How Do Couples Cope When One Partner Has a Chronic Illness?
Colin T. Son
"The Internet has played an important role in creating an informed and empowered patient population. Blogs, for example, are oases where patients can exchange information and experiences.
One particular patient blog, In Sickness and In Health, has a unique focus. The blog's author, Barbara Kivowitz, wants readers to understand that chronic illness is rarely, if ever, faced alone. Rather, it touches the lives of everyone around the patient, especially a significant other. She should know, as she has gone through it personally. Ms. Kivowitz recently described the difficulties that couples often face in dealing with chronic illness and shared her advice, based on her own experience, for dealing with those issues.
Colin Son: Dealing with illness as a couple is one of the main topics in your blog. What do you think is the single most important piece of advice that you can give to a couple dealing with a chronic disease?
Barbara Kivowitz: Surprisingly, the topic of couples and illness is one that has not received much study or attention.
When you're in a relationship and serious illness hits one partner, both lives are dislocated. The changes are profound ones. Illness becomes the uninvited third party in the relationship and inserts itself into some very tender places: into the image partners have of each other, into the activities and routines that the relationship depends on, into the kitchen, and into the bedroom. Doctors, drugs, hospitals, and healers become part of the substance of the relationship. Illness gets to make decisions that once belonged to the couple -- decisions about work, travel, finances, and family. Pain and exhaustion take precedence over desires and chores. What was once a relationship of equals often becomes one of caregiver and patient.
The question that is central to my quest is: How can a couple achieve a new kind of balance, one that accommodates the reality of the illness but also maintains a balanced partnership?
The key is communication.
The most important advice I can give couples dealing with illness is to talk to each other openly and honestly about your experience of the illness. Talk about your feelings and ask for what you need and what you don't want from your partner. Too often, without communication, the well partner comes to see the ill partner as not trying hard enough, and the ill partner comes to see the well partner as just not understanding. This can foster resentment and distance. Communicating recreates the connections that brought the couple together in the first place and builds a stronger foundation for both people to stand on to deal with the illness together.
In Sickness and in Health hosts Grand Rounds
January 13, 2009
Colin Son: Can you tell us a little of your own story? What brought you online as a patient?
Barbara Kivowitz: Prior to the onset of my pain condition, I had been a business consultant, writer, and psychotherapist. Richard and I loved adventure and had taken a year off to travel around the world. All of our vacations were built around hiking and mountain climbing. Illness upended our world and left us floundering.
Like many other sufferers, I went from specialist to specialist to find a diagnosis and treatment approach that could offer me a livable life. Richard became my anchor point. His scientific mind and problem-solving skills often helped me find a path out of my confusion and fear. His kindness and love could, at times, lift me above my pain. He took on all the household responsibilities I could no longer do. And, while he was doing all of this for me, he was living in his own hell, the hell of having a wife who was slipping away to illness.
The couple relationship is an additional casualty when illness hits, but it can also be a vessel for healing. I began blogging about couples and illness because I found little on the Internet about this topic and wanted to share my experiences and learn how other couples cope with illness. I have learned from and been moved by the stories of despair and of renewal that I have heard from readers of my blog.
Colin Son: How has your time as a psychotherapist shaped your experience with your illness?
Barbara Kivowitz: There's nothing like the real thing. As a psychotherapist, I worked with patients who had physical and mental illness. I even worked with victims of political violence and with a hospice program. I helped my patients grieve, cope, find resources in themselves and in their communities, and rebuild. But it wasn't until I got whacked with my own illness that I truly understood how violating, grievous, and burdensome illness is, to the patient and the partner.
Colin Son: What are some posts that highlight the relationship between patients and their significant others?
Barbara Kivowitz: I did a series on How To Have the Hard Conversations, which I hope readers found helpful. My favorite hope post is about An Unexpected Conversation in a Waiting Room. One of the most amazing stories I heard and wrote about is A Story About Alzheimer's: Paul and Mary, about how one couple coped.
Colin Son: Any final thoughts?
Barbara Kivowitz: When couples face serious illness it is grievous, but it is also an opportunity to learn how to be with each other on deeper levels. Before illness, the couple can cruise along adapting to circumstances in the moment. After illness, the couple needs to be more intentional and candid. But the effort made to build new habits, to assess responsibilities and lifestyle, to communicate with authenticity, and to become more conscious about adapting to changing circumstances will strengthen the relationship in ways that reach far beyond the illness.
On January 13, 2009, Barbara Kivowitz will host Grand Rounds, the weekly collection of favorite posts submitted by medical bloggers. This weekly blog carnival gives you a chance to sample many different blogs while also getting to know the host blogger."