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The Stress of Chronic Illness on Relationships

A diagnosis of a chronic disease like PD, can take its toll....

In sickness and in health, a vow that is part of most marriage ceremonies in some form or another regardless of religious background. But when a partner receives a diagnosis of chronic disease, idealism often fails in the presence of reality. And marriages or relationships begin to fall apart.

The statistics when it comes to divorce rates are startling. In the U.S. the overall lifetime divorce rate runs about 50%. This statistic is thought to be much higher in the chronically ill population such as those already burdened with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

There are a number of reasons that marriages are strained when one spouse faces a diagnosis of chronic illness such as Parkinson’s disease. This list is by no means all-inclusive nor does every reason apply to each couple’s situation. Each of our relationships is unique and we face a different set of circumstances based on many life variables. These are simply some common issues that can impact our relationships.

(1) Our partner may have to take on more responsibilities. Due to the physical limitations that one spouse may be experiencing due to their illness such as fatigue, pain, stiffness and slowness in the case of Parkinson’s disease, our partners may find themselves playing a greater role in the management of household and life responsibilities. Added to their normal duties, this may cause them additional stress.

(2) We may not be in “the mood” as much. When you’re feeling chronically unwell, intimacy is often not a priority. When you aren’t comfortable in your own body then sharing yourself physically may not be an appealing option. But intimacy is important for many people and is felt to be an integral part of the relationship. Without this physical connection, overall closeness may suffer.

(3) We change. Dealing with a chronic illness is not easy and many of us experience denial and helplessness as we face this new diagnosis. We may withdraw, building an impenetrable wall that distances us from our family, making us unapproachable. We are inevitably shaped by our life experiences both positive and negative and our experience with a chronic illness is no exception to that.

(4) We stop communicating in a real way. Chronic illness can bring about emotions that are difficult to cope with including guilt, frustration, helplessness, anger and sadness. In recognizing the stress our illness places on our family, we may be hesitant to express our feelings including sharing our pain be it physical or emotional. Likewise the pain or even resentment that our partners feel is also difficult for them to talk about. When these important feelings or concerns are not expressed, communication becomes mechanical, superficial, aimed at addressing logistical issues of little significance.

(5) By not adjusting our expectations, we set ourselves up for disappointment. If you as a couple blindly hold on to the life plans or expectations you had pre-illness, then disappointment is inevitable. Your goals may need to be adjusted taking into account newly placed limitations. For example, if there is a loss of income, then finances have to be adjusted. If physical limitations exist, then the bucket list may have to be rewritten.

(6) There is a divide between expectations and reality. This issue is a result of poor communication. When one spouse expects for instance a kind word of reassurance but is instead met with practical, logical words of support, this can lead to hurt and frustration on both sides. The affected individual is not having their needs met and the care partner doesn’t understand why their response is met with anger or disappointment.

Relationships require careful nurturing and attention and require work even in the most ideal circumstances. In the context of an added life stressor such as chronic disease, even greater awareness and consideration is needed. Recognizing the specific way your illness is affecting your relationship is important and taking action to address the issues causing the extra stress is imperative.
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