6 Tips for Improving Relationships with Chronic Pain
Jason Elia, a Nashville TV writer decided to give his girlfriend two extremely nice Christmas gifts - an engagement ring and Super Bowl tickets. Unfortunately, before he had a chance to give them to her, he got two pieces of bad news. First, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Second, despite the fact that he was given an 87 percent chance of survival, his girlfriend dumped him, saying she couldn’t handle the stress of having a boyfriend with a chronic disease. To add insult to injury, the ex-girlfriend insisted she should still get the Super Bowl tickets because he bought them with her in mind. (Elia disagreed and instead offered the tickets to the person who could get him the most Twitter followers).
Whether or not the story is true, it reminded me that all too often I hear of relationships breaking up when one person develops a serious health problem, especially when that condition causes chronic, debilitating pain. At the very least, chronic pain puts a strain on even the best relationships - be they marriages or friendships.
Although we can’t control how other people act or react in response to our chronic pain problems, there are positive steps we can take to improve our relationships. Today I’m focusing on our relationships with friends. Following are six tips for building, improving and sustaining relationships.
1. Reassess Your Relationships
Chronic pain tends to impose limits on what you can do. When you were healthy and active, you could juggle lots of friends, but now you’re probably finding that you need to focus your limited time and energy on a few close friends.
Friendships based on common interests that you can no longer participate in will usually drop by the wayside naturally - for example, job-related friends when you are no longer able to work or sports friends when you can’t participate in the sport anymore.
Toxic friends are another story. These are friends that in one way or another pull you down and increase your stress levels. Toxic friends are generally self-centered and take more than they give. They may be negative, demanding, critical, needy and/or have lives that seem to be constantly full of drama. If you always seem to feel worse after talking to this person, they are probably a toxic friend. Real friends should build you up, inspire you and lift your spirits, not drag you down and leave you depressed.
Eliminating toxic friends will give you more energy to put into your real friendships with people who genuinely care about you and share your value system. Of course, if the toxic person in your life is a family member, you probably can’t eliminate them completely, but at least try to limit your contact with them as much as possible.
2. Don’t Talk About Pain All the Time
It can be tempting to talk to your friends about how much pain you’re in because pain has a way of grabbing your attention and trying to control every aspect of your life, but try to resist the urge. Frankly, no one, no matter how much they love you, wants to hear a blow by blow description of your health issues every time they talk to you. For one thing, it makes them feel uncomfortable and helpless. Once they’ve said how sorry they are to hear you’re not feeling well and perhaps made the obligatory "Let me know if I can help" statement, most people are at a loss for anything else to say about your pain.
If your friend doesn’t ask how you’re feeling, resist the temptation to volunteer the information. If you’re asked, try to limit your response to one or two sentences like, "I’m having a fairly good day today. Thanks for asking," or "I’m feeling pretty rough today so I may not be able to talk for very long." Then immediately ask your friend how she is doing or what’s new in her life.
3. Keep Up with Current Events
With chronic pain, it is easy to become so isolated that you have nothing else to discuss with friends other than your pain. Make an effort to keep up with the latest news in whatever areas of interest you share with your friends, be it sports, politics, literature, or celebrity gossip. Today with computers, smartphones and TVs, it’s easier than ever before to access the latest information on whatever subjects interest you. As an added benefit - the acts of both keeping up with current events and discussing them with friends help take your mind off your pain for a little while - always a good thing.
4. Make Friends with Other Patients
Let’s face it, sometimes we all need to talk to someone who truly understands what we’re going through because they’ve experienced it themselves. As much as our healthy friends may love and support us, if they haven’t lived with chronic pain, they can’t really relate to what we’re feeling. If you don’t already have friends like this, you can reach out an make new friends through local or online support groups.
It’s not always necessary for a friend to have the exact same condition as you to understand what you’re experiencing. One of my oldest and dearest friends suffered a stroke a few years ago and was left with a lot of pain and limited use of one side of her body. Although she doesn’t have fibromyalgia as I do, she completely understands the pain and limitations that accompany it. We’ve discovered that we do well going places together because we’re each sensitive to the others limitations so we’re patient with and understanding of one another.
5. Make Plans with a Caveat
While it’s not a good idea to talk about your pain all the time, your friends do need to know about your condition and your limitations. You need to establish an understanding that whenever you make plans together, you may have to cancel at the last minute if you’re having a really bad day.
When it comes to going out, I find I can classify my bad days into two categories - bad and really bad. On a simply bad day, I don’t feel like going out, but if I can push myself to get ready and walk out the door, by the time I get to where I’m going, I usually start to feel a little better. On a really bad day, I’m in so much pain or my fatigue level is so high that I can’t even manage to take a shower and get dressed. Those are the plans I have to cancel. Thankfully, my friends understand.
Only you can decide how you feel on a particular day and what you’re able to do. If you have to cancel plans with a friend, assure your friend that your heart wants to go but your body just won’t cooperate.
6. Remember That Friendship Takes Two
Sometimes we become so concerned about other people understanding our problems and needs that we forget to try to see things from their perspective. Try to remember that your friend’s life is just as important to him as yours is to you.
Ideally over time a friendship should work out to be a balance of giving and taking. Sometimes you initiate a phone call, other times your friend initiates it; sometimes your friend invites you out to dinner, other times you invite your friend. Don’t keep score - just remember to hold up your end of the friendship. You don’t have to do a lot. Many times a short e-mail or text message letting your friends know you’re thinking of them may be all that’s necessary.
Special Note: Throughout February, experts from many of HealthCentral’s communities are writing about Sex, Romance and Other Relationships in your lives and how they interact with your condition. Click on the link above to check out our special Valentine’s Day area - new posts will be added every week.
Karen is the co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association. She wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Pain Management.