Is Chronic Pain Ruining Your Relationship?


Athena Champneys, 37, has been in near-constant pain since 2003, when she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain and tenderness. Her husband hasn’t always been 100% sympathetic, however.

“I was in so much pain that I couldn’t bend over to put on my own shoes or socks,” recalls Champneys, who lives in Salt Lake City. “And my husband was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! Get up and deal!’”

Fibromyalgia affects an estimated 5 million Americans (80% to 90% of them women), but until relatively recently many doctors have pooh-poohed the condition. Women like Champneys have long been told that the pain is “all in their head,” a message that their partners have sometimes taken to heart as well.

Champneys’ husband, Adam, acknowledges that he found himself growing skeptical as Athena grew more disabled by her condition. “I started doubting whether it was real,” says the 36-year-old real estate agent. “I even started doubting our relationship, because I was having to do a lot of the same things for her that I have to do for our children. She was in her 30s, but it was like taking care of an 80-year-old grandma.”

The Champneys’ experience isn’t unique. Chronic pain—whether it stems from fibromyalgia, back pain, arthritis, or some other condition—can have a toxic effect on relationships, especially if one partner is skeptical about the source or the severity of the pain, and the other feels that he or she isn’t receiving the proper understanding and support.

“People who have chronic illnesses desire support from their loved ones,” says Annmarie Cano, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Wayne State University, in Detroit. “We all want to feel loved and cared for, but if the people around us are not supporting us the way we want them to, we might become resentful and feel like we are entitled to support.”

But let’s face it: Hearing about pain can be a drag, and if you’re the one in pain, the strongest potential sources of support—your partner, spouse, or kids—may simply tune you out when you talk about it. The good news is that how you talk about pain matters. There are things you can do that can help you win—not lose—your loved ones’ support.

Why expecting more help can backfire
Cano has studied the unhealthy dynamics that pain can create among couples like the Champneys.

In a study in the December 2009 issue of the journal Pain, Cano and her colleagues followed 106 couples in which one partner had a chronic pain condition, such as arthritis or back pain (the most common condition). The researchers found that people in pain who felt entitled to more support from their partners were more likely to have excessive or exaggerated perceptions and thoughts about the extent of their pain and the disability it caused. (This is known as catastrophizing.)

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