Advise Me

How to Keep Your Relationship Solid During a Serious Illness

No matter how solid your relationship with your partner is, a serious illness like cancer or a chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or multiple sclerosis can add unexpected challenges.

“The partner who’s sick may not feel the way they did before the illness. And the person who’s not sick may not know how to handle the changes. The strain may push both people’s understanding of ‘in sickness and in health’ to its breaking point,” said Rena Szabo, PsyD, psycho-oncology section director at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert, AZ.

In the face of a major illness, you might need to renegotiate roles, responsibilities, physical needs, emotional needs, intimacy needs and future plans. “It can be overwhelming,” Dr. Szabo said.

But keeping your relationship on solid ground is essential. “Relationships have the power to influence physical and mental health, for better or worse,” Dr. Szabo said. “They influence conditions such as cancer, heart disease, depression and addiction. They can affect endocrine function, immune function and nervous system activity. That evidence is leading health psychologists to say that strengthening bonds should be a public health priority.”

Staying connected to your partner can be a source of support, validation and information. Your relationship can provide distraction, enjoyment and pleasure when you’re facing a serious illness.

Tips for the person who is sick

“Dealing with a serious illness can change your relationships with the people in your life,” Dr. Szabo said. “And chronic pain or illness can frustrate you, your friends and your family. How you and others respond to the stress of your condition can affect the quality of your relationships.”

Here are ways you can keep your relationship with your partner strong:

  • Remember, you are still you. This illness does not define you.
  • Keep communication open—be open and honest. People only understand what you are thinking or feeling if you tell them.
  • Express your needs, feelings, and ideas honestly and directly, without putting down or hurting others.
  • Don’t lie about your symptoms.
  • Use “I” statements to describe problems. That way, your partner doesn’t feel blamed or criticized, and you keep the focus on your needs and wants.
  • Avoid endless complaining, which can be draining. Instead, talk about how you can change the parts of your life that are making you unhappy.
  • Adopt a positive outlook. Try to find humor in situations.
  • Use honesty and transparency to foster closeness.
  • Remember how you and your partner overcame difficult situations in the past and use those strategies now.
  • Allow room for a “time out.” Serious illnesses can cause feelings of anger and depression. Give yourself and your partner room to feel your emotions and take a moment alone.
  • Remain intimate. Intimacy does not necessarily mean sex. It means spending time together—holding hands, reading together, talking, etc.
  • Find time to do the things you love.
  • Let others know what to expect of you as you heal—and what not to expect.
  • Let go of guilt about not doing the same things or going to the same places.
  • Be gentle with yourself.
  • Commit to getting and staying emotionally and spiritually strong.

Tips for the partner of a person who is sick

“Although your partner has a serious illness, the illness is really happening to both of you. Your life is disrupted in many of the same ways. You are sharing many of the same emotions and concerns,” Dr. Szabo said. “It can be tremendously reassuring and comforting to your loved one to know that the two of you are facing the illness together and that your support and involvement will be steadfast and unwavering regardless of what happens.”

Here are ways you can keep your relationship with your partner strong:

  • Talk with your partner. Do not assume that you know what your partner is thinking or feeling or what they need from you. You might think your partner is scared when they feel sad or guilty. You might think your partner is strong and resilient when they feel vulnerable and dependent on you.
  • Ask your partner what they need. They may need practical support like going together to doctor’s appointments, becoming educated about their illness and treatment options, handling phone calls from friends and relatives, or taking over household chores. They may also need emotional support, like for you to be attuned and responsive to their feelings.
  • Commit to getting and staying emotionally and spiritually strong.
  • Learn as much as you can about your partner’s illness.
  • Support your partner’s true feelings. Most people feel pressure to maintain a positive mental attitude, and this pressure prevents them from expressing their true feelings. Your loved one probably has good reasons to be worried and upset, as well as to feel hopeful and optimistic. You should try to support and validate both sets of emotions, not only the positive ones.
  • Confront sexual issues with open communication. Your partner may be facing a loss of libido, impotence, body image issues or depression. These changes in your partner can also cause you to lose interest.
  • Watch for caregiver burnout. Warning signs include withdrawal from friends and family, loss of interest in activities, feeling blue or irritable, changes in appetite or weight, changes in sleep patterns, getting sick more often, wanting to hurt yourself or the person you are caring for, or emotional and physical exhaustion. If you notice these signs, seek professional help.

Where can you find support?

Ask your provider if there is an integrative health psychologist on your medical team who you can consult. It can be helpful to speak with an unbiased health psychologist, who is an expert in the intersection of health and behavior and works with similar patients as a part of an integrated health care delivery team.

You can also try:

  • Disease/illness-specific organizations
  • Support groups
  • Family/couples counseling

The bottom line

When you’re living with a serious illness, you and your partner should expect your relationship to change. By focusing on open and honest communication with each other as early as possible, you can keep your relationship strong through these challenging times.

A Banner health care provider can help you connect with the care you need.

To learn more about coping with serious illness, check out:

Behavioral Health Relationships Cancer