How to be a Supportive Partner to Someone with Chronic Illness


Any relationship is difficult to maintain, but add a chronic illness into the mix and people’s grasp on “in sickness and in health” starts to get a bit wobbly. Having a chronic illness, such as diabetes, arthritis, or multiple sclerosis can negatively affect even the strongest relationship.

Clinical psychologist Rosalind Kalb, vice president of the professional resource center at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, says, "Even in the best marriages, it's hard. You feel trapped, out of control, and helpless."

We at Mind and Body Counseling Associates, Reno, Nevada have collated six tips on how to be a supportive partner to someone with a chronic illness:

#1 Get Educated and Get Involved

Listen to your partner when they talk about the physical and emotional impact their disease is having on them, along with what the symptoms and side effects are. Be patient with them and, what’s more, believe them. Realise that what they are going through is even worse than what you are experiencing.

Then, go above and beyond and do your own research. Find out what you can do to help, and what possible treatments you can both look into. Dealing with a chronic illness is overwhelming, and it’s much easier when you feel like you’re dealing with it as a team.

In the same vain, if your partner attends events or is a member of a virtual support group, get involved! Ask if you can join them for their doctor’s appointments so that you can ask your own questions and gain a better understanding of their treatment.

#2 Communicate

This is probably the number one rule in any relationship, which is why it’s even more vital in a relationship with chronic illness. For the person supporting the one with the chronic illness, it can often be difficult to know how best to care for them, given that you have no frame of reference yourself. As such, encourage your partner to be as honest as possible with regards to how best you can support them. Keep the discussion about the disease open so as to avoid feeling distant from one another.

However, the right level of communication is also important. Boston College social work professor Karen Kayser says, "If the couple is consumed with talking about the illness, that's a problem. If they never talk about it, it's also a problem. You have to find a middle ground."

#3 Deal With Stressful Emotions

Given the circumstances, it’s completely normal to feel down and even anxious.

"The best way to deal with anxiety is to identify the root of the worry and find strategies and resources to address it," Kalb says.

To help deal with these emotions, consider the following:

  • Counseling (together or separately)

  • Signs of depression

  • Allowing yourselves to feel the loss of what used to be

#4 Avoid Caregiver Burnout

Caregiver burnout is a real thing that can very easily happen without either partner realising it. Make sure, as the caregiver, that you have an outlet for your stress, a decent support structure, and that you are also aware of your limits and know when you need to ask for help.

Warning signs of caregiver burnout include:

  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and other loved ones

  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed

  • Feeling blue, irritable, hopeless, and helpless

  • Changes in appetite, weight, or both

  • Changes in sleep patterns

  • Getting sick more often

  • Wanting to hurt yourself or the person you are caring for

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion

#5 Strengthen Social Connections

As noted above, caring for someone with a chronic illness can be lonely. Make sure you surround yourself with solid friendships in order to prevent getting depressed. While taking part in social engagements together with your partner can often become difficult, don’t feel guilty about going out on your own. Maintaining your own identity is also important.

#6 Be Encouraging

Whether you realise it or not, it takes every bit of strength your partner possesses to get through each and every day with their illness. So, be sure to remind them how incredible you think they are and how much you admire them and believe in their ability to overcome their adversities. Paint a bright picture of the future for you both to work towards and constantly remind your partner that you love them. Better yet, remind them who they are over and above their illness. That they are not defined by it. The more they feel like normal, healthy people, the more they will become that way.

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