Love, Health And Wellness

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

Photo: Unsplash: Toa Heftiba
What Is A Chronic Disease, Illness Or Condition & How Do They Affect Relationships & Marriages?

Can romantic relationships survive a chronic illness? If you or your loved one has recently been diagnosed, knowing how to handle possible changes can help you stay in love despite the emotional news of serious health problems or disease.

What is a chronic illness or disease?

The specific definition gets a bit tricky, as "[there] is not only tremendous variation in the diseases that are included under the umbrella term 'chronic disease' but also variation in the time a disease must be present for something to be referred to as chronic," but for the purposes of simplification, the National Health Council — which states that by 2020, an estimated 157 million people in the United States will be affected by a chronic health condition — defines the term as "a disease lasting three months or longer."

While facing and dealing with chronic illness is understandably frightening, that fear does not need to rule or ruin your life or your relationships.

RELATED: Having A Chronic Illness Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Have An Amazing Life

When first diagnosed, don’t be surprised if you and your partner both initially respond as though there has been a death.

The change from the relationship you had when you were both able-bodied to the one you’ll have as you journey into the unknown is worth spending the time to grieve.

In fact, delaying the grief process puts your relationship at risk of rising undue resentment and irritability as you adjust to this unfamiliar life path.

The most important first step you can take is agreeing to set a ground rule of total honest, open communication.

Grant each other permission to speak freely about worries and anxieties as to how this will affect each of you — and remember that body language is a huge part of communication. With a willingness to patiently and compassionately discuss the tough issues, you should be able to survive a chronic illness diagnosis with an intact relationship.

Then, together, sit down and spend time agreeing on how to move forward. And keep in mind that this may have to be done in short spurts to accommodate your loved one’s level of fatigue, pain level, etc.

Being realistic as this shift in wellness occurs is the best strategy to navigate the delicately balanced line between understanding how the diagnosis will impact your life moving forward and how you can approach these changes for a continued loving relationship

Encourage each other to find someone outside of your relationship to sound off to who will listen more than they talk, ask just enough questions to allow you to process your thoughts, be confidential and trustworthy with your deepest thoughts, and not judge you for your frustrations.

To understand how this diagnosis will affect your relationship, you must first understand how this will alter your loved one.

Most chronic illnesses have common features, regardless of the specific disease. These may vary in degrees, and might include fatigue, discomfort, mood swings, and possible depression.

Here are 5 ways living with a chronic disease or illness changes relationships and marriages, and what each of you can to do be prepared — and stay madly in love.

1. You will struggle to keep the illness from defining you both

The uncertainty about how this will affect your lives coupled with an ever-evolving health situation leads to a changed relationship.

With intention, it can often become a relationship that is more comfortable and vibrant. Unfortunately, not everyone believes themselves capable of riding this roller coaster of uncertainty with a loved one — so kudos to you for researching how not to be that statistic!

You are both much more than this illness. Remind each other that you are a team and focus on what you prize in your relationship. Remember why you fell in love and why you still love each other.

Play "let me tell you why I love you" and play it often. Sit together and talk about what you see as each other’s strengths and the assuredness of being together through this time.

It will be uplifting to hear those words reminding you that you’re valuable, especially after a long day of doubting you’re going to make it through this with your wits intact.

2. Your roles in the relationship will change

If your loved one has always been the cook, laundry-handler, errand-runner, bill-payer, they may need to give you these roles as fatigue and pain become more of a reality.

This is a great time to bring in family and friends who have offered to help. You may not be an ace at folding clothes, but your next-door neighbor may be.

Make time to reevaluate your household standards as far as how often the tub actually needs a good scrubbing or the bedsheets need changing. It may be that the bedsheets need changing with increasing frequency as there’s an increased need for rest. And face it, fresh sheets feel good!

Trying to frame the running of the household around the illness will make it easier to determine the priorities and focus. Just remember to include your needs, too.

