Helping Couples Cope with Illness and Pain

In Female Pelvic Pain, Male Pelvic Pain by Stephanie Prendergast1 Comment

By Guest Blogger Barbara Kivowitz, co-author (with Roanne Weisman) of: IN SICKNESS AS IN HEALTH: Helping Couples Cope with the Complexities of Illness


When we commit to our partner in sickness and in health, chances are we are paying very little attention to the in sickness part of the vow. Yet the CDC estimates that almost one out of every two adults will have a chronic disease in his or her lifetime.

My co-author (Roanne Weisman) and I interviewed couples and experts to write In Sickness As In Health: Helping Couples Cope with the Complexities of Illness (Roundtree Press 2013) because this was the guidebook we wished we could have read when we went through our own illness and pain experiences with our partners.

We were stunned both by how severe an impact illness had on our relationships and by how big a role our partners played in our eventual recovery.  Our partners were our main supporters.  They held the hope.  They supplemented our memories at medical appointments. They took over chores.  They sat with our darkest fears and never gave up on us. Not all partners we interviewed knew how to carry each other — many learned, and some did not.

How does illness affect the relationship?

Illness, or pain, acts as a giant stop sign.  The routines that typically drive the relationship – work, children, meals, laundry, chores – get derailed as doctors, hospitals, and medication become the new focal points. Illness immediately becomes the third partner in the relationship, and its needs supersede the couple’s.  Illness decides what you can eat, if you can socialize or travel, even when you can sleep.

This can lead to estrangement, or it can lead to deepened communication and connection.  As one expert we interviewed said, “Illness can be the jolt that removes the dullness from our lives and unveils the potential.”  One couple had a roller coaster relationship for decades, made more turbulent when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  It wasn’t until her doctor told them she had a few days to live that they decided to jump off the roller coaster and get married.   She lived for nine more months, and they both said it was the happiest time in their lives.

Pain and illness exhaust both partners.  Many feelings are swirling – loneliness, fear for the future, anger at the ill partner for getting sick, resentment at the well partner for being well – and most of them remain unspoken.  Many couples fear that speaking about anxieties or frustrations causes harm, when in fact the unspoken often makes the couple grow farther apart, just when they need each other the most.

Below is an example from our book of one couples’ experience with chronic illness.

Two years into marriage, one partner developed pain in her limbs, then her torso, until, as she said, “Even my hair hurts.” As no doctor could help her, and her suffering worsened, she began to contemplate suicide.  She kept this secret from her partner for fear that it would overwhelm him; but the more she kept her suicidal thoughts inside, the more they depleted her.

One day, she just couldn’t keep her secret any more. She told her partner she was thinking of killing herself.  Luckily, this couple had been in therapy and was skilled at communicating deeply.  His reaction: “Of course you are feeling suicidal.  Who wouldn’t if they were going through what you are.  Tell me more.”

His calm acceptance and invitation to disclose further allowed her to share more. Each time she paused, he simply said, “Say more.”  She was able to empty herself of the hopelessness that was driving her suicidal thinking.  And he was able to hold her emotions and her pain with her.  When she finished, he told her that he had unwavering hope that they would find help for her.  Three months later they did find a specialist who diagnosed her with a severe form of fibromyalgia and started her on a course of medication that helped.

 How can couples strengthen their connection?

  • Speak the unspeakable. The unspoken doesn’t go away; it just goes underground and acts up in inflammatory ways.  Speaking the fears and frustrations aloud strips them of their subversive power.  Set aside 20 minutes and take turns telling each other your truth, with compassion (not blame), while the other partner listens deeply.  Both partners need this attention.
  • Practice Deep Listening, which is listening with empathy without trying to solve the problem or reacting to what your partner is saying.  It is absorbing what you hear and finding a way to hold it with understanding.  Deep Listening is part of “speaking the unspeakable”
  • Sit in silence.  Take five minutes and sit in silence together while thinking about what joined you in the first place and what you still treasure.  The silence acts as a protective shell, keeping fear and negativity at bay, while you reconnect.
  • Working with a counselor to strengthen your resilience can be helpful.


Your partner can be your strongest supporter. There are many ways of building needed connections.  The key is to recognize that the old ways are often not sufficient and new ways need to be actively introduced.  Living with illness and pain is a hard load to carry.  Two hearts and two minds can make the load not only lighter, but can also drive the relationship to higher levels of connection and intimacy.

BEK Head shot 2_edited-1About the Author 

Barbara Kivowitz, is a psychotherapist and business consultant. She worked as a therapist in a community mental health center and as an advisor to a hospice program and has had experience helping couples facing illness. In addition, she has authored several articles on couples and illness and on living with pain, one of which was published in Women’s Day and another in the journal of the American Pain Foundation. Since 2007 she has blogged about couples and illness at Her blog has been nominated for best literary blog and best patient blog. She is on the board of trustees of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. She has a graduate degree from Harvard University in Romance Languages and Literatures and an MSW from Simmons College.


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