8 Ways To Deal With Chronic Illness When It Affects Your Relationship & Self-Esteem

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Ways You Can Deal With Chronic Illness When It Affects Your Relationship & Self-Esteem
Health And Wellness

Disease is not sexy. Neither is chronic illness or pain. 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, and wrinkle creams. 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 with no cure, and little or no relief.

RELATED: A Letter To My Future Love, From Your Chronically Ill Partner

There are many conditions where the only treatment is to manage symptoms: diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson's, MS, chronic migraines, IBD, and fibromyalgia, to name a few. Brutal demands of coping with chronic illness disrupts living, often leading to depression and anxiety.

Regardless of whether you're involved in romantic relationships, common feelings when dealing with chronic illness 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. 

In the face of such an avalanche, how can couples deal with chronic illness when it affects your relationship and self-esteem?

1. Focus on what's positive and good about you.

This is not about placating yourself, nor about empty platitudes. We all have beauty and goodness within. You do too. 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 eyes? What about your soft skin and tough spirit? Your generous actions? Your kind heart? You are thousands of great things. They make you. They color you. You define them.

But chronic illness makes you forget; it gnaws at your spirit, and seduces you into believing you are nothing but your disease. This is your time to remember that 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.

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, TV, or gadgets), reach out and make physical contact.

Lean over and touch your partner's knee, hand, shoulder, or hair. This signals readiness, attentiveness, and openness. 

RELATED: 5 Changes To Expect When The Person You Love Is Diagnosed With A Chronic Illness

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 it's 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.

6. Soothe yourself.

The strategies are the same! Start a conversation with yourself. 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. Tell your partner what you really 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. 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 chronic illness in a relationship is 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.

RELATED: How To Cope If Chronic Illness Is Harming Your Relationship Or Love Life

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Ranjan Patel, Psy.D., MFT is a psychotherapist, life coach, and meditation instructor. Visit her website for more information.