be carried out because of the illness. For example, if someone who gets arthritis always dreamed of spending a year or more traveling in an exotic country or hiking the Himalayas, this dream may no longer be feasible.
But it's completely understandable that it's also difficult for you to deal with this news that your boyfriend has a serious illness.
Reasons it's hard on the partner of the person with the illness:
- Anger. Many partners of people with chronic illness are angry that their life is changed because their historically carefree partner is now someone else -- a person in pain, medications, doctor's appointments and other medical treatments. This is not what they signed on for.
- Blame. Many partners look for the cause of the chronic illness in order to try and control it. This search and rescue mission can become obsessive. The partners may be quick to blame someone or something for the illness so that they can avoid accepting the life changes in front of them.
- Disappointment. Even though a partner may accept the chronic illness at first, after a certain amount of time they don't recognize their own home, partner, or life as what it used to be before the chronic illness and they may feel sorry for themselves.
There's no reason for you and your boyfriend to be against each other in these trying times; you need to work together and help one another get through this as best you can.
Tips for dealing with chronic illness in relationships:
- Accept change. No one said life was going to be static. In fact, the only time it is is when you're dead. And having an illness is very different from being dead. It's a form of life. Accepting this flow is difficult, but if you can do it, you'll be happy.
- Get out of your own head. Look around. Turn on the news. You're not so bad off. There are lots of people who are worse off. There are lots of people who are better off. There are people who used to be worse off but aren't any more. There are others who used to be better off but aren't any more. Do some volunteer work -- from phone calling to cuddling terminally ill babies to helping local kids with reading problems. Expand your life outside your own medical world.
- Appreciate what is good. If you love eating Italian food, make sure that you and your partner do this once a week. If you love listening to classical music, go to a concert -- or part of a concert if you can't stay for the whole thing because of your illness. Visit a museum. Read books. Watch a great movie. Life is what you make it. Go out on dates! You can check out my book, Romantic Date Ideas, for some great date ideas that will help the two of you forget your troubles for the night.