Pain pulls you into yourself, but it's critical that your spouse helps share the burden.

Pain pulls you into yourself, but it's critical that your spouse helps share the burden.(ISTOCKPHOTO)

For many chronic pain patients, their spouse can do a tremendous amount to help, but the patient, in the end, is isolated with his or her pain. The burden of living with it and helping with it can put an enormous strain on even the happiest marriage.

Jan, 45, of Boulder, Colo., recognizes that her chronic back pain has been very hard on her marriage.

"People get divorced over this," says Jan, who is still happily married. "My husband doesn't want to deal with this, and he's the nicest guy in history. But no one can feel your pain."

She understands the burden that pain can put on a spouse.

"I'm not the kind of person that has lunch and pours out my sorrows on friends. I don't want to talk about it. So who gets to hear it?" says Jan. "My spouse. Maybe he gets more than his fair share."

Migraine sufferer Amanda, 39, of Manchester, N.H., is also aware of the impact on her partner. "I'm sure my husband's tired of hearing it," she says. "He's really good about helping me through it: 'What can I do for you?' But it's straining on any relationship."

Educate your spouse

"It's a major concern," agrees Todd Sitzman, MD, a past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. "I see it on a weekly basis. There's isolation, not wanting to go out, not wanting to participate in marital relations, and the marriage suffers."

[ pagebreak ]Dr. Sitzman believes that taking time to educate your spouse can be a big help. The key things to communicate include the following.

  • The condition you're is going through is real.
  • It's often lifelong.
  • You have no control over your symptoms.
  • Along the way you may experience good, pain-free states, but there may be exacerbations of the pain over time.

"If the spouse doesn't understand this," Dr. Sitzman says, "I think that leads to a lot of conflict within the marriage."

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Diving more deeply into the cause of conflict

One of Dr. Sitzman's back-pain patients lost her job. She and her husband had subsequent financial difficulties and fought until the husband said that he'd had enough.

Dr. Sitzman brought the couple into his office for an in-depth talk. Beyond the immediate crisis, he recognized a common root problem: the failure of the patient to acknowledge her limits, and the failure of the spouse to recognize or understand those limits. With adjustments, family activities were split into parts that the wife could participate in and those she needed to sit out—so that no one was resentful about it.

"It doesn't mean that she can't have fun, it doesn't mean that she can't participate, but she shouldn't hold her family back," says Dr. Sitzman. "And I think he's more understanding. He realizes that this isn't going to change, and he's hanging in there. That's a fortunate couple."

Pain can sometimes bring you closer

For some couples, battling with the challenges of chronic pain actually brings them closer together. "We had only been married for six months when my symptoms began," remembers Shelley Kirkpatrick, 32, of Bellefontaine, Ohio, who suffers from severe fibromyalgia. "At the worst of my symptoms my husband was literally bathing me, brushing my teeth."

"Now that we've been married almost four years, he has seen me at my very best and he has seen me at my very worst," says Kirkpatrick. "And through all of those times he has been 100% committed, even though there have been times where he has been very frustrated and overwhelmed and rightfully so."

"We've dealt with financial crises, we've dealt with employment crises, we've dealt with health crises, and those really are some of the worst things that a couple can experience, and we have made it through. So we know that when the next crisis comes, whatever it is, that we can make it through."