RELATED: 8 Ways You And Your Partner Can Deal With Chronic Illness

3. Your social group will rearrange itself, usually for the better

Take the time to educate friends and family as to what the illness is and what it will look like in the future based on the research you’ve done. No sickness is totally cookie cutter or follows a set pattern, but there are generalities.

If medical equipment is in the future (wheelchair or walker), that may change when, where, and how you gather with friends. Planning, with the help of those who want to be a part of your life, allows for consideration of your real-world existence.

Some will adjust to your current reality and continue to be involved. Those are your heroes! Peripheral friends may step in closer to help and become even better friends. Those are your superheroes!

It will be a good idea to determine how to stay in the social loop when your loved one doesn’t feel like attending planned events. Perhaps you can attend solo and bring home the news and juicy tidbits of how everyone is doing.

If so, do yourself a favor and agree on the verbiage when people ask how your chronically ill partner is doing. Give enough information to help the questioner feel in the loop, but not horrified by your answer. Not everyone can handle intimate details; be kind and spare them.

Also, knowing the "face" your loved one wants to put forward to the public helps them to ease back into social situations when they are aware of what others know.

4. You will quarrel differently

The partner who is dealing with illness is experiencing a loss of control, among many other challenging emotions. Their body is betraying them, and they are struggling to regain a semblance of who they are while adjusting to who they are becoming.

This uncertainty may cause your loved one to be more sensitive and more easily upset. Learning a fair fight method is a good strategy.

You may not feel free to express your opinion for fear of upsetting or putting undue stress on your partner. While this may be admirable on some levels, it is not the healthiest for your relationship. It will put extra stress on you, which is why agreeing to open, honest communication up front is critical.

5. Your focus and priorities as a couple will change

Discuss your priorities as a couple. Clearly, one of you being ill was not in your earlier life dreams. Knowing what you know about the illness and its progression, you need to review and reconsider your life objectives.

If you’ve never set goals as a couple, this would be an excellent time to consider what you want. Like any good map, a goal helps target where you want to be and empowers you to discuss methods that will help you get there.

Will travel become an issue later, prompting you to get that trip in now? Will you need a different home to accommodate physical challenges? Would moving closer to family be helpful?

Naturally, your financial plan will change after a chronic illness diagnosis. You now have to determine how to fund the extra medical care that will be needed. Budgeting what money needs will be coming out of each paycheck will help you set priorities.

Despite the diagnosis of a chronic illness, your life together can be enhanced with every change that comes.

To do so, stay in the present moment. If you are sitting on the couch together, try to not dwell on how you wish life were different. Be in the same time, place, and space your loved one is — both in your mind as well as in your physical presence.

Relish what you are doing in the here and now because you are doing it with the one you love. Cherish your time together by making unique attempts to make new memories. You might ask what would make their taste buds sing, then set about getting that very thing for them.

And allow them to do nice things for you too. Just because they're sick doesn’t mean they no longer care or aren't interested in intimacy, so don’t block the love they want to show by fearing it will exacerbate their illness. Allow your chronically ill loved one to take the lead and then happily follow.

If your needs are not matching their initiatives, be upfront with questions such as: Would you like to just snuggle? Would you be interested in going past snuggling? What would you say to some heavy kissing? Asking shows your intention and willingness to operate within their abilities at the moment.

Not every kiss has to end in sex, but some will. Show them you understand the importance of their having control over how much, how far, and how often.

The bottom line is this: Recognizing, anticipating, and preparing for relationship changes that occur due to a loved one’s chronic illness will enrich who you are as a couple and lay the path for a happy life together, despite the upheaval, emotions, and inevitable changes that accompany a diagnosis of chronic illness.

RELATED: 6 Ways To Have A Satisfied Sex Life When Dealing With Illness

Sharrie Thompson, RN, and her husband of 38 years survived a 15-plus year journey of recovery following her own diagnoses of chronic illnesses, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, from which she has now been symptom free for more than six years. Visit her website for more and to schedule a free 15-minute consultation on helping your body heal itself.