Four ways to cope when chronic illness enters the relationship- part two

Young girl sitting in front of her boyfriend in a wheelchair in the park.While I do feel lucky that the thyroid condition I have is chronic and not life threatening, everyday life can be challenging because I often do not feel 100% with this illness.

This said, to preserve as good of a quality of life as possible, I do lots of things to take care of myself which include:


• Maintaining high quality relationship with my husband and my family
• Resting when I need to
• Doing the things that feed my energy and saying “no” to most everything else
• Walking
• Avoiding foods that make me feel worse
• Watching comedies- television or movies
• Practicing 20 minutes twice daily Transcendental Meditation (please check out www.tm.org for more information)
• Engaging in fun hobbies and playing whenever possible
• Staying true to myself and my beliefs

Of this list, for me maintaining high quality relationships is number one. Safe, authentic, reciprocal, and loving relationships can serve as a strong antidote (even a partial remedy) for the emotional and physical pain and immune dysfunction that often accompany a chronic health condition.
Before we go into the four ways to cope, let’s look at the physical mechanics of what makes this true.
In many people, a genetic predisposition may be present.

However, that does not mean that the gene will necessarily express itself creating horrible illness. Our life circumstance and the health of our relationships have incredible power to affect our health in either direction.
When our relationships are difficult or full of strife, our bodies release a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol regulates our fight or flight response when we are in threatening situations.
Because human beings are wired to be in relationship with one another, when things get tough, our bodies respond accordingly by releasing cortisol.
While the ability to detect danger is paramount to our survival, over time, an over production of cortisol causes an inflammatory response. And inflammation is the precursor to immune system dysfunction
(https://www.news.osu.edu/news/2013/01/19/lonely/).
On the other hand, when we feel emotionally safe, connected and have mostly positive interaction in our closest relationships, our bodies release a substance called oxytocin. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone”.
When we are genuinely connected to our partners, we are yelling less, hugging more and smiling more. Oxytocin decreases inflammation, increases mood, and increases immune function (http://www.autoimmune-paleo.com/bring-on-the-oxytocin-how-healthy-relationships-literally-make-us-healthy-2/).
While healthy relationship may not be the cure all to the genetic make-up we were handed, high quality connection with our partners offers us a precious lifeline.
So, amid having a bad day physically or mentally due to a chronic condition or illness, positive interaction with our partners becomes a healthy choice.
With that, here are four ways to cope when chronic illness enters the relationship.
1. Empathy. This is the most important one in my opinion. Receiving empathy when not physically feeling well is vital. Empathy brings understanding and flexibility. It is a relationship building quality.
Remember, empathy must work both ways- for the partner that doesn’t feel well, and for the partner who is coping with this change and may be picking up the slack physically and emotionally.
2. Prioritize what is most important (as a team)! Lower energy levels may require partners to make their world a little smaller. Ask yourselves the following. What is a necessity what is not? What feels like a dreaded obligation? What feels life draining? What feels life giving? How do we want to spend our time?

Give yourselves permission to have a movie at home night on the couch as a family instead of throwing that holiday party. This is probably a good time to look for areas of your life that you can simplify. Make a short list together about what feels important and what does not.

3. Laugh. The old saying is that laughter is the best medicine may good advice for intimate relationships. Because not feeling well affects our mood and our overall state, finding ways to bring humor in can greatly increase joy and closeness.

Tapping into our funny bone has helped my husband and I tremendously bring ourselves into the present. Humor also helps partners to find common ground, helps in offsetting the daily grind and associated stress and bring lightheartedness back into the relationship which is a very connecting point.

4. Don’t let the romance go away- protect the relationship. My hope is that this one is mostly self-explanatory. Please remember, that partners don’t have to make a grandiose production over spending some quality time together. In fact, larger chunks of time may feel overwhelming when energy levels are low.

It is those everyday moments that we have the most opportunity for connection. A smile, a hug, a half hour one on one conversation or 20 minutes of snuggle time can increase the sense of connectedness greatly.
While a chronic condition can change things for couples, it doesn’t have to spell nothing but gloom and doom. I know personally how challenging it can be, but I am also a believer that the relationship is not only an important effort but a real quality of life enhancer.
If either you or your partner has a chronic condition and are finding that your relationship needs some help, please know that there is hope. Call, text or directly schedule your 20 minute no charge phone consultation to find out if counseling might help your relationship.

2 replies
  1. Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC
    Tamara G. Suttle, M.Ed., LPC says:

    Suzanne! I’ve been away from your blog too long and I’m thrilled to see that you are continuing to share your life wisdom with your readers!

    Thank you for talking specifically about living with chronic illness as a psychotherapist.

    This is something that far too many personal and professional caregivers try to hide and struggle with in silence.

    Should you ever want to guest post on my blog about the intersection of chronic illness and the practice of psychotherapy, I would welcome it!

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Suzanne
      Suzanne says:

      Thank you for reading Tamara! I have observed both personally and professionally that how we feel physically has a huge influence upon our very being that is largely downplayed or taken for granted. Our physical state very much affects our emotional state, how we show up in relationships and how we interact with the outside world. In my opinion, this is both highly under acknowledged and over pathologized. There is often an assumption that when someone looks “normal” that they also physically feel “normal”. If there is an illness or condition, it then becomes invisible to others, and the person suffering is labeled as difficult, lazy, depressed, preoccupied, antisocial, lacking in priorities, or a hypochondriac that needs to get over him or herself. On the flip side, being the loved one of a person who has a chronic condition is also very difficult as there can be an incredible sense of loss of their loved one’s former spunk, zest, energy and vitality. I fully appreciate the complexity of this as I have lived it and love working with folks who are encountering this in their lives. Thank you again Tamara!

      Reply

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