One or both of you is sick? Despite all the crappy stuff, learn how to get and stay close.
Disease is not sexy. Neither is chronic pain or illness. We shy away. We don't want to talk about it. We hope if we ignore it, it'll go away. But it won't. We're a culture obsessed with youth, beauty, vitality, perky boobs, wrinkle creams. Damned if we're going to look death in the eye.
We're aging everyday. And it's inevitable: we will get sick. Hopefully, it's finite and you recover. But what if you endure ill health every day? It's unrelenting for years, no cure, little or no relief. Many conditions where the only treatment is to manage symptoms: diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson's, MS, chronic migraines, IBD, fibromyalgia, to name a few. Brutal demands of chronic illness disrupts living, often leading to depression and anxiety. Regardless of whether you're involved in romantic relationships, common feelings include:
___ feeling ashamed and embarrassed of symptoms
___ feeling worried about being a burden
___ feeling afraid of being rejected
___ feeling overwhelmed about handling a relationship and the demands of living with illness
___ worrying about becoming 'dependent'
___ feeling guilty about not being 'equal' to or 'pulling one's own weight' with partner
___ struggling between feeling isolated and alone, and wanting to be with someone
___ missing intimacy—emotional and/or physical
___ feeling undesirable
___ feeling guilty that your partner has to "put up with" or "cope" with you
___ judging yourself as 'less than'
___ feeling trapped in your body
___ feeling out of control and helpless
One of my clients with Parkinson's as a side-effect of medications, suffered from erectile dysfunction, and felt unworthy, undesirable, and unable to "please" his husband. Another client with MS judged herself "unsuitable" inadequate, and "defective" to date, because she predicted not being able to have a child. Another client with colitis, having episodes of uncontrollable bowel movements in public, felt deeply ashamed and "dirty." This led to him feeling anxious and sexually inhibited with his wife.
In the face of such an avalanche, how to not rock a strong relationship?
1. Focus on what's positive and good about you.
I cannot emphasize this enough. It goes beyond pollyannaish affirmations. This is not about placating yourself nor about empty platitudes. We all have beauty and goodness within. You do too. Yes you do—no matter you feel your lowest and worst. No matter how you might feel, you have nothing to offer your partner. Challenge yourself to reach inside and pull out what's shiny: your resilience, your grit, your determination.
Don't feel you have any of these? How about your beautiful brown eyes? Don't have brown eyes? How about blue? :-) What about your soft skin and tough spirit? Your generous actions? Your kind heart? You are thousands of macro and micro great things. They make you. They color you. You define them. But chronic illness makes you forget—gnaws at your spirit, seduces you into believing you are nothing but your disease. This is your time to remember: you are more than your disease, much more than your pain. The more positive you rack up, the more it will spill over onto your partner and create a well of love, from which you can both drink.
2. Talk to each other.
Duh, right? It's a no brainer but few of us actually sit down, look each other in the eye, and make a real connection—without shutting down or reacting. Sit down with each other and without distractions (no phones, t.v., gadgets), reach out and make physical contact, e.g. lean over and touch your partner's knee, hand, shoulder, hair ... this signals readiness, attentiveness, openness. This says, "game on, let's go!" Share whatever and however.
3. Take a risk: feel.
Get closer to yourself, and actively let yourself feel your emotions. Experience your vulnerability in front of your partner. This reflects your trust. Not being rejected will strengthen you. If you are rejected, you can start the process of figuring out what went wrong between you both, and whether it can be fixed.
4. Express gratitude.
For what? Anything and everything. Nothing is too small. Do you love the thickness of his hair? How she smells? Him getting up 10 minutes early to make you tea? How about him opening your car door? The good-night kiss? Her picking up food for you both? You're registering what's positive and actively feeling good about it. Let it wash over you. Seep yourself in it, and feel warmed. When you rack up a wealth of positives, the negatives have a harder time crossing the barrier into your Self.
5. Soothe each other.
Use your kind words, give reassuring touch, a loving look, a lingering and warm hug. What do you know about your partner? Do they like baths? Picnics? Walks on the beach? Action movies? Whatever it is, go out of your way to give them a comforting experience. Prioritize your partner and make sure important they feel loved. Taking the focus off yourself, getting off the negative obsessive loop about your physical limitations—this relieves you. Love begets more of the same, and you're creating a positive feedback cycle. The love you give out will ricochet back to you. You are not doing it for this self-centric reason, but action/reaction: this is the law of human interaction.
6. Soothe yourself.
The strategies are the same! Start a conversation with yourself: say, "Hi Self ... " Use your kind words, hold your own hand, place a hand to your heart and feel it beating. Breathe. Think of the good and positive. Allow your mind to hover over these. As your mind drifts into the negative, gently bring it back to the positive, and focus on your pulsing breath. One breath at a time, take your time as you breathe: as you inhale, notice your belly moving out. As you exhale, your belly will be moving in. Take solace in your life force, your breath.
7. Go to your partner and tell him/her what you need.
Do not give your partner the silent treatment. Do not indulge the tendency to wallow in unhappiness, with the mindset, "If he/she really loves me, they'd know what I need, and I shouldn't have to ask." Remember, you must teach your partner how to love you. When, why, and how should your partner give to you? Tell them, clearly and explicitly. Leave no room for confusion or mixed signals. For example, "I feel hurt and disappointed when you didn't ask about my doctor's appt today. I wish you'd remember; it'd make me feel cared for. Could you hold me tightly?"
8. Stay connected to the world.
This buffers against isolation, and acts as further adhesive for your relationships with others. Socialize whenever you're able. Every bit counts: make it a point to chat with a neighbor, the mailman, the grocery clerk. Get out of the house, if only to the dog park. This helps guard against total depletion.
Do some or all of these. On your hardest day, if you do just one of the above, you're raising the bar. Bit by bit, you're adding to your relational bank account. Balancing your illness in a relationship is mega-hard. As you practice these often, like muscle memory, they became habitual and automatic. With time and consistency, you'll feel more at ease.
This is not a substitute for medical advice, nor is it meant as professional consultation with a mental health professional. If you have ongoing symptoms which interfere with your functioning, please seek appropriate help.