When your partner lives with a chronic condition it can be hard to know the best ways to support them. Here’s how I would want a partner to support me in my daily life with chronic illness.
Having a chronic condition or invisible illness like migraine can be debilitating, frustrating, and lonely. In 2018, 51.8% of American adults were found to have at least one chronic condition. In my experience, finding a partner who is able to accommodate your needs and support you through chronic pain can feel complicated and difficult.
Being sick most days of your life can mean missing out on gatherings and major social events. It can also mean missing work days. Missed work days coupled with other expenses of living with a chronic condition, like prescription costs and doctor’s visit copays, can lead to financial constraints and medical debt.
Having a chronic illness may also mean that the burden of day-to-day responsibilities falls disproportionately on the healthy partner. Someone with chronic illness may not be able to take on chores like cleaning or cooking dinner. If you have children, it can mean needing to hire someone for extra child care, or the healthy partner might need to work less in order to provide additional child care.
Chronic illness can put a strain on your relationship when one person is constantly the caregiver and the other isn’t able to reciprocate. Being constantly sick can also impact intimacy, which can be integral to a romantic relationship.
However, being the partner of someone with a chronic illness can also lead to a relationship built on a mountain of trust and strength. You know each other in a deep way that many other couples couldn’t imagine. It’s a learning process of patience and understanding that never stops teaching you.
Experiencing chronic pain is mentally and physically exhausting. It can be isolating and upsetting to feel like others pity you or minimize what you’re going through. If you care deeply enough for your partner who lives with a chronic condition, being able to show up for them as an advocate and caregiver will strengthen your bond.
When they’re able to, they will return that support the best they can.
If you’re in a relationship with a person who has a chronic illness, here are a few ways you can be a supportive partner.
If you want to understand what your partner is going through, do some research. Learn all you can, including any stigma or issues patients navigating life with that condition may face. Ask your partner to explain what it feels like and what their needs are.
Help them find a community or support group if they’re looking for one. This can help them feel less alone.
Once you’ve learned about their condition, become an advocate on your partner’s behalf. If someone is trying to brush off their symptoms or brings up stereotypes about chronically ill people, stick up for your partner.
Rather than going off on a rant, try to use the conversation as an opportunity to inform the person what is and isn’t true about your partner’s chronic illness. Sticking to a polite, informative tone will help keep the conversation open and may encourage the person you’re talking with to ask more questions.
Keeping people within your community informed can help your partner, and others navigating similar experiences, feel less alone.
Many patients with invisible or chronic illnesses face misdiagnosis or medical gaslighting. Help your partner stay on top of their health by learning more about the latest research on their condition. If your partner would like you to go with them to doctor’s appointments, having a solid understanding of the condition will allow you to have productive conversations with healthcare providers and back up your partner when they’re advocating for themself.
If you join your partner for appointments, they may appreciate it if you’re willing to take notes while the doctor discusses their options. Navigating medical settings when you live with a chronic condition can be exhausting and it can be hard to remember everything that gets discussed.
Being able to help keep track of all the information is a great way to support your partner by taking some of the work off of their plate.
If you believe your partner is facing medical gaslighting, speaking up for them is another important way to show up. Medical gaslighting can look like a provider not taking a patient’s symptoms seriously or telling the patient that their symptoms are “all in their head.” It can also mean minimizing your partner’s symptoms, refusing to perform further tests, or suggesting a diagnosis based on gender, race, weight, or ethnicity.
Helping your partner come prepared with a list of questions can be helpful. If the doctor continues to refuse to help, your partner may want to switch providers. Ask them if they would like your help researching new options.
Fill in when they can’t:
There will be days when your partner can’t physically walk the dog, make dinner, go grocery shopping, or even get out of bed. Being able to step in without making your partner feel guilty makes a big difference. Some days will be better than others, but knowing you’re there to help is a big relief.
People with chronic illness often use the term “spoons”, to describe the limited energy they have to get through daily life. To keep responsibilities within your relationship equal, have regular check-ins to see if they have the spoons to complete certain tasks that day. Try to coordinate tasks that need to be done with the parts of the day when your partner has the most energy.
Working with the constraints that come with their condition will make both your lives easier.
While you can’t fix their health issues, you can find small ways to help your loved one feel better. This could be getting them their favorite snack, making them their favorite meal, or watching an episode of their favorite show with them.
If they’re having a bad day, and they feel up for it, you could plan a special date night at home.
Having a chronic illness can lead to psychological distress. Many people face mental health issues on top of their physical symptoms. Remind your partner that they are important and their worth is not based on how productive they are.
Help them practice self-care with practices like meditation or easy exercises such as yoga to help keep them grounded. Let them take the lead when choosing an activity or exercise to make sure it feels good for their body.
It’s important to remember to take care of yourself too.
You may not be able to show up as your best self if you’re skipping lunch, avoiding taking time for yourself, and running on fumes. Remember to check in to see how your mind and body are feeling.
If you need to step away to relax, take a breath, or have a snack, don’t feel guilty. You can’t help take care of someone else if you’re not fully taking care of yourself first.
Medically reviewed on March 21, 2023
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