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Chronic illness and Relationships

I thought this was an important topic to discuss as many of my patients often ask me questions regarding chronic illness and relationships.

Often my experience with chronic illness comes up in conversations and naturally then does, “are you married? Do you have kids?”

So naturally the conversations turn to enquiry about how I have managed the two.

So what defines a chronic illness?

A chronic illness is as an illness that is present for more than 4 weeks. In this blog post I’m not referring to a cough that has lasted 2 months but more towards illnesses that can lasts for years. This can be either due to the nature of the disease or the difficulty in finding suitable treatment to resolve the health condition.

Being a practitioner for 14 years I tend to see many chronic diseases especially when people hear about my own experiences. Often patients are intrigued to know how I have managed my chronic illness (when I was younger) and a relationship at the same time.

Some common questions include, “How did your partner react when you were too sick to go out?”, “Did he understand or did you have to constantly explain what you needed?” These questions involve many areas for discussion and if you have found yourself needing help I often encourage patients to speak to a qualified psychologist for further assistance.

My intention with this post is to share my experiences and what has helped me and I hope it can provide you with some insight. A little background about me. Within two months of dating my now husband, I had a major flare up of psoriasis that covered my entire body. I was challenged by, “do I tell him the truth or just end it over the phone and save myself from extreme embarrassment?”

This was very tough for me as I always carried shame with this disease and didn’t let many people know what I was dealing with. But this relationship was different so I decided to throw it out there and prepared myself for what I thought would mark the end of a very short relationship. Surprisingly he told me that he would be open to being supportive and helping me through my journey. My initial reaction was, “this isn’t your problem it’s mine”. Instinctively I felt that I didn’t want our relationship to be founded on my struggles with my health. Although that is something I was going through and obviously would impact the person I am in the relationship, I was also very mindful that I didn’t want it to be the foundation in which our relationship was built on.

The reason is simple. I am not my disease. The psoriasis didn’t and doesn’t define who I am. It was a moment in my life where I was challenged by my health and I needed to find ways to understand it and more importantly to manage it.

So, TIP NUMBER 1 - Don’t let the illness of either person in the relationship form the foundation of the relationship. If conversations are constantly centred around reasons for ill health, treatments, doctor’s appointments and the like this can be dangerous as it may form the basis in which the relationship is built on. In this situation one person embodies the victim/weak/sick persona and is always in a ‘dependant’ situation. While the other partner becomes the carer who can become the hero/saviour that helps make everything right. This division in power will potentially create problems when the ill person’s health starts to improve. If the relationship can’t handle the shift in power, then cracks will start to show or the previously ill person will embody the sick persona again in order to return the relationship back to what appeared to be working but clearly wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong; it is important to empathise with someone doing it tough with their health but don’t sympathise.

In my opinion any sympathy or pity that came my way felt as though a complete removal of my ability to empower myself and rise about this disease from an emotional perspective. This will remove their power can impact the person’s ability to look at ways of healing their body to restore optimal health. It’s essential to communicate and tell each other what your needs are but there should also been conversations about your passions, your dislikes, family, friends, expectations and so on.

Dating is meant to be a time of enquiry. Where does this person fit into my life, my friends, my family? What are your/their goals? Where do we see yourselves in the future (both as a couple and individually)?

This doesn’t need to be discussed on the first date but no future should be planned while someone is in a state of ill health.

TIP NUMBER 2- Don’t settle. If you don’t feel this person is the perfect person for you but are challenged to let them go as you are afraid you won’t find someone as supportive or understanding of your circumstances, I would encourage you to look into the future. When you are well and don’t have any drama holding you together, what do you have in common? If the answer is nothing, then staying together is a great dis-service to both of you. Each person has the right to be with their perfect person (whomever that may be) and to stay with someone out of fear of not finding anyone else is very selfish.

On the flip side, what happens when the illness resolves and you are left with someone you have nothing in common with? Will you end it? But they stayed with you through the toughest times, why get rid of them now?

All these questions will block your ability of moving forward and doing the right thing. Life is short and each person on this planet has challenges in life whether it be with health, relationships, family, work etc.

As you can see this is a complex issue and one to be me mindful of.

If there are any niggling feelings in your gut, that’s your innate self is trying to grab your attention to then listen.

Also it is important to recognise that relationships strengthen during adversity and if done well, your relationship will weather the storm of illness and become a strong bond that many others understand. At all times keep communication lines open and be true to yourself. Live life the way you wish to live it, despite any illness and the rest will follow.