By: Julie Ryan
Unless you were already sick before you met your partner, it’s likely that your relationship took a drastic change when you became ill. Perhaps you had a great sex life, you went out often and did lots of things together, you traveled, you enjoyed life. I know that’s how it was for us.
Then I got sick, and we discovered chronic illness can have an impact on marriage.
Since then we’ve had ups and downs. We’ve had times where I felt good enough that our lives (and sex lives) seemingly returned to normal. We put my illness out of our minds and enjoyed life again. And then, boom, there it was. Something would happen that would remind us that it wasn’t over, that I am actually chronically ill and that this illness is going to be a part of our lives forever. In the last two years I’ve been mostly healthy. Thanks to major diet and lifestyle changes, I was feeling good. The pain was minimal, if at all, and energy levels returned to normal. So did our sex life. At least for a little while. Then there was the abdominal/pelvic pain that ruined the fun. Two surgeries later and I was doing well again, and once again things looked normal for a while. And then, boom, there it was again. The the shoulder issue right on top of that = sex life dead.
Deny it as much as we might like, but I believe sex is an important part of a marriage, that it’s a need that should be fulfilled. When needs aren’t being met, we struggle, stress and fight. And that goes for any need within a relationship. There are two sides of this coin and neither of them are very pretty.
On one side you have the partner with chronic illness. They have needs, too — sexual, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Unfortunately, the chronic pain that comes with issues like fibromyalgia get in the way of fulfilling not just sexual needs but physical needs in general. Even a hug is often painful, so we might be left feeling physically disconnected from those we love. That physical disconnection can lead to a disconnection mentally and emotionally, as well, when our loved ones misinterpret our lack of physical contact. That is the other side of the coin. The other side is the healthy partner who, while seeing their partner is hurting, doesn’t always disconnect their partner’s pain from their own. Instead of stopping to think about how much their partner is missing out on because of the pain they’re in, they instead focus on what their partner is not giving them. This can cause them to withdraw. The withdrawal by the healthy partner often leads to a vicious circle where the unhealthy person withdraws to protect themselves, and this can lead to resentment on both sides.
So, what can you do to reduce the impact of chronic illness on marriage? It’s easier said than done. However, I’d suggest two things.
1. Every couple who finds they’re facing chronic illness should seek out a marriage counselor to help them work through and voice the feelings that come up in relation to these issues. It can be hard to talk about sex in front of someone who is basically a stranger, but it may be necessary to get a third person involved in order for both partners to be honest.
2. Find a good support group for each partner. Not only should the partner with chronic illness be involved in a good support group of others who share the illness and can relate to what they are going through, but the healthy partner should be actively involved in a “caregiver” support group with other partners who can identify with the struggles he (or she) is going through as well.
It’s important that each spouse try to understand their partner’s point of view. The healthy spouse needs to take time to realize that the ill partner is missing everything they are missing, too. Yes, at times we might be so ill that we don’t think about all we are missing (and sometimes that’s a good thing), but more often, we know what we are missing and it can be depressing. On the other hand, those of us who are ill need to take some time to think about what it must be like for our partner, as well. We also have to remind ourselves that they obviously love us. While we don’t have the choice to walk away from our chronic illness, they do. The fact that they stay says a lot about them, and about how much they really do love us.