Relationships and Chronic Illness: Can it Still be a Happy Valentine’s Day?

Chronic illness unfortunately affects a large portion of the adult population, with symptoms that range from severe pain from fibromyalgia to the extreme fatigue commonly accompanying Lyme disease. These conditions often drastically decrease the ability to perform daily tasks, function efficiently at work, or engage in beloved pastimes. Any of these obstacles alone can have debilitating effects on happiness and fulfillment, but perhaps even more problematic for sufferers is when they affect their personal relationships.

As we learn more about the impact of positive relationships on physical health, it becomes even more crucial to figure out ways to address the shifting dynamic between partners after a diagnosis. A long-term diagnosis is bound to change the dynamics of forming and nurturing romantic bonds. It’s easy to forget that both individuals in the relationship have a new set of responsibilities and reactions to the news. In some cases, a person may need to figure out how to enter into new relationships having lived with a difficult illness for much of their life.

Other conditions, like type 2 diabetes, present later in life and can affect a couple already in an established relationship. Perhaps they can’t enjoy the hobbies they once shared, they’re struggling to find an equitable balance in household chores, or they’re still just trying to come to terms with the limitations imposed by one partner’s illness. These are all difficult adjustments for a couple to have to make.

Taking on new daily responsibilities for a sick or disabled spouse can be a stressful situation alone, but it’s not the whole picture. Major life transitions also come with emotional hurdles that may grow and plague a relationship if not properly dealt with. They can be easily overlooked, especially in the first stages of a diagnosis when each person is struggling to figure out their new role. The unwell partner may be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and helplessness at their new situation while the other becomes wrapped up in moments of resentment and fear for the future. Emotional communication and affection are often put on the back burner.

Physical intimacy can become particularly challenging, as there may be specific illness-related barriers that make sexual intercourse difficult or painful. Patients should always feel free to discuss these issues with their doctor without embarrassment or fear as some of these symptoms may be alleviated through adjusting medications. Both talk and physical therapy are excellent resources as well. Even in the absence of explicit problems, the new dynamic between partners can create an emotional distance that makes intimacy difficult.

Keeping an open dialogue about what each person desires from the relationship is the best way to make sure both are getting what they need. That may be patience while one partner learns to work around their limitations, or understanding that the healthy partner will continue to have needs as well. As long as the couple is constantly striving for compromise through respect and love, they have the ability to overcome these obstacles.

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Photo by Mira on Unsplash

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