Being newly diagnosed with a chronic illness is one of the hardest things to deal with. There is so much uncertainty and anxiety with how and when a condition will progress, and additional self-care and health care activities that now need to be built into an already jam-packed schedule.
Then there’s the issue of how your condition impacts other people. Family, colleagues, friends- and your relationship partner, especially when you cohabitate.
It can be even harder when you’re in a long-term relationship and your partner or spouse isn’t responding supportively, or even worse, displaying resentment about what your condition means for them and their life trajectory.
Age of chronic issue onset has very little to do with this issue. How we, and our partners, cope is more connected to whether we have fixed or divergent thinking, and the implicit and explicit relational roles we cultivated and agreed to in the partnership. Changes in functioning, even if it’s changes in daily regimens at the moment, does ripple into every other part of life and a relationship, which affects the relationship agreement for the partnership. Consider that relationship experts and researchers Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Gottman tell us that 69% of problems in a relationship will be perpetual and unresolved. Consider as well that other research tells us that the quality of a relationship before and during chronic illness issues also impact the potential trajectory of illness and wellness.
If you have been diagnosed with a chronic issue and are experiencing negativity from your partner about it, don’t fret yet- it is still possible to have a healthy and fulfilling relationship. Here are some things that you might like to try:
First, understand that just as you are adjusting to the issue so is your partner.
In one way, a significant way, you have the advantage here. You will be the first person to know what goes on inside your body, while your partner will always be guessing until you communicate what’s actually going for you at the moment. I highly recommend speaking with a therapist yourself first in individual sessions to help yourself adjust and process your own thoughts and feelings, and form clearer communication skills and action plans before discussing this with a partner. As much as loving partners may want to be supportive and helpful, not everyone has the emotional bandwidth to carry their anxiety, your anxiety, and develop ideas with you right at the start. Allow yourself and your partner to have your own separate mental space to process that the arrangement you thought you would have needs to change, settle those feelings first, and then show up for each other. Remember though, your partner will be looking for you to lead the discussions about your needs, so you do need to time for yourself to build up any communication skills, self-awareness, and self-management skills in advance of having these discussions.
Second, let’s look at a fixed mindset versus a divergent mindset, and how the way we think about a situation affects how we feel about and deal with a situation.
Having a fixed mindset is associated with thinking that there is a right way and a wrong way of interacting with the environment and approaching situations. For example, ask yourself how you would use a cardboard box. Someone with a fixed mindset would say that the function of cardboard boxes is to package and ship things and perhaps for storage and that’s how they would use it.
Having a divergent mindset is associated with a more creative style of thinking -thinking outside of the box so to speak- and is much more flexible and expansive with ideas on what something can be possibly used for. Someone with a divergent mindset would also say that cardboard boxes are used for packing and shipping things, but cardboard boxes can also be adapted to be the cars of a child’s toy train, a makeshift oven, a containment for a diorama, or as a Wiley Coyote-style Road Runner trap, and more.
Having a fixed mindset or a divergent mindset will also shape how we receive news about chronic illness and how we strategize for adapting to changes. People with a fixed mindset tend to focus on what can and can’t be done, while people with a divergent mindset try to reconfigure how to do what other people think can’t be done. Many couples will be people of complementary perspectives, so there’s a high chance that a couple can consist of one partner having more of a fixed mindset while the other partner is more a divergent thinker. It can be extremely helpful to reframe negativity in a relationship into an issue of having a fixed mindset, to externalize the problem of adjustment, instead of catastrophizing the problem and the partner who has the chronic issue along with it. The good news is that people with a fixed mindset can develop a greater degree of divergent thinking, which can occur in two ways: gathering information about how other people adapted to the issue and the available adaptive equipment they can access to help, and by regularly engaging in creative activities like art that does not have set rules or right and wrong ways in making a creation. Couples struggling with adapting to change may experience more ease with having important conversations, developing strategies, rewriting relationship scripts, and reworking life trajectories when both partners develop more of a divergent mindset, and incorporate play and creativity to figure out how to bridge the gap between how they used to do certain things and how they can do those things now.
Third, have the nine discussions for rewriting relationship scripts when adjusting to change.
Whether you and your partner have these discussions at home, or with the help of a couples counselor, there are key areas that need to be explored and periodically revisited:
- Changing Roles: Do we each have the skills we need to make adjustments? Are we getting more or less of what we want in the new role?
- Communicating Needs: How can we discuss needs? Can we set aside time and begin with a question or self-observation instead of a complaint or demand?
- Sexual Roles & Logistics: How does this change our preferred roles and activities? How close or far is this to our comfort and consent zones?
- Support Systems: Who do we trust?
- Changing Self-Concept: How does this affect our individual identities, and our self-efficacy? How does this affect the way we perceive each other and our abilities?
- Managing Emotions: How can we each better attune and attend to our own feelings and moods? How can we attune to each other and provide comfort and support?
- Independence versus Interdependence: How can we rebalance what we do for ourselves and each other?
- Privacy and Boundaries: How do we decide what we do and don’t share about our relationship? How do we manage interactions in person and online with people?
- Finances: How do we rearrange our jobs, investments, and savings for this?
Remember, many long-term partnerships are initially formed based on implicit and explicit agreements about roles and responsibilities in the relationship. When roles change for any reason, for either partner, some partners may be faced with losing the role they wanted to have and gaining the roles they did not want to have. Fear and uncertainty and resistance to this switch can appear as resentment. Talking about these fears and uncertainties can separate resentment for the switch in role from the perception of resenting the partner. This conversation can also create the opportunity for the partner lacking in certain skills, and lacking in confidence due to lacking the skills, to develop the skills and self-efficacy they were missing. It can also provide the opportunity to see new aspects of our partner, and add novelty into the long-term relationship, and create opportunities to “date” this new and updated version of our partner-recreating the excitement we had in the initial getting-to-know-you phase of our relationship.
Lastly, it is important to remember that people partner up and/or marry for different reasons. Some people rely on their partners to support and care for them more than they can or want to reciprocate caring for their partners. Some people want to lead the relationship and have a relationship that focuses on their individual life vision and choose a partner that has less agency and differential identity as their relationship partner. Some people don’t discuss their expectations at all and just imagine “it will all work out,” and others have a mismatch in understanding what it takes to make a relationship work. Some people still -even in 2021- still choose partners that would make good parents for their kids but have a different relational preference for a romantic partnership. It is extremely important to use the dating period to ask substantive, in-depth questions about life vision, relational roles and vision, and individual functioning skills to avoid being disappointed, or feeling duped, once a commitment has been made, which can already contribute to resentment before a chronic issue, or any big change, comes into the picture. For people who are finding that there is little to no effort to initially adapt after a reasonable amount of time, usually six months to a year, it may be comforting to know that ending an unsupportive or toxic relationship may help maintain a better quality of life and health, and there are opportunities to find love again.
Life, and love, are very complex. Be sure that you’re with someone who can be, or become, a true companion for the ride.
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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above for informational purposes, and any opinions, analyses, or speculations expressed are not to be interpreted as medical advice. Please consult with your medical provider(s) regarding any health issues you may be experiencing.
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