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What Are the Best Ways to 'Be There' for a Partner Who's Living With Chronic Pain?

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Last night I Googled, “How to be there for your partner when they are in chronic pain.” I needed some external references. Some tips and, maybe, to feel a bit of community knowing I’d likely find shared experiences from people who too love someone and can’t help them get relief either.

When loving a someone with chronic pain (CP) or illness (CI), especially for prolonged periods, you experience an alternate “chronic” reality where you are exposed to the ways society treats CP or CI, yet you don’t ever feel the actual pain or symptoms yourself. You, of course, experience your own tangential emotions and feelings, and those are valid and reflections of a world only someone who loves someone with chronic illness likely knows. But at the same time, we cannot feel the physical or physiological pain our loved ones do. And I think it’s because of this that I often feel lost about the best way to be there for my partner when he’s experiencing a “pain cycle” (where his pain is significantly worse than his average day, typically occuring in stretches of several days to a week or more).

Ask someone with chronic illness or pain what they most wish about their relationships (friends, parents, siblings, lovers, spouses, co-workers, etc.), and “if they could feel my pain” usually ranks pretty high. I wish I could, too, and if you love someone with chronic pain or chronic illness, you probably wish you could, too. Not for too long (because I often think I wouldn’t survive it), but just long enough to know how to best support him when the pain hits hard.

My spouse has had chronic pain and illness for 10+ years. Our lives are wonderful but cyclical, and as most readers who have struggled with long-lasting health challenges know, life is populated with extreme highs and lows. I like Michelle Obama’s quote that “When they go low, we go high.” I’d say that’s most typically approach for when my husband is at a low point. I try to go high with enthusiasm (to inspire him that I’ll never lose hope), high with researching new treatments ( I’m a fixer — more on that later), high on loving on him. And all that going high can be a bit much for the person gritting his way through day five of nine out of 10 gut-wrenching pain, nausea and no sleep. So, that’s not always the best course of action.

Not being able to be there for him in a way that ultimately makes him feel good is kind of a buzzkill for someone who generally likes to please (me). And so, over the years, I’ve oscillated between different ways of trying to be there during the pain cycles. Sometimes I “go high” as I mentioned above; it’s my most natural response. Other times I try to give him space so he can just be in his pain without needing to worry about me, shelter me, etc. Some times I try to bring humor to him. Other times I share my fears, and those generally seem like the worst outcomes (so, I try to avoid sharing when he’s in a pain cycle).

Curious about your approach to loving someone with CP or CI. If you have tips that have helped you be there for the person experiencing a chronic condition in your life, I’d love to hear about it.

Originally published: August 23, 2016
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