People living with chronic pain know that aches, sharpness, and strains can influence day-to-day life. Chronic pain can shape a lot of elements of your life, from the outfit you wear (zippers, not buttons) to the career path you choose (working from home saves a lot of spoons). Another aspect of life that chronic pain can have an impact on would be relationships.
The relationships that a person with pain creates are the same as anybody else’s: personal, professional, romantic, etc. But it’s how chronic pain affects relationships that can be challenging to cope with, whether you’re the person living with pain or their family members and other loved ones.
So, let’s talk about how chronic pain affects relationships—the good, the frustrating, and what to do about all of the complex emotions in between.
The Emotional and Physical Sides of Chronic Pain
The basic nature of chronic pain is that it’s something that doesn’t just go away—it’s chronic, meaning it sticks around or returns over a long period of time. The levels of pain might change, but for a lot of people living with chronic pain, there’s almost always a baseline of pain. Understandably, coping with near-constant discomfort takes a physical and emotional toll on the person living with pain.
In fact, research shows that there’s a link between chronic pain and mental health disorders such as anxiety and substance abuse. Some studies indicate that as many as 85 percent of people who live with chronic pain also struggle with depression. This combination of chronic pain and mental health struggles can lead to further isolation, social disconnectedness, and even marital or romantic distress.
There are a lot of complex emotions that come along with chronic pain and maintaining healthy relationships: guilt for not always being able to do what the other person wants; sadness for having to miss out on fun; anxiety about being forgotten or left behind. The list goes on.
For me, whenever the pain starts, I feel a sense of panic. There’s a spiral effect because the pain doesn’t just affect this one moment. I think, “If I’m in pain now, I won’t be able to do [x, y, z] later. Then I’ll have more to do tomorrow, and then I won’t have the energy to [see friends, make food, drive to work, etc.].”
And my pain doesn’t just impact me. All of the important people around me are impacted as well. When I’m in a pain flare, I usually have to shift around plans. I have to ask for help. Change that grocery shopping list to a pick-up order for my wife to grab, text my friends and let them know that I’ll have to postpone lunch again. Maybe the most challenging: figuring out ways to comfort my fussy baby with dislocated shoulders and misaligned hips.
The truth is that chronic pain directly affects relationships because it affects how you function. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have good, healthy relationships.
Adjust, Accommodate, and Allow
There are a few things that can help relationships thrive in the face of chronic pain. Think: adjust, accommodate, and allow.
For people who live with chronic pain, making plans or committing to something in the future comes with a sense of dread. For us, when we say yes to that lunch date or look forward to catching up with friends, there’s always uncertainty. Sure, the day is open, we are available, but will our bodies cooperate?
In these situations, it can be helpful to have backup plans. Plan number one, for example, would be having that park picnic while plan number two would be staying in and watching a movie. Adjust as needed.
Sometimes, living with chronic pain means finding different ways to function in spite of the pain. In any relationship you have, be sure to be open to accommodations.
If you are having a bad pain day, consider asking your partner to wash those dishes while you balance the budget. Or ask your friend to help load your mobility device into the car so that you can still go shopping, just in a way that’s more manageable for your body. Maybe even look into digital accessibility to help with daily group chats with your parents. The goal here is to minimize pain while still being as involved as possible in each of your relationships.
There are times when the pain will be too severe to adjust, too severe to accommodate. There will be times when you will need to crawl into bed and ask your spouse to lift the glass of water to your mouth. And sometimes there will be moments when the people you love feel caregiver burnout.
These moments are challenging, but allow yourself the time to work through them. Seeking counseling during the toughest of times can be an extremely beneficial resource for you and your loved ones. Don’t forget to allow yourself to receive help when you need it.
Communication is also important. Conversations about the chronic pain you live with might feel uncomfortable at first but these discussions can help the other party to know what to expect ahead of time.
Consider explaining the spoon theory to friends. Speak openly about how pain affects you. Additionally, don’t underestimate how much people care for you—having the right support system by your side can make all the difference when it comes to coping with chronic pain.
The Most Important Relationship
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, one relationship you have that should remain solid throughout the trials of chronic pain is with yourself. Treating yourself with kindness, granting yourself some grace when things get tough, and taking care of yourself are all vital steps to maintaining a healthy relationship with your own mind, body, and soul.
Whenever you need to recharge from the fatigue, mental and physical, of chronic pain, consider self-care in the form of:
- Warm baths
- Listening to your favorite playlist
- Journaling or blogging
- Support groups for people with chronic pain
- Movement that makes you feel comfortable
- Reading a book
- Talking to loved ones
When you’re able to care for yourself, you’re also better serving all of your relationships. Remember, the severity of how chronic pain affects relationships depends on the resources you can utilize.
There are online resources, like the Pain Resource Community, to answer your questions and help you through the most difficult of times. Furthermore, lean on your loved ones when you can, and always remind yourself that, no matter how isolating it can feel to live with chronic pain, you’re not alone, and you’re not without support.
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