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6 Tips for How to Love and Be Loved With Chronic Illness

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So, Valentine’s Day rolls around again. Maybe like me it’s not something you pay much attention to, or maybe you don’t really buy into the corporate side of it and have your own traditions. I’m a vegetarian and my husband is a big meat-eater, just one of the ways in which we are complete opposites. Our little Valentine’s tradition is we stay in and I cook my husband a steak, which as it turns out I’m pretty good at! I think one of the reasons I don’t feel an affinity with one particular day of the year is because my husband shows he loves me every day in the most normal, uncelebrated ways. As someone with chronic illness I can’t even express how much that means to me, but today I’m going to try.

Firstly, I want to say that I met my husband in my 30s, after what my friends and family will testify to as a parade of unsuitable characters, heartbreaks and generally a resigned acceptance that true love was not going to happen for me. My feeling was, even if it did happen, it wouldn’t last because what kind of a man would want to take on this woman who was stubborn, outspoken and on top of that had a rollercoaster relationship with chronic fatigue syndrome and constant illness? How would I ever possibly find someone who could accept that burden?

The answer was I didn’t find someone who accepted that burden because when I met the right person for me he didn’t see me as a burden at all. He saw past all the stuff I was focused on, like it didn’t even register, and just saw me. Being loved by my husband has been one of the greatest gifts in my life because without even trying it seems, he helps me see myself through his eyes. So now instead of seeing illness, unpredictability, let-downs and burdens, I see creativity, humor, intelligence and caring. So before I get all soppy and sentimental and ruin all my street cred, I want to tell you something you can actually use. I want to share with you some practical tips for how to love and be loved when you have a chronic illness that can work just as well for family and friends as they do for a partner.

How to be loved:

1. Love you, first and foremost. We can only give love when we give ourselves the love we need first. For so long I tried to solve my problems by looking for someone who would miraculously make me complete, and let me tell you something: You are already complete. You are already enough. Just as you are. All by yourself. Do whatever it is you need to do to love yourself first. You know what? You don’t have to go straight to love, you can start with just liking yourself! Be honest, sometimes illness can make us dislike ourselves and our bodies and we have to learn to like ourselves again. How do you even do that? I don’t proclaim to be an expert at this but I read a lot, I watched lots of videos and did a lot of self-discovery. I journaled, I wrote. Anything that would help me connect to how I really felt about myself and my life that would help me start to understand why, think about how I could change it and start making those changes.

2. Learn to accept compliments with a simple thank you. If someone says something nice, give them and yourself the courtesy of accepting it graciously. Here is the thing that no one told me about this: you don’t even have to believe it, smile and say thank you anyway and something magic happens… you start to believe it. Someone comments on your drawings, you say thank you. Maybe a bit later someone else comments, you say thank you. And in your mind you’ve accepted the compliment so you’ve somehow accepted it as truth and you start to believe it yourself, you start to see your drawings through someone else’s eyes. So many things around the way we think are about repetition, building patterns and practice. So practice accepting compliments!

3. Allow someone else to support you without feeling like a burden. Human beings, especially the strong silent types like my husband, prefer to show their love through actions rather than words. People like that want to show their love by supporting, helping and doing things for you. You may see it as a burden but they see it as an opportunity to show you how much they care, even how well they know you by anticipating what you need. Just because you contribute to a partnership in a different way doesn’t mean they are giving more than you. The fact they are in your life shows that they value what you bring to the relationship. Like the compliments, just learn to say thank you; that is genuinely all they want in return.

How to love someone with a chronic illness:

1. Learn to communicate. This doesn’t mean you need to ask questions or talk all the time, but create an environment in your relationship where you both feel comfortable enough to bring up problems or to ask for help. Trust is a big thing for us warriors – when we get burned we remember for next time so we can avoid getting hurt again. If the last time we talked about something difficult or asked for help it was treated with indifference or with a grumpy/angry response, chances are we will shut down and avoid asking again. You can help to encourage someone to open up by being more open yourself, talk about your day, then remember to ask how they are too. They might not seem like they have a lot to say, but on the day when they do and they need desperately to talk, they have that space to do it in.

2. Have a decompression zone in your house and relationship, especially for after work. Imagine the scene: you are one half of a partnership who is in good health and come home to things not being done in the house and after a long day it is so easy to snap at your partner. It’s understandable, you’re tired – you just want food and to put your feet up and you’ve probably got a pain-in-the-ass boss who’s pissed you off but with that one comment, you are going to make your partner feel even more useless than they may have already been feeling. They get upset, you get upset. No one wins and the house is still a shit-tip! If you are feeling this way here is a super-easy tip: Designate somewhere as your decompression zone; maybe go to the bathroom. Splash your face, take a shower. Wherever/whatever this place is, just make sure to take a time-out. Then and only then is it a good idea to try and talk to other people. When you do, don’t start with a judgment, start with a question like “How are you?” or “How are you feeling?” The likelihood is there are reasons behind the mess or the forgotten errands and now you can work it all out together as a team rather than being on opposing sides.

3. Create realistic expectations of each other and have a better understanding of each other’s day-to-day life. If you are always holding someone to an impossibly high standard, they are going to disappoint you, and themselves at some point. Add to the mix that you actually have no idea what their normal day looks like and you have a recipe for misunderstandings. This is easily avoided by having a proper conversation about how the responsibilities in your partnership should be divided. You’re a team, you can help each other out but if you know that in general one person deals with the bank account and one person deals with the shopping for example, things run smoother. Have an open conversation about this and play to your strengths – this way your partner with illness still gets to contribute in ways that aren’t going to make them sicker. For example, in my relationship, I’m better with emails/laptop/banking/bills type stuff so I do those things that I can do even when I’m not so well and husband deals with many of the more physical jobs around the house. If I’m really unwell I can say “That’s not getting done this week, can you step in?” but otherwise the assumption is that its in-hand.

What you will see from the above tips is a complete lack of romance and sentimentality and much more common sense, communication and teamwork. For me, those things are the glue that makes us a partnership. I hope they help you too.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you my warrior friend, you are simply wonderful.

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Getty Images by thanaphiphat

Originally published: February 14, 2018
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