What People with Chronic Illness Can Do To Support Their Partners

Lawrence 'Rick' Phillips | Feb 8, 2017

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I saw Sheryl for the first time in high school and was smitten. When I finally got the nerve to ask her for a date she said no — three times. One year after high school she asked me out.  We were married 15 months later.  At the time, I had type 1 diabetes. This is what I have learned about supporting my wife during nearly 40 years of marriage.

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Support your partner

Marriage is about mutual support. Remember, to be fully present the partner with chronic illness must also support their partner. It is easy to get caught up in our own issues and forget each person in a marriage deserves as much support as we do.

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Be honest

Before we married I had to be honest with Sheryl about the complexity of diabetes so she understood it’s a third partner in our marriage. It governs every decision from buying a house to taking a walk. If someone can’t be with you because of your chronic illness, move on. We can’t change our condition any more than we can change history.

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Be respectful

It is the deeper things that keep us together. Learning about a chronic condition is a process, it does not happen overnight. So even after we were married Sheryl and I were still learning about diabetes. I had to respect Sheryl enough that she could learn about diabetes in her own way.

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Form a partnership

Lasting marriages are partnerships formed out of love. My responsibilities in our partnership include managing my chronic condition so I can participate in other parts of our marriage. Long-term couples renegotiate their partnership in small ways almost every day. Acting out of love makes our partnership work.

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Listen

Chronic illness will stress any long-term relationship. I had to learn to listen to my partner. I have to remember that my partner’s goals and perceptions about chronic conditions are just as valuable as mine. There are no junior partners in a chronic condition.  If we are all in, then our partners deserve to be listened to.

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Never stop growing

Both of us have grown over the years. We have tried and sometimes failed at little and big endeavors. Even in failure we know we are not risking our commitment to each other. We are more interesting people today because we each kept pushing in our separate ways to grow outward as well as inward in our marriage.

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Be ready for new things

After 25 years with diabetes, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and later ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Nothing changed as much as when I was diagnosed with RA. Our partnership had to be at the forefront of our response. It fundamentally changed how, where, and why we continued together. Strong partnerships can survive big changes.

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Have fun

Couples bring out the best in each other. I don’t always like doing the things Sheryl might like, but need to hold up my part of the marriage. So we have to do things together. We need to laugh, tease, explore, and meet new people. I need to make room for laughter and be intentional in my part of being a couple as much as possible.

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Be ready for your partner to have health issues

My chronic condition does not excuse me from my obligations as husband and father. This may mean making other living choices or taking on new responsibilities if Sheryl’s health were to decline. I’d have to be realistic in the support I can provide for my partner and we’d have to decide together what to do.

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No formula works for everybody

Love is the kindness we extend to ourselves and others so we can find our own way. Sheryl and I are not the same. We have different perspectives and different things are important to each of us. Just as we are different, no two marriages are the same. We all must find what works for us.

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Be smart

We planned for the day that I might be not be able to work and employed resources that would help us transition to our new life. It was not the life I imagined when we were married, but due to RA, it is the life I must now lead. Putting into place life, disability, and long-term care insurance when we were younger has made a big difference.

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Focus outside yourself and marriage

I was hesitant to have children, yet having two sons and now grandchildren has made me a more complete man. It gives me reasons to carry on. The future of our grandchildren and their children depends in part on causes I support. I want our children to know that I loved them enough to help make the world better.

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Love your partner

I would not be alive today without Sheryl. If I were to go back and tell myself one thing on my wedding day, it would be hold on to Sheryl, she will make your life better, last longer, and be more joyous. Living with chronic conditions is not easy. Living with the love of my life while having chronic illness has been lifesaving for me.

NEXT: What People with Rheumatoid Arthritis Should and Shouldn't Eat