How military couples can cope with pain and illness

Pain and illness can have major impacts on your relationships with your spouse, partner, and other loved ones. While pain is commonly treated within the medical field, your relationships can also affect your overall physical health and longevity. People in supportive relationships tend to have better health than those in distressed relationships. And the way you and your partner react to one another’s injury or illness can actually impact the experience of pain. The tricky part is that physical discomforts come with extra stress, which can change your relationship dynamic and make it tough to stay on track.

Pain affects more than your body

Chronic pain and illness can decrease your ability to complete simple, everyday tasks—and prevent you from performing mentally and physically intensive tasks. But the impacts of pain go well beyond limiting the things you can do. Pain is associated with depression, sleep issues, anger, substance abuse, and relationship distress. Partners of those in pain tend to experience anxiety, caregiver exhaustion, and less relationship satisfaction, too.

When pain or illness touches you, your partner, or family, it can create conflict and damage the relationships that matter most if you’re not careful. The way your family comes together (or falls apart) can either promote or block healing or pain outcomes for the sufferer. Life after an injury or illness diagnosis is often very different from life before it, and adjusting to that “new normal” can be challenging for everyone. From little things like shifting who does what housework, to changing who handles bigger tasks like taking care of the kids or earning a paycheck, it’s all about adjusting as a team.

Couple strategies for coping with pain

  • Find the support that works best for both of you. It can be tempting to simply “take over” all the things your partner used to do before their injury or illness, or to spend time doing things that make them feel better. But it turns out that overcompensating might not always be the best way to help your partner manage their pain or get on the path to healing. Instead, find ways to support you partner (such as offering emotional support or temporarily helping with physical tasks) without encouraging or discouraging behaviors that might prevent them from managing their own improvement.
  • Address intimacy issues. Whether it’s because of physical discomfort, a side effect of medication, or feeling down and just not like yourself, changes to the sexual relationship between you and your partner are normal. It’s okay to feel sad if things can’t be exactly as you’d both prefer, but it’s important to explore new ways to make it work. As you and your partner discuss ways to rebuild intimacy, remember: One partner’s pain is not their fault; it’s an issue you’re tackling together.
  • Don’t let 2 become 3. Injury, illness, and pain can sometimes feel like an unwanted house guest. But it’s important to keep that visitor from getting too involved in your relationship as a couple or become a third party in your twosome. When you notice your unwelcome “visitor” in most conversations and interactions between you and your partner, it’s time for an eviction notice. Using pain or illness as a distraction from couple issues only works temporarily. Make sure you set boundaries around the pain or illness and when you can or can’t discuss it.
  • Practice validation. While helpful in just about any context, responding to your partner with validation can improve relationship satisfaction in couples dealing with pain. Validation is a way to communicate that you understand and respect the other person’s perspective, even if you aren’t quite on the same page. For example, if you partner complains about their discomfort or struggle, it’s normal to feel frustrated at the negativity, but do your best to respond with empathy and acknowledge their experience rather than snap back in anger. If you’re the one in pain, remember your partner is struggling in their own way too, which can be just as tough.
  • Don’t get stuck in the trenches. When you’re facing an illness or chronic pain, it can be difficult to focus on anything else. As a result, couples can quickly get stuck in certain roles, namely, “the sick one” and “the caretaker.” When you get entrenched in those roles it can be difficult to step out of them even for a moment, which means you might miss out on the good days when the partner in pain was feeling better. If you start to feel like progress has stalled (in healing or in your relationship), it might be helpful to seek support from a therapist or chaplain to help get you both unstuck.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness practice can be an effective coping strategy for pain management. It’s been shown to help partners in pain manage their emotional distress and improve marital satisfaction too.

So many aspects of military life are unpredictable, including the chance you or your partner might get sick or injured. It’s not easy to face physical challenges, whether it’s you or your partner who’s impacted. Pain and illness can affect all aspects of your life, including your relationships. But when you face pain or illness head on and as a team, you and your partner can find a way back to normal, together.

 

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References

Breen, R. N., & McDaniel, S. H. (2008). Couple therapy and medical issues: Working with couples facing illness. In A. S. Gurman (Ed.), Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy (4 ed., pp. 618–637). New York: NY. : Guildford Press.

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Edlund, S. M., Carlsson, M. L., Linton, S. J., Fruzzetti, A. E., & Tillfors, M. (2015). I see you’re in pain – The effects of partner validation on emotions in people with chronic pain. Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 6(1), 16–21. doi:10.1016/j.sjpain.2014.07.003

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Williams, A. M., & Cano, A. (2014). Spousal mindfulness and social support in couples with chronic pain. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 30(6), 528–535. doi:10.1097/ajp.0000000000000009