Fibro and Your Marriage
Any marriage or intimate relationship has its shares of normal ups and downs. But being diagnosed with a condition like fibromyalgia creates dramatic additional challenges and strains. When you have fibromyalgia, your spouse has to accept you as a somewhat different person, someone whose energy may be limited and whose skills may be reduced. For some people, this transition can be difficult. Your spouse may mistake your fatigue for a lack of interest in what's going on in his life and your pain as an excuse for getting out of chores. It may be hard for him to realize and accept just how sick you are, especially if you have no outward symptoms.
Enduring a medical condition like fibromyalgia tests a couple's resilience. If you're lucky, your partner will make an effort to understand what you are experiencing and ask how he or she can help. Some people, like Gina, are blessed with a spouse who does all he can to help.
Although few of her extended family members understood fibromyalgia, Gina's husband Richard always did. “My husband is a godsend,” says Gina, who has had fibro for more than twenty years. “He looks in my eyes and knows exactly what's going on. Even when I'm trying to tell him that I'm okay, he can always tell when I'm not.” During her worst battles with fibro, Richard worked a full-time job, then came home and made dinner. It was at his urging that Gina stopped working for a while.
Not everyone has a spouse like Richard. But you can help build your spouse's empathy by educating him about the disease and keeping lines of communication wide open. It can also help to bring your partner to doctor's appointments. Not only will your partner develop a better understanding of your illness, but he may be better equipped to help you make decisions about it if he's involved in your medical care.
Don't forget that your partner is coming to terms with fibromyalgia as well. He may not be able to understand exactly how you feel and may be uncertain of how to approach you. Should he offer help? Give you advice? Should he talk about your condition at all or act as if nothing was any different? That's why you need to set the tone of your relationship early on. After all, you're the one confronting the pain, fatigue, and limitations of fibromyalgia. Only you can tell your partner what you want and need from him.
Whether it's asking your partner to handle the housecleaning on your bad days or expressing your concerns over your ability to keep working, talking to your partner is more critical now than ever. If you don't want him to offer you advice, tell him so. If you'd rather he not discuss it with his friends, let him know that. Don't expect that love alone will produce the kind of understanding you need. You have to speak up and make yourself heard.
At the same time, be attentive to your spouse, too. Make sure your partner is taking care of himself. Remind him to exercise, eat well, and pursue activities that he enjoys on his own. Don't expect him to devote every waking moment to tending to your needs. And make sure you express appreciation for your partner's support. A simple thank you can sometimes go a long way.
No one wants to help a constant whiner who isn't doing her best to take care of her health. So make sure you give it your all when it comes to making doctor appointments, exercising, and taking your medications. By showing others that you're making a sincere effort to get well, you'll win their support.
It's also important to realize that there will be times when your partner's compassion is tapped out. Any person can give only so much support, and your needs may overwhelm his capacity. Unfortunately, it's easy to interpret this as abandonment, prompting a response from you that can lead to a major argument. Instead, agree beforehand to a term he can use when he's used up, such as, “Honey, I'd love to be here for you now, but my batteries are drained. Can you call a friend?” By agreeing beforehand, you'll understand what's going on with him and accept it much more easily.
Cozying up to your spouse or partner may be the last thing on your mind when you're battling fibromyalgia. Painful muscles, headaches (real ones!), fatigue, and other symptoms can make it hard to muster the energy for sex. Add to that the effects of medications and the stress of being ill, and you have a recipe for low sex drive.
Certain medications can zap your libido and make it difficult for you to enjoy sex. The antidepressant Prozac, for example, can interfere with orgasms and dampen desire. If you suspect a medication may be affecting your sex drive, talk to your doctor about switching to another drug.
It's not at all unusual for couples dealing with fibromyalgia to have problems in their sex life. Having fibromyalgia can affect self-esteem and cause depression, which can make it difficult to even think about having sex. Even if the desire is there, it can be difficult if your muscles hurt or if you suffer from vulvodynia. In some cases, sex can mean heightened mental alertness and lack of sleep. In other people, sex can cause more pain.
But the absence of sex in an intimate relationship can be a threat to that relationship. To sustain an active sex life, keep your lines of communication open. Let your partner know how fibromyalgia has affected your desire and ability to have sex. Discuss ways that you do enjoy being touched and other ways of being intimate that may not involve intercourse. Explore different positions for having sex that may be less painful. Do not have sex when you're in the throes of pain, since that may only build resentment and disrupt the relationship.
If necessary, try planning for sex. Granted, it may not be as exciting or spontaneous. But planning can make it happen. On the days that you do have sex, conserve your energy during the day so that you will be less fatigued at night. Make time for a warm bath so that you can reduce pain and stiffness.
Couples can also practice a technique called sensate focusing, a type of erotic intimacy that involves different types of touch while delaying touch of the erogenous zones. It can be very helpful to do gentle caresses, or touching with a soft object like a cotton ball, feather, or warm water. Sensate focusing helps get you back into your body in a pleasant, desirable way and can open the door to greater sexual intimacy.
Remember, keeping the intimacy alive in a relationship doesn't have to be simply about sex. The key is to spend time doing things together that forge intimacy, like snuggling on a couch or holding hands while taking a walk. However, if you do have the energy and desire for sex, then by all means, indulge. Orgasms release feel-good endorphins that can help temporarily distract you from your pain.
Communication: The Key
Not everyone has an easy time expressing feelings. Some people may keep difficult emotions bottled up. Others may have a hard time asking others for help. Still others may know what they want to say but have a hard time putting it into a clear message. Stella, for example, is still embarrassed to admit when fibro interferes with her plans.
Stella has suffered from fibromyalgia for about fifteen years. Six years ago, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, too. Though her family is well aware of her limitations, she still isn't comfortable discussing it with some of her friends. Not long ago, she and her husband cancelled their ballroom dance lessons because her legs and feet hurt. When her friend called to ask where they were, Stella said she was having problems with her health. “But I felt funny admitting it,” Stella says. “It felt like a cop-out.” She only recently began accepting help for the annual Thanksgiving dinner, which she used to prepare by herself. Now everyone brings a dish, Stella says.
As Stella finally learned, the only way to make your wishes heard is to speak up. If friends want you to join them on an outing you really have no energy for, you need to say so. If your boss expects you to stay late, and you're too tired, you'll need to let him know and work out an alternative. When your kids want you to take them to the mall, and you can't muster the strength, you have to tell them that you simply can't do it. Don't expect others to be mind readers.
Some people have a difficult time asking for help. But when you have a disease like fibromyalgia, you will need help from others, especially loved ones. Get in the habit of asking directly for what you want, without making someone feel guilty, playing the martyr, or antagonizing the recipient of your message. The key is to describe exactly what you need and what you expect from the other person. And to ensure you get the help you want, toss in some appreciation for the other person's efforts. A little charm goes a long way.