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Relationships and chronic illness: Can it still be a happy Valentine’s Day?

Chronic illness can take many different forms, and it is not uncommon even for two patients with the same condition to experience different symptoms from one another. However, some common symptoms which affect many people who are chronically ill include fatigue, pain and depression, and these symptoms can have a profound effect not only on the sufferer, but also the sufferer’s partner and their relationship with each other.

Chronic illness changes the balance of even the most stable relationships. Pain and fatigue are both incredibly debilitating, and will often lead to the unwell partner becoming heavily reliant on the healthy partner for completing day-to-day tasks like cooking and cleaning. As an illness progresses or flares, one partner may become solely responsible for the family’s income, or assume carer’s duties for their loved-one.

As the foundations of a relationship shift, emotions become frayed. The partner who is unwell may feel that they’re a burden on their partner, indebted, ashamed of their condition. Equally, the healthy partner may feel anxious about their loved-one’s health, under stress because of their new responsibilities, resentful of their partner, and even guilty because of this resentment! Both partners are likely to feel overwhelmed by their sudden loss of independence and unsure of what the future holds. Without effective communication, these turbulent emotions can make it difficult for a couple to live happily together.

While a couple focusses on one partner’s health, the physical relationship can easily be overlooked. Many chronic illnesses have a direct effect on sexual relations. Mental illnesses like depression chemically alter neurotransmitters, the chemical signals which trigger sexual desire in the brain, an can decrease the libido. Nerve disorders like MS can not only make physical activities like sex painful, but can also change your perception of sensations and make your body feel different – touches which have previously been pleasurable may suddenly feel uncomfortable. Systemic chronic illnesses (ones which affect the entire body) can often entail vaginal dryness in women or erectile dysfunction in men – and the combination of all the above factors can make physical intimacy feel like an insurmountable obstacle!

For many of these symptoms, a GP can help by prescribing medication, altering doses of existing treatments, or referring one or both partners to talk-therapy. However, to the patient, sexual health may seem somewhat less significant than how the illness affects day-to-day life. For many, sex and sexual health can also be a taboo area – they may find it harder to talk to their GP about their sexual health than other aspects of their wellbeing. The caregiving partner may be loath to raise concerns about their sex life for fear of making the ill partner feel pressured. Medical help with sexual dysfunction is available, but sadly, it is not always sought.

So, what hope is there for chronic couples this Valentine’s Day? Communication is absolutely key – open communication from partner to partner and frank discussion with the GP can help to relieve the emotional and physical stresses of negotiating a relationship with seemingly uneven terms. It is also important, wherever possible, to maintain strong friendships and family ties outside of the relationship. If you know somebody who is in a chronic relationship, whether they are the sick or healthy partner, spending some one-to-one time with them could not only keep your own friendship strong, but also provide them with some respite, restore their sense of independence and enable them to maintain a strong relationship with their spouse.

If you are in good health, and you know someone who is suffering with a chronic illness, another way to show your support is to participate in a clinical trial at Covance.

Covance works with many of the World’s leading pharmaceutical companies to develop new and improved treatments for chronic illnesses like MS, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and depression, and healthy volunteers can earn from £100 per day for taking part in their studies. Click here to find out more.

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Linda Parkinson-Hardman

Transformational coach and founder of the Hysterectomy Association. Professionally I'm an information scientist who specialises in the adoption and engagement of digital technologies. I am a writer and author of nine books to date, and I've edited a further seven; phew what a lot for a Thursday afternoon :-)

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