It is no surprise that stress and poor health go hand in hand as one tends to precede the other. Physical, mental and emotional stress can wear on a person’s physical body and feeling terrible everyday can be equally stressful and lead to its own set of problems. When you are living with chronic Lyme disease or other persistent illness, you do your best to put on a happy face, go about your day and try to function in the world. We’ve been trained to pull up our boot straps and “toughen up” and being vulnerable is a sign of weakness. But this is the reality many of us have faced or continue to deal with every day.
What the world often does not see is the pain we experience, the numbness in our limbs, the fogginess in our brain and the tears we hide from our loved ones. Despite our best efforts to feel well, progress can be slow or sometime even worse with certain treatments. We often rely on others to lean on in times of need for various degrees of assistance. But perhaps no one feels this more than our spouse, partner, boyfriend or girlfriend who share our lives together daily.
I have seen many people with Lyme disease and other chronic illnesses over the years have difficulty maintaining a long-term relationship or developing a new one. The stress of caring for someone with Lyme disease can leave them feeling angry, resentful, helpless and sometime hopeless. “Why don’t you just get better?”. “You need to get over it”. “You look fine. I don’t see anything wrong with you”. “Why are you always so tired? Can’t you just get more sleep?”, “Just snap out of it!” Any of this sound familiar? The expectations can be shattered when you don’t fit the image of what your loved one thinks you should be capable of and this often leads to disappointment, anger and blame.
So how do you keep your current relationship healthy, despite your health issues or how do you cultivate a new relationship while working on getting well? I wish I could say it’s easy, but it’s not. It takes a lot of work from both sides to make it work. But here are my tips to working toward a healthy, happy relationship with your significant other.
1. Be honest. Tell your partner how you are feeling and have ongoing communication about what you can do and take on. I think many of us feel the need to shield our partner from how we feel to protect them or to make us appear stronger than we are. This doesn’t help either person and can lead to an unrealistic expectation of your abilities. Best to have that honest conversation so that they know how you’re doing and feeling and can understand you better.
2. Stand in their shoes. As much as they need to empathize with you, you need to have the same understanding for them. They will never fully understand what you feel daily, so don’t expect them to. I can tell you from experience that watching someone you love suffer is miserable and extremely stressful. Your partner suffers in their own way, whether they share those feelings with you or not. This is hard on both of you and acknowledging their suffering can go a long way in developing a deeper understanding of one another.
3. Get outside help. I see this being the problem most often in couples that are more isolated and have a small to nonexistent support network. As much as your partner loves you, they probably didn’t anticipate being your ongoing doctor, therapist, psychiatrist, etc. I have seen the most supportive, loving partners reach their breaking point where they can no longer handle being the sole supporter during your recovery. Having a good professional on your team can help take the stress off your partner’s shoulders.
4. Find a local support group. There is strength in numbers and being able to share your thoughts and feelings in a safe environment with others who have similar struggles can be a relief and encouraging. You have a place where you meet regularly to help others and be helped. If you don’t have a local group that meets on an ongoing basis, there are several online groups available as well. I prefer the face to face meetings and the human connection can be more powerful, but I talk with so many people who are isolated that an online group can be a fantastic way to connect with others. Find what works for you and gives you that space to connect with others.
5. Have fun together. When you are feeling unwell, it’s easy to forget that you and your partner probably used to do things together that was fun. Find those things that bring you both joy, whether it is watching a funny movie, enjoying a meal out, riding bicycles, hiking or even playing a board game together. The important thing is you connect with one another emotionally and bring enjoyment into your lives.
Lyme disease creates so many physical and emotional challenges for us and it’s important that our partners walk with us during our road to recovery. I’ve seen marriages and long term relationships fall apart in the face of chronic illness and sometimes we have to let go of relationships that no longer meet our needs or might even be toxic. Underneath the veil of Lyme disease is a loving, caring person who has so much to offer to the right person. Take these steps so you and your partner understand each other well and enjoy a fulfilling life together!