relationships

Let Go Let Love

People who are in happy relationships enjoy doing things for their romantic partners. Sometimes things as simple as doing the laundry, making a delicious meal, or surprising one with a favorite movie can put a great smile on a partner's face. However, it is important to remember that in healthy relationships, partners do not love each other only for what they do for each other, but rather they love each other because of the people that they are. Yes, what one does is a part of who one is but people are so much more than a list of their actions.

It can be easy to get caught up in what others do for us and what we are "expected" to do for them.What happens when a relationship gets stripped of "do and does" and who one is--their values, beliefs, history, being--simply remains? Sometimes people who live with chronic physical illness get to experience what happens in romantic relationships when they at times cannot "do" for their partners what they are used to "doing" for them. Two people may have interacted with each other for many years in a routine way. For example, both wake up in the morning, one makes breakfast and the other makes the bed, both go to work, and one then prepares dinner, while the other does the laundry. Or take an example not based on chores but rather leisurely activities--every Saturday one partner goes to support the other at a sports event or a musical performance. Having a chronic physical illness can disturb whatever the individual pattern of interacting is for a given couple. Suddenly one partner may have to lay in bed all day, unable to participate in daily tasks or not being well enough to venture out to the weekly sports event. This disruption in the person's sense of agency and alteration of their role within the partnership can evoke many uncomfortable feelings. Some people may feel a sense of disappointment in themselves for not being able to engage in their daily tasks, leaving double the amount of work for their partners. Others may feel guilty for not being able to participate in fun activities with their partners. Some may feel frightened that their partner will stop loving them because their lives have been greatly altered. There is an infinite amount of feelings a person may experience with respects to their relationship with their partner after having to change their daily routines due to chronic illness--these just scratch the surface.

So what happens? Some people living with chronic physical illness find out that maybe the relationship that they are in is not the right one for them. These people may discover that their function as a "doer for" is what has been loved, rather than all of who they are. Sometimes these people may also initially blame themselves for not satisfying their partners enough to keep them around. Hopefully they eventually learn that it is NOT their fault. Nobody wants a chronic illness and nobody wants to feel unable to do things for themselves or their loves ones. In other instances, people experience being loved in a way that they never knew could exist. These people are told that it does not matter whether or not they can do the things they used to do or go to the places that they used to go. They are told that all that matters is that they are alive and that they are with their loved ones. These people see that even though at times it can be frustrating for their partners to take on more responsibility, overall their partners can take pleasure in caring for them. It is easy to forget that caring for a loved one can grant people a sense of satisfaction and happiness that far surpasses the happiness that comes from receiving.

It is important to never belittle the frustration and pain that comes from having to adjust to living with chronic physical illness. It is also important to remember that if you have a chronic illness it is not your fault. Let your loved ones care for you. If you are in a relationship where your partner makes you feel bad about what you are dealing with everyday, then maybe its time to rethink that relationship. You deserve to be loved and cared for, and you will realize that for someone who truly loves you, allowing him or her to care for you is the biggest thing that you can do for them.

Chronic Illness and Attachment

Imagine—you are living with a chronic physical illness or condition for a year or two and you are doing relatively well. You take medication daily, your physical health is stable, and you have never been hospitalized. You read about support groups and ways that you can maintain a good quality of life by eating right and exercising. You never really forget that you have a condition, but after a while you feel that your life can be normal and that everything is going to be ok. You experience months of symptom-free living, you feel good and strong, and you are proud of your healthy lifestyle.

It is possible to imagine how anyone having the experience just described would feel confident in the future of his or her health and secure in the relationships with his or her self, with loved ones, and with the surrounding environment. Somehow it is easy to overlook how the progress of others living with the same illness affects the sense of security and identity just described. It does.

Now imagine that this secure and confident person hears about another individual who has the same chronic illness, and who unexpectedly ends up in the hospital with complications. This person admitted to the hospital was also someone who was doing “relatively well,” who was also stable on medication, and who was maintaining a healthy quality of life. How does hearing this news affect the person who is still functioning quite well despite having a chronic condition? Some could say this person may feel lucky that they are not in the hospital. Others may worry about their comrade. Many may experience fear; a rattling of the security previously felt and a plunge into a chaotic unpredictability. This unknown does not only alter the confidence in one’s health but may also destabilize a previously secure way of relating to one self and others. Attachment theory can help shed light on what occurs when one’s sense of security is threatened.

Attachment theory describes how emotional bonds to others are formed in early childhood between a child and his or her parent. Broadly speaking, when a parent is dependable, consistent, and responsive to a child’s physical and emotional needs, a sense of security develops in the child. Children with secure attachments will be upset when a parent leaves but experience enough confidence in their emotional bonds with their parent that they feel confident that the parent will return, and therefore are able to relax and explore their surrounding environment until they are reunited with the parent. Children whose parent is persistently emotionally unavailable, emotionally overinvolved, rejecting, neglectful, or abusive are likely to develop insecure attachments. These children will either have no interest in a relationship with their parent, or will excessively cling to their parent and become extremely distressed in their parent’s absence. Following these insecurities, these children may feel less comfortable exploring their surrounding environment and new relationships. It is postulated that the attachments formed in early childhood usually persist in later life, so that a child with a secure attachment style grows into an adult with a secure attachment style.

You may be wondering what this has to do with chronic physical illness. Imagine—a person living with chronic physical illness, who has felt secure in his or her relationships for the majority of life, is suddenly hit with the unpredictability brick. At first you wonder, “will I die, will my friends abandon me, will I disappoint others?” After some time you experience a period of fairly good health and your foundation of security in relationships allows you to maintain trust in the strength of your relational bonds. Then one day this person finds out that someone with the same condition becomes very sick and is hospitalized. There is an earthquake. The secure attachment style starts to crack. This person starts to wonder, “what if this happens to me” and “anyone could go at any time, I could go at any time.” The previously secure emotional bonds begin to feel more tenuous and fluid. The sense of stability and consistency, originally provided by a parent during childhood becomes threatened. Maybe some react by isolating themselves, or others may fluctuate between clinging to their loved ones out of fear of losing them and becoming very angry with their loved ones for not always being able to be perfectly present. A person who once had a secure attachment style may appear as someone with an insecure attachment style. Trauma—trauma shakes up one’s sense of security in self and in others—the trauma of living with chronic illness and witnessing what happens to others with the same illness, is no exception.

Does one ever really lose their secure base or is it temporarily challenged in the face of trauma? Perhaps people with a secure attachment style who are diagnosed with a chronic illness cope better and maintain healthy relationships with more ease than people with fundamentally insecure attachments. Can the original attachment style really change or does the person living with a chronic illness at times struggle with so much that their underlying security is temporarily forgotten and with time once again remembered? I would think that the attachments formed early on with one’s parents are the most powerful bonds experienced in life and that a secure emotional relationship with the parent will remain and carry a person living with chronic illness through difficult times. On the other hand, I do believe in the possibility of change through new relationships, such as the change that occurs in psychotherapy when previously insecure styles can evolve into more secure ones. That is the positive spin, but if that can occur it could be possible to conceive of the opposite occurring as well—secure to insecure. Maybe in the end it does not really matter whether or not the attachment style really changes, but rather the importance lies in understanding the experience of what occurs to one’s world and one’s sense of security in relationships with self and others when living with a chronic illness.