When I first met Johann, I was so smitten, I asked everybody I knew for tips to get his attention. I cringe when I think back to my terrible attempt at playing hard to get. So, you can understand why Johann was confused when, during one of our first dates, I declined when he asked me out on another date that week.
What he wasn’t aware of at the time was that I had eaten porridge for dinner for the previous 3 days in order to buy the cute dress I was wearing that night. I was a uni student living away from home and working as a waitress so I could either eat well or dress well. When Johann asked me on that next date, within a few seconds I had mentally scanned my wardrobe, checked my bank account and decided I couldn’t eat any more porridge. I wasn’t going on that date. All Johann heard though was that I wasn’t interested and if he didn’t pause to investigate the truth and try to understand why I responded in the way I did, that probably would have been our last date.
Good communication is essential for all healthy, lasting and passionate relationships. For chronic pain couples, that means we also need to be good at communicating about pain. Here are our practical tips to help you communicate with your partner about pain:
#1. Find the hidden message
“You can’t communicate appropriately with your partner if you only respond to what appears to be the truth and fail to acknowledge the real reason your partner acts in a certain way.”
Let’s look at this hypothetical chronic pain couple scenario. Johann drops the milk while preparing breakfast and I become emotional and angry as we clean it up. Of course, Johann is going to get defensive and upset, it is not fair that I have such a strong negative reaction to an accident. If Johann is able to pause and consider why I am acting this way, he will find:
I am exhausted and in pain → I can’t go to the store and get milk even though I do not plan to go to work that day → I feel guilty that I now need to ask Johann to get milk on his way home from work → I feel useless because I can’t buy milk for our family and am worried Johann thinks I am lazy → It was not about the milk at all.
Do you both take the time to identify the underlying beliefs or emotions that drive your interactions and reactions?
#2. Pain and exhaustion ratings
Chronic pain is often a lifelong struggle. If we want to ensure our relationship lasts, it is a good idea to keep our partners informed about our pain so they don’t place unrealistic demands on us. A great way to do this is to use pain and exhaustion ratings, morning and night. Rate your pain levels and how exhausted you are on a 0-10 scale (0 being no pain, 10 being unbearable pain or 0 being no fatigue, 10 being extreme fatigue). This will help your partner understand what your physical capacity is so that they can adjust their expectations of you accordingly.
#3. Use a pain app
Chronic pain is hard to predict. A flare up of symptoms can arise out of nowhere so managing your partner’s expectations for each day is important in order to avoid disappointment. Start logging your daily pain levels in a pain app and screenshot and sms the daily summary to your partner before they get home from work. We use this so Johann knows what to expect when we see each other and decide if he needs to pick up dinner on the way home or rearrange his week if he sees a pattern of increased pain. It also gives your partner valuable information to help with planning and rescheduling events.
#4. Timing is everything
I’ll admit, this took me a long time to master. In the beginning, Johann would often have one foot out the door on his way to work when I would suddenly burst into tears. Unplanned breakdowns are not completely avoidable but you can limit them by finding a regular time to discuss how you’re both going, how the pain management plan is progressing and your schedules for the following week to avoid burnout or a flare up.
#5. Know the ‘look’
It is important you become aware of your pain face. Not sure what that means? Ask your partner! It is the face that has your partner questioning whether you’re going to stab them, or whether you feel like you have been stabbed. Of course, it is the latter, we hope! Partners, don’t wait to find out, ask your spouse straight-out “you look very angry, are you in a lot of pain or did I say something wrong?”
#6. Discuss what is important to you
Knowing what you both value in your work life, home life and social life will change the way you work together to solve problems. When we experience chronic pain, our lives get stripped back to the bare necessities in those three areas so knowing what is important to your partner will help you understand the decisions they make and the emotions they deal with when your life changes due to pain.
Before implementing this strategy, Johann and I would disagree about buying take out for guests coming to our home for dinner, he wanted me to rest until they arrived. After I explained to Johann how important catering for guests was to me, we were able to find other ways to save energy before guests arrived. Johann shared that a clean kitchen is important to him so when I have energy to clean, I will always start there.
#7. Say what you need.
It is difficult to strike the right balance between asking your partner for too much help and not letting your partner help you. Have a discussion about your partner’s ability and willingness to support you, what they find easy to help with and what is emotionally or physically draining for them. Be honest about the support you need and if it can’t be provided by your partner, explore other options for support. Simply asking a friend or family member to help clean your home once a fortnight may ease some burden on your partner to care for you and your home.
#8. Provide an alternative
If you can’t do an activity requested by your partner, whether it’s a fun activity or a mundane task at home, make sure you provide an explanation of why you can’t do it and follow with an alternative suggestion about when and how it might happen. Here is an example of what you might say if you can’t go shopping with your partner and have to wait at home or in the car:
“I do really want to go shopping with you, I enjoy spending time with you but my pain rating is 7 so I won’t be able to join you. It’s important to me though that we go shopping together like we used to so can we arrange to do shopping next week in the morning instead of the afternoon so I have more energy and can join you?”
This shows your partner you are still interested in them and the activities you used to do together. It also shows you want to find a way to make it work for both of you.
#9. Information degustation
Read about the essential date every chronic pain couple should organise here.
#10. Say I love you
Don’t wait for pain to go away to tell your partner you love them 😊
With love and pain,
The Chronic Pain Couple