There is an unwelcome third party in my relationship with my significant other. It’s been there since the beginning, woven into our history, the scaffold upon which “we,” the couple, were built. It’s even responsible for bringing us together. It’s chronic illness. I met my boyfriend when I was home from college on medical leave. We grew up in the same hometown, but our paths had never crossed because he’s a little older and we went to different schools. We never would have met if I hadn’t been home that spring. We never would have met if I were healthy. It’s one of the reasons I wouldn’t wish my illness away, but learning gratitude for such a physically excruciating period of my life has required some serious mental jiu-jitsu. It’s psychologically confusing to remember one period as simultaneously the best and worst things that have ever happened to me. But, I’ve come to terms with it. My boyfriend and I began our relationship when I was at rock bottom, which actually turned out to be a good thing. For the first time in my life, I was stripped of my perfectionist facade and forced to be brutally vulnerable, to put myself out there: the good, the bad, the ugly (it was mostly bad and ugly at that time), and see how he would react. He loved me anyway: unconditionally and unquestioningly. That he was able to see through the sickness and love the person inside helped me to begin to do the same. For the first time since my diagnosis, I was able to learn self-compassion and self-love by looking at myself through his eyes. Furthermore, nothing shines the light on true character quite like chronic illness. My fight revealed my own strength and courage, as well as his. He proved to possess unwavering calm and caring. He never overreacts or minimizes my pain. He just quietly offers comfort and support. One night, I started sweating profusely out of the blue. He was initially and justifiably confused. When I explained I was having a hot flash from one of my medications, he nodded and left the room. Nervous and dejected, I thought he was just too uncomfortable to be around me. But he returned to the room, arms laden with the entire contents of his freezer. He told me to lie down, and covered me in various frozen veggies. He didn’t have an ice pack, he explained, but this would work too. In that moment of automatic caring and compassion, I knew I loved him… another relationship milestone borne of illness. Chronic illness is isolating, so it is difficult to navigate as a couple. My instinct when I feel sickest is to withdraw. When my boyfriend entered my life, I couldn’t just escape into myself. I had to learn to lean on him. He had to learn how to see my invisible illness. And as a consequence of this, our relationship became serious at an early stage. We had to talk about the future. We had to discuss the possible long-term complications of my three year treatment on my body, fertility, etc. We had to talk about the fact that I may never be truly “better.” I wanted full disclosure so he could make an informed decision about whether to stay or leave, whether he could handle the idea of potentially dealing with this for life. At the time, he was 24 and I 21… it’s a lot to handle at that age! But, he stayed, and we’ve grown individually and together in the past two years. We recently moved in and are truly starting our lives together. It’s exciting. It felt like we were moving on, past the horrors of the last couple of years. And then I had a flare up. Suddenly, my health plummeted, and my boyfriend became my round-the-clock nurse. He had seen me sick before, but it’s different living with it 24/7. In some ways, it felt like the beginning again: full exposure. It’s difficult learning to feel comfortable being sick in front of someone. I worried about how he would react not only to my physical symptoms, but also to the emotional roller coaster that is a byproduct of trying to function as an adult while on a debilitating treatment. It takes everything I have, physically and mentally, to get through the workday, and I have nothing left to bring home to him. I started to worry about the effect of his caregiving on our relationship. Every Saturday morning, instead of staying snuggled in bed, going to a leisurely brunch or hitting the beach, he gives me a 10-minute long injection… in my backside. * Sigh* How romantic. Part of me is angry. We’re too young for this! The “in sickness” part of the deal isn’t supposed to happen for a few more decades. Most of me, however, is grateful. Despite the challenges, this experience has been good for us as a couple. Yes, it takes our relationship to an uncomfortable place, but in doing so, chronic illness has deepened our love for and commitment to each other. Rather than fighting alone, I have someone to stand with me and defend my weak side. We’ve developed a watertight system for mutual support. We have learned to have fun together, even when times are tough. We know we can handle anything life throws at us. And that makes all of the butt shots and heartache, pain and frozen vegetables well worth it.