Many of us would rather experience pain ourselves than stand by and watch someone we love struggle and often lose the battle with chronic pain. We can feel helpless, powerless to relieve their pain and this may be deeply distressing. Pain is one of the things we can’t share with the person with whom we have an intimate relationship – it’s the permanently lurking demon.
Although, we can’t take on the pain, there are things we can do which support a partner, whilst also avoiding burnout ourselves.
1 The challenge
When we pledge our marriage vows, committing to love our new spouse ‘in sickness and in health’, we are almost certainly not fully aware of what ‘in sickness’ actually means. For many couples, loving a person with chronic pain can be a challenge. The healthy partners may be overwhelmed by a cocktail of anger, frustration, sadness, grief. And just to make matters worse, we can feel guilty or disloyal because we feel these emotions. Trust me, they are the normal responses of most human beings and it’s best to acknowledge them, not bury them.
People with chronic pain will inevitably turn to their partners for all kinds of support – emotional, physical, and practical. They will probably feel bad about this, worried about the pressure they are imposing, feeling they ‘should’ be independent. Support offered graciously will make it easier for the person in pain to accept it without feeling guilty.
Just as the healthy partner may be experiencing some difficult emotions, so too the person in chronic pain is likely to be feeling angry, frustrated, distressed, depressed. If we could wave a magic wand and make the pain disappear, obviously we would but, sadly, we can’t, nor can we fix our partner’s painful emotions. However, we can listen attentively, reassuring her/him, the feelings are normal. We should resist the urge to offer cheerful, but almost certainly false hope, like, ‘Oh I’m sure you’ll feel better soon.’
Right up there in the top 3 ‘do’s in any relationship is healthy communication. This is probably even more important if one partner is suffering with chronic pain. Not only can listening be a very powerful weapon against mental suffering but asking/checking in with a loved one about needs, desires, the extent of the pain, is vital. It’s so easy to assume we know what’s good for someone but we may have got it so wrong.
5 Pain varies
Talking of assumptions, just because someone is pain free and can walk to the shops one day, doesn’t mean the same will be true the next day, or the day after. For some, a pattern does exist but for other people, pain is variable and often arrives unexpectedly. Arrangements made on the basis of ‘mornings are always good’ may have to be cancelled because that particular morning, our loved one is doubled up with pain.
Remembering our loved one is so much more than a person in pain is crucial. She/he is still a human being who generally wants to continue as normal a lifestyle as possible. It might be tempting, during pain free times to do all the chores, like grocery shopping but building some fun into these times can really lift the spirits and put some of the mojo back in the relationship. For some couples, their conversation shrinks to perpetual discussions about pain and medication but this can get dull. There are so many other conversation topics to keep a relationship on the right track.
When our partners are in great pain, it can be difficult for them to articulate their needs or feelings clearly, so we may have to be their advocate or spokesperson with medical practitioners or other professionals. Even well meaning friends who want to visit may have to be turned away or their visit curtailed, if a pain attack suddenly starts.
Taking sole responsibility for meeting the needs of a partner in chronic pain can be tough. Talking honestly with our loved one about sharing the load can take the pressure, not only the healthy partner but also off the relationship. Are there friends/relatives/neighbours who could be relied on to help out?
Undoubtedly, maintaining an intimate relationship with a partner who’s in chronic pain can be challenging but who said marriage was a bed of roses? Facing this challenge together could actually deepen and enrich the relationship.