Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
I know the title of my article is kind of blunt. But let me start by saying I didn’t make it up. Instead, it came from a conversation I had with a couple who needed to talk about what was going on—and what wasn’t going on—in their marriage.
I’ll refer to them as Jack and Laura. Jack was diagnosed with a chronic condition a few years ago. As a result, he has a lot of self-care responsibilities, which greatly impact his life—and, as a result, Laura’s life.
During our conversation, Laura described a recent day that had left her feeling especially frustrated. She had picked their children up from daycare on her way home from work. They arrived to find Jack in his and Laura’s bedroom, with the door closed. When she asked him if he was okay, he informed her that he wanted to spend the evening alone to rest and do some research on a new treatment that interested him. The next day, Saturday, Jack had scheduled a session with a practitioner of natural medicine, and wasn’t able to help Laura with the kids.
Laura talked about how frustrated she felt. “I know your health needs to be a priority,” she said to him. “But what about us?” She went on to say that she would be happy to sit down next to him while he surfs the web for treatment information. And couldn’t that Saturday session have been scheduled for another day?
Bridging the communication gap
I often talk to clients about the importance of taking responsibility for their health. But I also saw how Laura felt sidelined, and left to do the heavy lifting at home.
Have you and your partner ever felt like Jack and Laura? If so, here are some ideas to get the communication back on track:
Think before you react. Nobody likes to feel abandoned. Nobody likes to be accused of abandoning someone they love. Sure, you’ve got lots of strong feelings right now, and it’s hard not to let them out. But before you do, take a step back and get some perspective on the situation. You will be glad you did.
Consider your partner’s position. When you have a chronic condition, being at your best for yourself, and for the people you live with, means staying on top of your treatment regimen and everything that goes along with it. At the same time, having a partner with a chronic condition means being in a supportive role, modifying your way of life to accommodate your partner’s health. But you have needs too. Bottom line: it’s not easy living with a chronic condition. So can we cut each other some slack and not assume that the other person has negative intentions?
Ask yourself some questions. Get specific. If you have a chronic condition, what do you need the most from your partner, and where do you feel like your partner doesn’t understand what you need? And if your partner has a chronic condition, what do you miss the most when your partner is focused on his or her regimen and self-care, and how could you get more of what you need? Here are a few responses you might both have in common: making plans together, having fun, sharing the workload. And how about being made to feel special once in awhile?
Suggest having a talk. I know it can be hard to sit down and have a conversation about needs and expectations. These conversations can veer into dangerous territory, and nobody wants to walk into a conflict, especially when feelings are already raw. But also keep in mind that talking about your relationship can make it stronger. And then make that your goal.
Avoid accusations. Use “I” statements. Give examples. How’s that for simple? Start on a positive note: “I really care about you. And I know you are dealing with a lot.” That’s a good way to not make your partner feel defensive. Follow this by affirming what you would like to have more of in your relationship. “I would really like it if we spend more time just being a family together.” Follow this with: “I would love it if you would make me more a part of your treatment, even just sitting down to look at new treatments. And to plan something to do together with the kids on Saturdays.” Or, “I sometimes need some alone time, especially after a long day at work. Even a couple of hours. I am hoping I can do that when I need to without hurting your feelings.”
Most of all, be patient. Living with a chronic condition is an ongoing process. Just when you think you have arrived, life can throw you another curveball. Ongoing negotiation is required. And that requires lots of patience. If you can keep the line of communication open, without accusations, without defensiveness, you will be that much more able to avoid hurt feelings and resentment.
You and your partner. Remind each other each and every day who number one is. And then back up your words with action.
What have you learned about overcoming communication problems with your partner? Share your advice by commenting below.