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When Your Partner Doesn’t Understand Your Migraines

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Can migraines hurt your relationships?

Yes, they can and often they do.

This is just an additional frustration and lack of fairness experienced in the life of someone who struggles with migraines. When migraines enter a relationship, it can be a challenge for both partners, and not just the one with the headache.

To be fair, every relationship works this way: Two people bring things from their own lives into the relationship, and it becomes part of the partner’s world as well. But migraines introduce a host of complications that can overwhelm relationships for both partners, not just one or the other.

First, as is often the case with migraines, they can trigger with little warning. Even if the migraine was actually triggered 12 hours prior to the onset of aura or headache, once it enters awareness, it can quickly spell the end of the day (if not days) for many migraine sufferers.

This impacts not only relationships themselves, but jobs, careers, parenthood and vacations. Some won’t travel out of the country, or even out of their home area, for fear of what will happen if a migraine is triggered and they’re too far from their personal medical providers.

Partners of people who have migraines quickly learn how debilitating these episodes can be. Significant stress is added for the partner, such as having to take over with parental responsibilities on the spur of the moment, running home in the midst of a day outing, canceling trips, ending up in bed in the midst of vacations or even taking trips to the hospital for the more severe episodes.

For many migraine sufferers, the journey of combating migraines brings about constant adjustments, as well as redefining rituals. For example, dietary changes and restrictions while identifying and avoiding known triggers can cause significant issues with daily meal habits in the home or limit where a couple can dine out together. Or, for example, the outpouring of money for medical and health visits on a regular basis can cause further relationship stress.

So, on a practical level, migraines wreak their share of havoc in a relationship.

There is also a deeper wound than only the practical issues experienced by migraine sufferers: The feeling that their partner (or family and friends) don’t really understand what they’re going through.

In my psychotherapy and coaching practice, where I specialize in working with people who struggle with migraines, almost every person has focused on this lack of understanding from others as a major issue with dealing with migraines.

Migraine sufferers have most likely heard more than their share of, “What’s wrong? It’s just a headache,” or “Do you really have to leave work (or class) just for a headache?” The list goes on and on.

The underlying assumption from the ever-growing list is the same: “It’s not that bad, you’re just babying yourself.” If only people who’ve never experienced a true migraine went through just one time what migraine sufferers go through on a regular basis.

A migraine isn’t merely a headache. It’s an event. Those who don’t experience aura can go from no headache to full headache, nausea and vomiting within an hour or two. The pain and sensitivity can be so bad that actually opening their eyes and seeing light can cause more vomiting. Hearing the sounds of people talking can further increase the headache and nausea. For some people, medication (whether abortive or preventative) can help, but for many, no medications help and they can deal with this for as little as several hours, up to ongoing (some people who come in have had a constant migraine episode for years).

For people who experience aura, this adds an entire dimension to the event. Some people experience some mild tingling in the extremities, while others experience visual disturbances (such as seeing flashing lights and colorful patterns moving across their vision), significant numbness or paralysis, fainting, confusion to the point of not knowing how to speak or think straight, difficulty walking and slurred speech. This is often followed by the headache, nausea and vomiting described above.

The migraine experience is different for each person. What’s important to know is that the word “migraine” doesn’t just indicate “bad headache.” That’s a common misunderstanding that leads partners, families and friends to believe a person is more functional than may really be the case during a migraine episode.

A note to the partners of migraine sufferers: The migraine journey is an internally lonely experience. Some compassion and giving the benefit of the doubt can go a long way. Partners often fear their migraine-suffering partners may take advantage of the situation and use the migraines as an excuse to not do things in a relationship. Most of the migraine sufferers I’ve seen find their episodes so unpleasant that they won’t consciously dare tempt fate by faking episodes or using them to their advantage.

And a note to migraine sufferers: If your partner is able to deal with the migraine episodes, some appreciation for their patience can go a long way, too. It can become easy to forget that partners merely deal with this part of the relationship and aren’t required to.

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: May 23, 2016
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