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10 (Wrong) Things People Somehow Still Believe About Relationships and Chronic Illness

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Whether you’re just beginning to date or have been married for decades, navigating a relationship is no easy feat. It requires time and effort to maintain a close connection, open communication and ever-growing love and respect for one another. So when you throw an additional challenge like chronic illness into the mix, things can certainly get more complicated.

One of the most difficult parts of chronic illness being a “third wheel” in your relationship is the frequent misunderstanding that can occur about how the illness affects you and your partner. There are many stereotypes about health conditions that are not just false, but hurtful and damaging. These incorrect assumptions about the ways chronic illness affects a relationship can drive a wedge into an otherwise healthy relationship – or even stop one before it’s had the chance to begin.

Anyone who wants to find love should have that opportunity – and not face extra difficulties because of ridiculous and unfair stereotypes. To help bust some of the most common stereotypes out there, we asked our Mighty community to share a misconception they’ve encountered about relationships that involve chronic illness. Many also shared their own experiences with how this misconception has affected their relationships. By busting these myths, we hope we can promote a better understanding of chronic illness so every relationship has the opportunity to flourish.

Here’s what our community shared with us:

Myth #1: The chronically ill partner takes more than they give in the relationship.

The worst I’ve seen is that we, the chronically ill partner, are not giving more than we’re taking. We are quite aware of how bad things can be and we strive to bring more of ourselves to the relationship.” – Mikki I.

That a disabled person can’t date an able-bodied person without there being a power imbalance. I’m no less of a person just because I use a walking cane. I have all the power I need.” – Amy C.

The truth: Even if health issues mean a partner can’t contribute to the relationship in certain ways, that doesn’t mean they contribute less. More importantly, that doesn’t mean they are intrinsically less powerful or valuable as a human being. Every couple may have different definitions of what it means to contribute to a relationship – what they expect of one another (and themselves) in order to uphold balance, love and a partnership. Maybe an outsider sees that the chronically ill partner is unable to contribute financially or help out around the house because of their illness. That doesn’t mean they don’t give to their partner in other ways.

Myth #2: When both partners have health conditions, they must be ‘lazy’ and living off disability benefits.

I have fibromyalgia and he has occipital neuralgia. People assume we’re lazy, faking or that we’ll be OK at some point. I still work traditionally and he’s exploring options from home. We have a dog, a hedgehog and our own wee hobbies. Basically, they assume we don’t have a life and sit around on benefits. Far from the truth.” – Kylie K.

The truth: If two individuals in a relationship each have health conditions, all that means is that two people – who both happen to be sick – fell in love with one another. To assume that chronically ill partners are “lazy” or “scamming the system” by receiving disability benefits is not only an unfair accusation but a hurtful and damaging one.

Myth #3: Having a chronic illness makes you a ‘burden’ on your partner.

People think I’m a burden on my family. A couple have told me they feel sorry for my family for having to deal with me. We took a vow for sickness and in health and my husband really meant that. I don’t hold any respect for a married person that feels pity or expects my husband to leave me because of this. I’m sure they wouldn’t assume their partner should leave them if they got ill, it’s not real love if they do.” – Hazzy W.

Appearing like I’m a burden to other people or being made to feel like one due to conditions, finances or fertility issues. Others making out I’m not trying hard enough to ‘get better’ or I’m just ‘lazy.’ Financial imbalance despite living independently money wise with partners. People don’t see the hard work, care and effort you put in despite your conditions/disabilities. People assume the partner does everything for them. Disabled people still have capabilities and deserve love and happiness.” – Kellz N.

The truth: “Everybody has something.” No one is perfect or enters into a relationship completely free of baggage. There’s no doubt that chronic illness is a complicated, scary and unpredictable beast – but everyone faces trials and challenges throughout their life, and the purpose of loved ones is to support you through both the ups and downs. The partner of a person with chronic illness may love them, support them and care for them during their tough health moments, but the person with chronic illness is likely doing the same thing during their partner’s tough moments, too.

Myth #4: A healthy individual is a ‘saint’ for dating a chronically ill individual.

People call my significant other and my best friend ‘saints’ for helping me, as if I’m a pain-in-the-ass charity case. No one asks if I do anything for them in return.” – Kris T.

