Love Hurts

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Chronic pain may be affecting your relationship, but it need’t have a starring role.

Jen Singer, 42, has dealt with pain since she was a teenager, though the New Jersey-based writer was’t diagnosed with endometriosis until age 30. Then, she developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She calls pain an unwanted family member who shows up and whom you can’t ignore. Jen’s husband, Pete, is well-acquainted with this interloper too; his wife’s suffering has been a part of their relationship for the 20 years they’ve been together. When the couple was trying to get pregnant Jen had to stop taking the birth control pills that helped control her excruciating menstrual cramps. The result was knock me to the ground pain, she says. He came to know that when I was in pain, he had to leave me alone.

Drop a pebble in a pond and watch the rings spread out from the center that’s a good metaphor for what happens when someone you love has serious pain: It affects everyone from relatives and friends to co-workers and neighbors. But family members and spouses and partners in particular are typically the ones most affected. In fact, says Angela J. Koestler, Ph.D., a psychologist at New South NeuroSpine, in Flowood, Mississippi, husbands and wives of pain patients often confront the same range of emotions as their spouses, from high hopes for treatment (and a cure) to the lows of frustration, anxiety, and depression. Dan Stoller, 38, of Bedford, New York, describes his wife Amy Oringel’s migraines as the fifth family member. They’re an ugly monster that shows up and dictates how the day or night will play out, he says. This is frustrating stuff. And if that’s how I feel, imagine how the sufferer feels.

Pain patients may find an empathetic ear in a support group, but there aren’t nearly as many resources for spouses, who often end up caregivers while keeping the household on track. That can put a serious strain on even the strongest bond. So how to pain-proof your relationship? Here, a few dos and don’ts for both partners:

This is part of our for better or for worse, says Oringer, 37, who’s been married to Stoller for 10 years, the entirety of which they’ve been dealing with Amy’s headaches. I still think I can fix it, says Stoller. That’s problem number one.

Not long after Carrie Lewis, 34, injured her back in a work-related accident in 1998, one of her doctors asked her husband Matthew how the injury was affecting his life. That question helped bring his voice and feelings into play. Sometimes I didn’t like it, but I needed to hear just how difficult it’s been for him, Lewis says.

Pain is an attention hog that can consume both the person in pain and their partner. I got to a place where I was telling my guy, You should really just divorce my ass and marry someone more fun, remembers Lynne Morrell, 46, a life coach who experienced uterine, bladder, and urinary pain from a surgical error and interstitial cystitis. Her musician husband didn’t leave. In fact, when her pain was at its worst, he stopped taking gigs if they were too far away from their Colorado home. We kept trying to figure out the best way for him to pursue his joy and for me to honor what my body needed she says. We had to bring it back to What do you need? and What does our relationship need?

Oringel learned this lesson the hard way. In the past, we would have some sort of odd dance between us, there would be a little fight, and finally I would be like, I have a headache! And he would say, Well, how was I supposed to know? Now Oringel comes out and says it when she was a migraine.

Carrie Lewis back injury meant she had to stop skiing and going to dinner with friends, two things she loved doing with Matthew. But she wasn’t ready to give up all the good times. I made a conscious decision not to let the pain take over our lives, she says. So instead of trying to sit in a chair at a restaurant for long periods of time, she and Matthew invited friends over for dinner, allowing Lewis to get up and walk around mid-meal without the self-consciousness she felt in a restaurant. Lately, they’ve started going out to eat again; Lewis simply brings a lumbar-support pillow and stands up when she needs to. She’s even contemplating hitting some easy slopes this winter.

It’s hard to imagine a better libido-killer than pain. In too many relationships, sex becomes the elephant in the bedroom the thing no one wants to talk about. “It gets to be somewhere between weird, embarrassing, and awful to bring up the subject, says Gina Ogden, Ph.D., author of The Return of Desire: A Guide to Rediscovering Your Sexual Passion (Trumpeter, 2008). The person in pain feels bad if they are somehow unable to perform and the other person would feel incredibly guilty and intrusive saying, I feel horny. Ogden’s advice: Expand your idea of what sexuality means. It can include eye contact, holding hands, putting a loving, warm hand on someone’s chest, face, belly, or leg, which can feel warm, juicy, and supportive and doesn’t have to include intercourse. Sexuality is much, much more than that. She suggests each partner write down and share the specifics of what they do and don’t want when it comes to physical intimacy, and the times when they do and don’t want to be touched; this will help you find common ground.

Lynne Morrell recommends making a list of things that soothe you when you feel lousy; these can be simple ways your partner helps to ease your discomfort, such as having a cold pack or your meds nearby, or renting comedies or action flicks to help distract you.

Koestler recommends asking your doctor for a referral to a psychologist who understands the nuances of chronic pain. It isn’t a run-of-the-mill marriage counselor issue, so take your time to find a therapist with expertise in both pain management and partnership problems. Search by location and specialty (including chronic pain and relationship/marriage issues) at, or contact the American Psychological Association’s Help Center.


Written by: Jenna Schnuer, freelance writer in New York City
Originally Published by: Pain Solutions Magazine, Fall 2009
Stock Photo Credit: Zqfotografy, courtesy of Stock Free Images

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