Can love survive illness? Experts advise on 6 areas to help you cope

Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
  • When chronic illness strikes someone you love, it's normal to feel helpless and alone. But it doesn't have to be that way.
  • If one partner is suffering with an
  •   illness, it's important to be able to have a frank and honest conversation with each other.
  • If you've been touched by lasting illness, here's how to move forward in your relationship without crashing at the first hurdle.

For many couples, learning to manage the disease itself helps them to feel stronger and better equipped to deal with life's other trials and tribulations. Here are six tips to help you cope.

1 - Be honest and open

The key to a happy and healthy relationship, whether it's long-term or new, is being able to communicate effectively.

"While the initial diagnosis may push your understanding of 'in sickness and in health' to a whole new level, it's important to realise illness affects everyone differently, and not everyone will have to stop doing the things they enjoy," psychological therapist and couples counsellor Annie Gurton says.

READ MORE: 'My boyfriend broke up with me on the night the president announced lockdown, here's how I’m coping'

 “Successful relationships are based on trust, and trust cannot grow if there is a big secret or a big absence of honesty in the middle of it," Annie says. "You can't hold anything back, because it will ultimately come back to haunt you.”

You should always be honest with each other and clearly communicate your feelings and needs. "If you're the sufferer and you don't disclose everything you know then you're creating a secret and, although some secrets do exist within relationships, there's no point in deliberately allowing one to form," she says. “Sooner or later, the non-sufferer will find out the truth, and it may result in him or her feeling bitter or angry."

READ MORE: 'I fell in love with my cousin's fake boyfriend, they were trying to make her ex jealous' - Woman married 28 years

2 - Share your grievances

It's important to air your concerns as much as you can, especially if you're the person with the illness. “While no-one wants to be a bore, it's unhealthy to suffer in silence. So be clear and direct from the outset," Annie says.

“Diseases and illnesses come with degrees of seriousness. There are those that are unfortunate but the prognosis is more frustrating than anything else, then there are those that mean life is going to be somewhat restricted, and then there are those where the prognosis is debilitating and increasing in dependency.

"If one partner is suffering from the kind of illness that's going to deteriorate, and the level of care is likely to increase, Annie says he or she may need to consider how they'll feel having that kind of effect on someone else's life and find a way to come to terms with that.

READ MORE: Struggling to find love in this lonely time of Covid-19? Why not pay an expert to do it for you?

3 - Create a plan for coping 

Once the illness is "out in the open," and everyone who matters knows about it, it's a good idea to create a plan to assist living with the disease. That plan should include specific matters such as coping skills, dealing with finances, caring for children, intimacy, and learning to let go of a past that once involved good health.“Core values may also need to change," Annie says.

“So from being the sort of person who once said, 'I'm strong and I can cope with anything, the sufferer may have to learn to say, 'I'm no longer invincible and will need to accept help from others from time to time, but that's OK'”.

Once both partners know where they stand on these issues, they can work towards building a future that is still happy and rewarding. But remember, it's normal to feel overwhelmed every so often, so take things slowly and always be kind to each other.

READ MORE: 'My boyfriend lost his job when lockdown started and is demotivated. Should I leave him?'

4 - Make sure you strengthen your social connections 

Social isolation is a serious problem for those suffering from chronic illness. One way to avoid it is to embrace strong friendships, which can act as a buffer against loneliness. “Try reaching out to old friends, and explain to them what's happened. While some may find it too hard and confronting, others can be a great support for your mental health over the months and years ahead,” Annie says.

But if you're the caregiver, it's important you also feel free to socialise alone without feeling guilty. Alternatively, both partners could consider joining a support group“Whether you're the sufferer or the carer, support groups offer the best kind of friendship - with people who've been through what you're experiencing. They really know what it's like, and their advice can be invaluable because it comes from a place of experience and compassion," Annie says.

READ MORE: Meet the couple who moved in together after finding love online during lockdown

5 - Look after caregivers 

Chronic illness can shift the balance in an otherwise healthy relationship. The more responsibilities one partner takes on, the greater the imbalance. So if you're the caregiver in the relationship, after a while you may start to feel overwhelmed and resentful.

Also, "Be aware the partner who is providing care is especially vulnerable to a whole host of physical and emotional difficulties, and is in danger of being subsumed to the needs of the one who is ill," says Annie.

The classic signs of burnout include irritability, changes in appetite, loss of interest in activities, changes in sleep pattern, emotional and physical exhaustion, and withdrawal from friends, family and loved ones. If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, Annie recommends seeking help for your own wellbeing as well as support in caring for your partner.

“Remember, the friendship you have with yourself is one of the most important to maintain, whether you're the one who's sick or the carer," she says.

6 - Focus on intimacy rather than just sex 

Connecting with your partner on an emotional level is vital to any healthy relationship - you'll experience "feel good" chemicals in your brain, which make you feel happier and more vibrant. "It's a wonderful tonic, especially if you're dealing with an illness," sex therapist Dr Gabrielle Morrissey says.

“Sexual expression through touch makes you feel good, connects you with healthy esteem and makes you feel 'normal', so you can escape hospitals, doctors and other grim realities. It also gives energy levels a boost, keeps depression at bay, and increases your ability to cope with illness and other difficulties in life, too."

Remember, intimacy is more than just intercourse - behaviours often labelled as foreplay can also be physically and emotionally satisfying. “Make it something to look forward to, because your capacity to feel good together is more about sexuality than just sex," Dr Morrissey says.

Have you overcome a challenging situation as a couple? Tell us about it here.


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