People are always applauding my partner for dating ‘someone like me.’ He is the picture of health. An athlete. A hard worker. And I am seen as damaged goods next to that which breaks my heart. People tell him, ‘you’re such a good bloke for dating Renèe’ or that they would never be able to stick around like he has. They tell him he is a good man for loving me despite my many ailments and visible medical devices. As if I am not worthy of love, or worthy of a relationship due to my illness. My partner loves me for me. Healthy or unhealthy. Feeding tube or not. Weeks in hospital or weeks at home. He doesn’t love me ‘despite’ my poor health – because that doesn’t make me unlovable or harder to love.” – Renèe E.

The truth: Being in a relationship with a chronically ill or disabled individual does not automatically make someone a “good” person. While it’s important to recognize and celebrate positive qualities, dating someone who has an illness is not a quality. The only reason a person should be in a relationship with an individual who has health issues is if they genuinely love and care about who they are as a human being – not “because of” their illness or even “in spite of” it. Celebrating a healthy person simply for who they’ve chosen to date can be hurtful when the partner has an illness or disability. In her essay, “My Partner Is Not a ‘Saint’ for Dating Someone With a Chronic Illness,” Might contributor Kathleen Nicholls explained:

When you praise my partner for his bravery in the face of my illness, for his selflessness in being partner to a ‘sick girl,’ it serves to rationalize the worst of my fears. Those feelings of lacking in self-worth that I must push to the back of my mind every day just to feel halfway decent about myself. It confirms that I am indeed viewed as a burden upon my sweet love, that he would soar higher were I not in the picture.

Myth #5: Getting married when you have health conditions is no big deal.

That we can marry. We can’t. Will loose SSDI [social security disability insurance].” – Jessica L.

I’m on SSI and I would probably lose at least part of it [if I got married]. My partner and I are both disabled and receive Medicaid and SNAP, which we would probably both lose if we married or combined households, so we can’t even live together.” – Christine C.

The truth: Some couples might look forward to getting more deductions and tax benefits after they’re married. For couples receiving certain disability benefits, however, getting married could cause more financial harm than good. There is a widespread issue in the United States of couples being unable to get married because they would lose the benefits they rely on to survive. For instance, a single person with chronic illness may qualify for Medicaid, a need-based program for low-income Americans as well as people with disabilities. However, if that person got married, the program would look at their income in combination with their spouse’s. Together, these incomes might be too high for that individual to qualify for Medicaid – and oftentimes couples can’t afford the health care costs the program used to cover.

Myth #6: People with chronic illness need their partner to be their caregiver.

My partners always make a bigger deal out of it than necessary. I have multiple chronic illnesses and yeah, it’s different than a normal relationship, but I can still function independently with support from my friends. When I’m dating someone they always freak out about touching me, helping me cross the street, treating me like a helpless child, and they end up making me feel worse than I already do. I don’t need a parent, I need a partner.” – Jennifer M.

My husband and I had just started dating when his family asked him to be sure about me because his entire life would soon revolve around caring for me. It’s a big misconception that chronically ill people can’t do anything for themselves and that their partners must nurse them. My husband says he’d be happy to do that for me, but I want to be self-sufficient while I’m still able.” – Christy H.

The truth: Everyone has different needs and abilities. Some need assistance in their day-to-day functioning while others operate more independently. Just because a person has an illness or health condition doesn’t necessarily mean they need a caregiver. Even if someone does need daily assistance, whether or not their partner will play that role is a personal decision both individuals must make together. It is completely possible to have a relationship either way. After Dr. Phil claimed on TV that you can be a lover or a caregiver, but not both, couples were quick to flood social media with photos and stories proving him wrong. Regardless, it is important not to assume that every individual with health challenges a) needs a caregiver and b) is seeking a partner who will be their caregiver.

Myth #7: Being sick means you can’t enjoy sex with your partner.

“In a lot of people’s minds, a person with a chronic illness is always sick – in bed or on the couch, unable to do much. In reality, a lot of illnesses vary in severity over time, and people have good days or bad days. That leads us to sex, which is a normal part of human experience. Like everyone else, people with chronic illnesses are sexual beings. They experience a variety of orientations and desires, and self-identify in many different ways. Some want sex a lot, some want it a little and some don’t want sex at all. In other words, people with chronic illnesses are people, and experience the same variety of sexuality we find in humanity in general.” – Allyson W.

