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What Chronic Pain Has Taught Me About Communicating With My Husband

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I have felt quite lucky recently as I have watched many friends – mostly women – complain online about their spouses – mostly men! These partners never do the dishes, or failed to do them when they said they would. They are oblivious to the kids. These women are doing as much paid work, or more, yet deal with the domestic drudgery to a much great extent, something that our current COVID-related lockdown has only exacerbated and highlighted.

I feel fortunate that my husband does quite a lot of chores as well as being the main breadwinner. This is, however, not something that we have come to by choice. I have chronic pain following a major operation in 2013 that put long metal rods into my spine and have recently developed some fibromyalgia on top of this. This means that I cannot bend well enough to vacuum or load the dishwasher, and I am left with all-over pain and fatigue if I try to do too much in any one day.

Did my husband wake up one morning and know exactly what was needed to compensate for my illness? He did not. Indeed, back in the days when I was the main breadwinner and he was at home with our first child, he used to announce that he had “done the laundry” when all he had done was to place the washing into the machine and turned it on. It was actually worse than useless, as I would get in from work and have to hang out things immediately before they started to smell.

Now he is, if I may sound patronizing for a moment, extremely well trained. I have thought carefully about how this situation has developed and I offer the following five-point plan for your use, should you need to train your family around your chronic illness. Or, indeed, should you need to train your family in general. You are not doing them any favors by being a martyr, especially if it means developing a chronic condition yourself through sheer exhaustion.

1. Decide who is doing what

You and your partner should divide up most of the chores according to personal preferences and abilities, but don’t leave out the kids. We have a general “family clean” every 10 days or so, when our two dust their bedrooms and clean a bathroom each. Showing them how to do this is tedious, but think of the time as an investment, and demonstrate that you will nag them if the taps get forgotten. Even tiny people can understand putting things back in boxes and getting them off the floor. I usually pounce and announce this at Sunday lunchtime, when I have just cooked a huge roast and it is thus hard for anyone to refuse me 20 minutes at the agreed time.

2. Stick to it

If he is the person who does washing up, leave the washing up for him, no matter how sick you are of the state of the kitchen. Use whatever unsuitable crockery you need to until it is done. If you do it, he will feel undermined, especially if you are (understandably) irritated that it was left for so long.

You must be ruthless, even if visitors are expected. Could my back cope with five minutes of vacuuming on a good day? Yes, it could, but it clouds the idea of it being his job. If the hall carpet is really disgusting, I do a quick sweep with a dustpan and brush instead.

3. Nag cautiously

When the bin is overflowing and I physically cannot lift it to empty it, I will ask my husband to do it. But I have found that the better way, if you have time, is to ask him when he will be able to do it today. That sounds less confrontational and as if you are being considerate of his schedule. More importantly, it pre-supposes that he will be the one emptying the bin. The question thus becomes about when and not about who is doing it.

4. Thank people when they have done things

This can be controversial, as lot of people would argue that no one should be thanked for doing tasks that are just routine and necessary for the whole family. I understand what they mean and agree that no one should get a medal for 20 minutes of vacuuming, but I am sure that people are more likely to do things if they feel appreciated. I try to thank my husband a lot, and sometimes he’s even managed to notice what I’m up to and do the same!

5. Include all the tasks

My husband does the vacuuming and the dishes and a good percentage of the cooking and laundry, as well as being a full-time teacher. However, I do a fair bit as well, especially given my limited capacity. I tutor online, do my share of the cooking and laundry, order food, am currently the main adult in charge of home schooling, and do most of the interacting with the kids.

The last one is important, because it is not obvious how much time this “emotional labor” takes. I therefore tell my husband about the long chat I had with our boy about exam options, or with our girl about the argument on her group chat. I also mention outings or Zoom calls I have organized. I do not break confidences or go into detail, but long chats about emotional issues with teens and tweens can be exhausting, and I want it noted that I have put the time in.

That ends my five-point plan. It does not make living with chronic illness easy, as nothing ever does that. It certainly doesn’t stop me worrying that my husband would have a better life with a pain-free alternative to me. But it may make your everyday resentments easier, whether you have a chronic condition or not.

Getty image by ONYXprj

Originally published: March 3, 2021
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