Ill health can strike a relationship at any time.

Maybe you or your partner had a condition when you first met, or perhaps a diagnosis has come as a shock after many years, and changed your world as you know it.

Regardless of the condition, or how long someone has been battling illness, it can bring with it a number of hurdles to overcome.

Illness doesn’t just affect the person directly experiencing it. It can impact both of you, and your relationship too. As with any challenge or transition, ill health brings with it not only a range of difficulties, but also the potential to bring a couple closer together.

No two stories are the same and the ways in which couples navigate the waters of ill health will vary vastly. Coping mechanisms, attitudes, perspectives and situations will all be dealt with uniquely and while some scenarios may be similar, no one couple’s experience can be fully understood by anyone else. That being said, here are some general ideas and suggestions that may make a difference for couples facing these challenges.

Keep talking

Being able to read minds would be such a helpful skill to have, especially when it comes to navigating times of ill health. However, the only way for each partner to fully understand what the other needs is to tell them. It can be hard to keep talking when things are tough, and while keeping the full truth from a partner may feel like it’s protecting them, all it’s really doing is creating distance and taking away an opportunity for oneness. It’s hard to watch your partner do things that you no longer can and it’s also tough to see the person that you love become unwell and not be able to take it away. Resentment can easily build on either side. Having an open and honest dialogue about it all can help each person to feel seen and understood, in turn strengthening the relationship.

Reset expectations

Adapting to change may be something that happens once or something that is continually needed. The roles previously held in the relationship may well have needed to change when illness struck, which can be painful and frustrating for both partners. This can take time to accept and settle in to. There may be dreams and plans that need to be put on hold or adjusted which can bring with them feelings of disappointment and grief. While is can be easy, and sometimes necessary, to focus on what has been lost, and to grieve for that, it’s also important to focus on what remains. There may be much that has been taken away from you as a couple, but there will also be things that can still take place and maybe even new activities, adventures and memories to be made that you’d never considered before.

Embrace teamwork

The experience of illness within your relationship will affect each partner differently. The physical and emotional impact will naturally be different for the supporting partner than for the partner whose health is directly affected. That being said, both experiences are equally valid and choosing to be a team will be vital for your relationship. While it may seem easier for one spouse to make the decisions, it can be important to empower and to include both partners. This could include things like intentionally discussing and divvying up responsibilities. While there may be things that one person is no longer able to do, they could well be plenty of other tasks that they would like to take on.

Find community

Periods of ill health have the potential to be incredibly isolating for both partners. With so much uncertainty, and the physical and emotional impact of sickness and caring, the times when we need support the most can sometimes be the times when we feel the most isolated. You may be experiencing additional barriers and challenges that stop you from spending time with friends or family. This is why community is so important. Having people that you can be open and honest with, who can support you practically and emotionally and who you can journey through the ups and downs of life with, will be key both in times of sickness and in times of health.

Embrace self-care

As the partner who is supporting a loved one, it is so important that you also get the support and help that you need. It is natural to put the needs of a sick partner first; however, taking care of your own physical and mental health is vital. Self-care will look different from person to person. This could be prioritising the need to eat healthily, sleeping well or regularly exercising. It may be putting time aside to read, play games or to spend time with friends. Whatever it looks like, taking care of your own physical and mental health will be one of the best things that you can do for yourself and for your partner.

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