The truth: Some people aren’t interested in sex, and some people can’t have particular kinds of sex due to their illness or disability. Wherever you land in regards to sex is completely valid (and you are most certainly not the only one in that position). But there is an assumption that no one with a chronic illness or health condition is interested in or able to have sex, and that is simply not true. You can’t know a person’s sexual interests or abilities unless they decide to tell you.

Myth #8: People with chronic illness are taking advantage of their healthy partners.

People often think I’m manipulating my partner into being with me, and it’s so beyond the truth. I’ve been told to my face by people before that I’m using my partner so I have someone to care for my medical and financial needs, I can’t provide an equal effort so I should just ‘do the right thing’ and end the relationship, I am purposely making my partner feel guilty about me being sick so they can’t break up with me, and (my favorite) I really should stop taking advantage of people just because I’m sick. Uh, hello…. I’m sick. I don’t choose to live in a dampened relationship, in a body constantly breaking down, in a relationship where the effort isn’t reciprocated exactly equal, and in a bed most the time. It’s miserable. Does this mean I’m incapable of loving? Absolutely not. Does this mean I’m unworthy of being loved? No. I am just as awesome, thoughtful, caring, and considerate toward my partner as any non-chronically ill person is. It’s no one’s place to judge my relationships based on what they see or think, especially without knowing how my partner feels about being with a ‘sick person’ in the first place. Chronically ill people deserve to be loved and have fulfilling relationships too.” – Sami Jo S.

The truth: If a person with a chronic illness is entering into a relationship, that is a sign of their feelings for their partner – not a sign that they’re looking for someone to take care of them or “do everything” for them. It’s unfair to make assumptions about their feelings or motivations in a relationship. Of course, most people expect that their partner will be there to offer them help and support when they need it, but the beautiful part of a healthy relationship is that the help and support are reciprocated.

Myth #9: A healthy individual will be unhappy in a relationship with an ill or disabled partner.

That my partner’s life is miserable having to ‘take care of’ or ‘deal’ with me.” – Clarissa H.

The truth: Some people assume that living with chronic illness must automatically be miserable. It’s not. Of course, most would probably rather not have a chronic illness, but facing a (big) challenge in your life doesn’t preclude the possibility of happiness and satisfaction for you and your loved ones. Managing an illness may be a big part of life for some, but that life can absolutely be beautiful and fulfilling.

Myth #10: If you have a chronic illness, you don’t deserve to be in a relationship.

I think my biggest one comes from me – who would want to be in a relationship with me like this? I certainly wouldn’t. And therefore I will probably be single the rest of my life.” – Rebecca G.

I think I have more trouble with it. I don’t allow myself to be in a romantic relationship, or even get close to friends because my fear is they will leave again.” – Rosemary R.

The truth: Sometimes, stigmas about people with chronic illness play a role before a relationship has even begun. Some folks with health conditions may hesitate to pursue a romantic relationship out of fear or concern their illness will be too much of a “burden” for their potential partner. This can be especially difficult for people who have previously been in a relationship with someone who didn’t understand their illness or treat them with the compassion they deserve.

There should never be any pressure to pursue a relationship if that’s not something you want or feel comfortable with. But you also shouldn’t feel like you can’t date just because you have a chronic illness. If an individual declines or backs out of a relationship because of your health, that reflects far more on them than it does on you. Everyone deserves to be loved and valued – including all the amazing people who happen to live with chronic illness.

Regardless of where you encounter these stereotypes, they can be incredibly hurtful to folks with chronic illness and their loved ones. If you have struggled in a relationship because of the effects of illness, you are not the only one. Connect with our Mighty community 24/7 to receive (or give!) support and advice about navigating relationships when one or more partner has chronic illness.

If you live with chronic illness, check out the top relationship stories from our Mighty community:

And if you have a partner with a chronic illness, the following stories may be helpful:

Photo by Matthew Fassnacht on Unsplash

Originally published: July 6, 2019
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