When you have a chronic illness like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it can put a real strain on your relationship with your spouse or partner. Dr. Laurie Ferguson, VP of education for CreakyJoints and writer of the Dr. Laurie posts pointed out that “it’s almost a third piece of the relationship, there are two people and the illness. It takes time, creates changes in plans, and requires more caretaking by both partners.”
The tips shared in this article are interrelated, building and depending on each other for effectiveness. Working together to help each other use these techniques, you and your partner create a foundation of trust that will help you build a healthy relationship.
1. Honesty. None of us are especially good at being honest about what we need, but it can be a relationship saver. In order to be honest with each other, you first have to be honest with yourself. Try to take a few minutes of quiet time in your day to reflect on how you feel, and what you need.
2. Communication. So easy to say, so hard to actually do. Communicating openly with each other about what’s going on and how you’re feeling takes practice. Coming to conversations with your partner with the intent to be loving and constructive will make a big difference. Dr. Ferguson recommends “setting aside specific times for talking instead of doing it on the fly.” This will ensure that connecting and talking doesn’t get lost in the busyness of your days.
3. Listen. When you talk to your partner, do you truly listen? Do they? Often, we are busy formulating a reply while the other person is talking and don’t actually hear what they say. This can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. Instead, truly focus on what each other are saying. Try to be as nonjudgmental as possible. Use active listening techniques, such as “what I hear you saying is…” and then paraphrase what you think they said. Often, this can clear up misunderstandings before they lead to a fight.
4. Fight fair. The first step in fighting fair is to talk about what bothers you when it’s a fairly small issue, rather than holding it in until it festers and you inevitably explode. Stay away from exaggerated terms like you always and you never. If you’re discussing something about the other person that annoys or hurts you, put the emphasis on your feelings by saying “when you do X, I feel like…” And don’t hit below the belt. Work together to build an environment of trust, even when you’re fighting.
5. Be patient with each other. No one’s perfect. You’re not going to be perfect in how you adapt to having a chronic illness, and your partner is not going to be perfect in how they adapt to it, either. Both of you are going to make mistakes, and say and do the wrong things. When that happens, take a deep breath, remember that you love each other, and talk it out.
6. Do things together. Remember that you chose each other because there was no one else with whom you’d rather spend your life. If you are not able to do active, physical activities as you may have done before, find something else that you both enjoy. The key is to do something together. It nurtures your relationship.
7. Laugh. Finding a way to laugh together most days will help during the dark times. Laughter is healing, and brings comfort. Laughter is relaxing, which can help your pain levels, too. If you can’t find anything humorous in your day, watch a funny movie or TV show together.
8. Touch. When one partner has a chronic illness that causes pain, touch can disappear from the relationship. You’re afraid of being touched in case it makes the pain worse, and your partner is afraid of causing you more pain. “It often depends on the person in pain to initiate, to have a willingness to ask for what they need,” Dr. Ferguson said. Always having to verbalize that you’re ready for a cuddle is hard, so she also recommends that you “create nonverbal signals, such as wearing a specific piece of clothing or a certain wink that means “I feel great, let’s relax together.” The simple act of gently holding each other offers a physical and emotional intimacy that can open you up to each other, bridge gaps, and heal unspoken hurts.
9. Be sexual. Sex often falls by the wayside when one partner has chronic pain and fatigue, but there are ways to have sex that don’t hurt. In fact, the endorphins released in orgasm actually reduce pain! Experiment with what feels good, play, use toys, and find positions that don’t strain the joints.
10. Learn from your challenges. Every time you resolve an issue, it teaches you something new about yourself, your partner, and your relationship. Use that knowledge to help nurture the relationship, and to resolve future conflicts.
Facing a life with chronic illness can be scary for both partners in a relationship. Supporting each other in being honest and communicating your needs, as well as laughing and cuddling, can help you face this together. You may also find that individual and couples counselling can help the two of you communicate openly about what scares you the most, as well as building problem solving skills that can help you in the future.
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Lene writes the award-winning blog The Seated View. She’s the author ofYour Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain.
Lene Andersen is the Community Leader for HealthCentral’s RA Community. Lene (pronounced Lena) is an award-winning writer, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. She’s written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Follow Lene on Twitter @TheSeatedView and on Facebook. Watch her story on HealthCentral.