I clearly remember the moment the 50-year-old bearded man sitting to my right broke down in tears. It was my first time co-facilitating a group for partners of people undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer. The bearded man’s wife was to his right and the three of us shared the room with 10 other couples and another facilitator. To an outsider looking in though, you wouldn’t have thought anybody knew each other as nobody was holding hands or feeling the ‘love’. Everyone was grief stricken, their voices weak but they all were there with hope their lives and relationship might change for the better after the meeting.
“I can’t do our usual outings with my husband, like go to a restaurant anymore” one woman cried.
“I’ve quit my job to care for my wife but do you think she ever says thank you? She just makes remarks all day about what I’m doing wrong”, one man stated as if he forgot his wife was sitting next to him. “My life was over the moment she became sick”, he finished with.
Looking back, I can see that group was what first sparked my passion to support partners of patients as part of my treatment. This occurred long before I personally experienced the effects chronic illness and pain had on my relationship.
After that night, I no longer turned a blind eye to the partners beside the hospital beds I visited or the family members bringing my clients to therapy. It became so clear that there was always a second patient to treat, a loved one who needed just as much care and support as the person being diagnosed and treated.
This is so true for couples. What an untapped resource the strength of a couple is!
When couples decide to fight illness and pain together, there is a powerful strengthening of their relationship and the road to recovery seems less daunting as they face it united.
There are a few things however, that often get in the way of couples drawing closer during difficult times and a major problem can be difficulty expressing needs. Many couples find it hard to openly communicate about their needs for various reasons but there are a few common issues chronic pain couples come across when it comes to discussing needs with each other including:
1. A partner of someone in pain feels as though they cannot complain. After all, they aren’t the one in pain, right? Not true! Does this ring a bell? I pull Johann up on this often! It’s not ok in our house to say this. Johann will say, “yes, but I’m not the one in pain”. Then even more so, you have a right to complain! How frustrating for you that your life, hopes and plans need to change due to the illness and pain of another! You have just as much right to have a low day or to feel angry or anxious about the future. What a partner endures when supporting a loved one in pain is difficult. You often don’t know how to help, are restricted in your activities, your plans are changed at the last minute and you have a partner who is different because of their condition. You sit in silence when they’re in too much pain to talk and many partners are asked to try all sorts of green, anti-inflammatory, terrible tasting tonics that their sick loved one is drinking in hope to heal. Ok so the last point obviously came from Johann who is not enjoying my current plant-based experiments haha! You get the point though. Both people in this, you and your partner have a right to feel every emotion imaginable and seek support.
2. We believe we will burden our partner. Have you thought that perhaps the solution may not involve your partner? What if you lay all of your needs on the table and you look at outsourcing, at rearranging timetables and finances, at recruiting family members. Is it tough work? Yes! Is it better to continue life with unmet needs that could be life changing for you or your partner? No! Make a date, sit with your partner and write down your top three needs you each feel are not being met.
In our most recent needs discussion, I voiced to Johann that I needed more time to rest. Was I anxious about discussing this? Yes. There surely wasn’t any more that Johann could do to help me. He was already helping so much by leaving work early most days and dropping josh at daycare often. You know what the outcome of our meeting was though? We enlisted the help of our parents and once a week our son now has a play date at the beach with Johann’s parents. We are both so much happier now that I am not an exhausted Grinch and Johann didn’t need to make a change.
3. You’re not on the same team. Are you fighting often or misinterpreting each other’s comments? Perhaps you feel as though you are constantly being criticised?When it’s not the two of you against the condition and pain, and when each person in the relationship doesn’t have a good grasp of the other’s suffering and fears due to your circumstances, it’s a recipe for misunderstandings and feelings of being unsupported. You need to turn toward each other starting with small actions and words. Show you are interested and care for your partner even though your world around you is caving in. Spend time discussing your worries and dreams. Understanding each other’s world better and sharing small acts of love will help you draw near to each other.
4. Your requests sound like criticism. When requesting changes, make sure you frame it positively for your partner.
‘You are helping so much around the house, thank you. Can we talk about more options to help me with my chores as I’m still struggling to finish my tasks each week even with your help”.
“I really love when we are intimate, can we make some time to discuss how we can make sex less painful for me though, then hopefully we can have sex more often”.
“Thank you for listening to me today when I was upset. I think I need to talk to a professional about my pain as well. Hopefully this will mean we can have more conversations about things other than my pain”.
See how in these examples, a need is expressed but it doesn’t leave a partner feeling as though they let you down or did something wrong?
Our hope is that this week, you and your partner can discuss your needs more openly and draw closer to each other. You will be unstoppable when you’re on the same team!
With love and pain,
The Chronic Pain Couple