Ah, romance. The source of the highest highs and the lowest lows in life. Falling in love can seem like a fairy tale, but when you have fibromyalgia, it’s not as simple as “happily ever after.” The fact that one of you has a chronic pain condition and the other (ostensibly) doesn’t mean that it can seem like the balance of give-and-take in your relationships is rarely achieved. If both partners aren’t careful, the potential for resentments to build up is massive. This article is all about the various pitfalls and challenges as experienced by the spoonie, person with a chronic condition, in the relationship, since that is the part that I have lived myself. Stay tuned for the partner perspective next week from my partner Tyler. We’re going to orient this discussion around monogamous, heterosexual relationships, but a lot of the ideas discussed are still applicable and adaptable for other types of relationships as well.
The most striking thing about fibromyalgia’s relationship dynamic, for me, is the tremendous guilt associated with feeling like a burden to my partner. In an ideal world, both partners would contribute uniquely different but equal amounts of effort toward the things that keep a relationship and a household running smoothly. I’m talking about things like income, cooking, chores, caring for other members of the family, the social calendar… the list goes on and on. And even though no one’s world is ideal, this “equality of burden” is nevertheless the (unspoken) expectation among couples in this day and age. Of course, the problem is that when one partner is living with chronic pain, the balancing point in your relationship might be less obvious and require more effort and communication from the people involved than with other relationships.
Many fibro folks have gone through the experience of a partner giving up because they were tired of dealing with their fibro limitations or dealing with the sudden shift of developing fibro in the midst of a preexisting relationship. We all sometimes feel that burden of guilt about our contribution to our relationship(s). Let’s go over a little internal dialogue, shall we? This is not necessarily specific to me, but includes things I hear mentioned from time to time among fibro folks, especially women:
I’m such a disaster. I don’t understand why he stays with me. How can I ever give enough to someone else when I don’t have enough for myself? Who would want to live with such a burden? I should just give up on dating and relationships. I don’t deserve his support. If I were him, I wouldn’t want to be with me. He has a choice to be in relationship of two healthy people – I don’t. Why would he choose to be with me when he could be with someone healthy?
You can almost taste the self-sabotage in this neurotic cocktail. Luckily, having an awareness of this mode of thinking can help to adjust course before slipping too far down that slope. There’s a reason your partner likes you and want to be with you – probably countless reasons! And just to reiterate, these are the type of thoughts that pop up when one has a supportive partner and things are going relatively well, let alone when they are not!
The Darker Side
Often, the situation is much more tragic. It’s not uncommon for non-spoonie partners to gradually build up resentments about carrying the majority of the load in the relationship. For example, when a wife with fibro is physically unable to work, she’s also much less likely to be able to cook, clean, and handle the rest of the household duties. The husband, consciously or not, may start building a sense of “unfairness” that manifests in various ways, like him spending extra money on himself to “compensate,” or developing a hobby that takes him away from the house and his partner in pain. Eventually, it passes a breaking point and blows up. His vision of the perfect marriage has slipped away irrevocably from his point of view, and these thoughts and feelings often eventually lead to divorce.
I went through a version of this with one of my previous partners. The primary issue was my inability to work and generate income. There was a distinct lack of communication, which made the whole blow-up part much more intense. And the craziest thing was that even if I was physically able to work, other circumstances beyond my control made my working impossible. He knew all this when we met, but it still ended up causing a strain on our relationship.
For my part, I’ve gotten better at communicating since then and consider it a valuable learning experience. I can’t possibly stress enough how important it is to fully and honestly communicate your struggles as well as your capabilities with your partner every day. That’s the only way to truly build understanding. And your romantic partner, of all people, should be the one who you can open up to and trust completely. If that’s not the case for you, a serious re-evaluation or counseling should be the first thing on your agenda.
Showing You Care
Fibromyalgia is an illness that runs you through the ringer and no two days are the same. The other side of that coin is that sometimes I have days in which I feel much better and more capable. On those days, I try extra hard to do as much as I can to help out. It’s not about “catching up” or equalizing the amount of effort put in by my partner on the other days. Instead, it’s about showing (not just telling) that I care about our relationship. It’s a win-win; you feel appreciated and your partner gets a rare break from the usual routines. It doesn’t have to be equal, but I’ve found that it’s best if your partner knows – through your actions – how much you value the relationship and how you are doing your best given your condition.
At the end of the day, negativity begets negativity. Remember, relationships are not about “fairness.” They’re not a zero-sum game where one person is indebted to the other until they can equalize that debt. If even one party thinks this way, it’s a recipe for disaster. Those with fibromyalgia and other types of chronic pain have to be extra vigilant to watch for resentments building in their romantic relationships and do their best to diffuse them as early as possible through communication, compassion, and mutual understanding.
What kind of relationship struggles have you had to deal with as a result of your fibro? Do you have any additional advice for those going through rocky times with their partner? Please share with the community in the comments below. And stay tuned for our upcoming video and post highlighting different perspectives on fibro and relationships.