My Wife has Fibromyalgia
Note: throughout this hub and in the title I refer to the sufferer as “she” and the healthy spouse as “he”. This is not to suggest invalidity in same-sex relationships or those where the healthy/sick relationship is reversed but simply to avoid confusion.
It all starts with a diagnosis. Odds are, since FMS is poorly researched and poorly understood that you will both doubt this diagnosis because, “It couldn’t happen to us.” You’ll both search the web for other explanations and you’ll find them. Viruses, bacteria, the wrong food, not enough vitamins, not enough exercise, being overweight, depression, anxiety, menopause, age… the list goes on. Eventually you and your spouse will have to come to terms with the fact that Fibromyalgia is real and that she has it and, worse yet, that it’s never going away.
I know that when I first started experiencing symptoms of FMS my husband’s first thought was, “Is this real?” It’s not something I fault him for. When someone complains of pain and fatigue so debilitating that they can’t get around their house or even dry themselves after a shower and yet they look completely healthy it’s hard to take in. You see the person you married, energetic and pain-free and yet they are claiming to experience pain that sounds…well, unbelievable.
Then there are doctor’s visits. As you sit next to your spouse you no doubt hear doctors telling her to lose some weight, start an exercise routine, take some anti-inflammatories and stop worrying. There may be a part of you that wonders why she can’t do just that. No matter how much you want to support your spouse you want so badly for her pain to be so easily solved. But then it’s not.
When she tried to exercise she claimed the pain only got worse. The pills did nothing, she’s trying to lose weight, maybe she even does, but it doesn’t seem to help. Then there are tests. Blood tests, scans, x-rays. The answer is always the same, “Everything looks good. You seem completely healthy.” So, why doesn’t she feel completely healthy?
Finally you find a doctor with an answer, with a diagnosis and although you’re so glad that the searching is finally over the diagnosis seems almost worse than the uncertainty. Your spouse has a chronic, incurable condition. She will be in terrible pain for the rest of her life; she will be tired and sore, confused and achy. There’s a huge list of symptoms that the doctor spins off. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
You want to protect her, fix her, care for her like you’ve always done. And when you can’t do that you can’t believe it’s real. If it can’t be fixed it can’t exist. Or if it exists it will certainly go away, if only you and your spouse try hard enough, it must certainly go away. But your denial and hers do nothing for the pain and eventually you have to face the diagnosis.
Your spouse has FMS and because you love her, so do you.
When a person is diagnosed with FMS it’s often hard for their spouse to believe. Can a person who looks completely healthy really be as sick as they claim? Could they possibly be feeling all that with no outward sign?
It’s in this paradox of the ‘invisible illness’ that your trust in your spouse becomes so important. Because you can’t see it, and in fact no test outside of brain imaging can see it, you have to trust her. When she tells you she’s in pain you have to silence that voice in your head that tells you she’s just being lazy, she doesn’t want to the laundry, she would rather lie in bed and read. As much as reading may be preferred to doing laundry believe me she would rather be healthy and do chores every minute of every day than lay in bed for all time reading her favourite books or watching her favourite movies and dealing with this pain.
The first and most important hurtle that you’ll have to get over is that of trusting your spouse when she tells you she can’t do something. She may be able to push beyond her pain and accomplish the one thing, but she’ll likely be paying for it for days afterward.
It’s not just you that needs to deal with issues of trust. Odds are your spouse was a self-sufficient woman before she got sick. If she wanted something done she could just jump up and do it. She probably had a job and a paycheque. Suddenly she has had the ability to take care of herself pulled out from under her and she is probably scared and confused.
She knows that she is no longer the woman that you fell in love with, that things have changed and she is probably afraid, on some level, that you don’t want a spouse who’s sick. That you will grow to (or already do) resent her and her illness. It’s important for you to help her understand that you still love her. If the tables were turned and you got sick wouldn’t she take care of you? My husband says this to me whenever I wonder if my FMS is too much for him. I answer with surprise, “Well, of course!” and he says, “Why should it be any different?”
Roles at home
Before she got sick you and your spouse had a system. Things got done around the house, dishes cleaned, laundry washed, children fed by some collaboration or other. Maybe she cooked and you did laundry. Maybe she vacuumed and you cleaned the bathroom. Whatever roles you have lived with throughout your life together it’s all changed now.
The pain makes her ability to help around the house inconsistent. Odds are she feels guilty about this and wants to push through her symptoms and get everything done that she once did but by now you’ve seen what that does to her. You’ve seen the terrible flare ups and debilitating fatigue that comes from pushing too far and the last thing you want is for her to go through that.
But, you have a full time job maybe even two if your spouse had to quit hers. Is it so terrible that you get frustrated when you come home from work and dishes aren’t done and dinner is not made and the dog hasn’t been walked and the kids need baths and…and…and…?
It’s not so terrible. It’s completely normal. It’s nothing to feel guilty about. If and when you face feelings of resentment and frustrations, probably followed by guilt try (with most sensitive wording) to express to your wife that things aren’t working for you this way. If the old system is impossible than you need a new one.
Guess what? She probably feels terrible about it too. She hates seeing chores go undone that used to take her a few quick minutes. She hates having to cut out luxuries that your two incomes once easily afforded. She hates seeing you so exhausted from trying to take care of everything. Just like you she misses being able to sit in a clean house every once in a while and relax.
At times when this frustration is effecting you both take a few deep breaths and back pedal. Remember that no one is getting what they want in this situation. Try to remember that everyone’s life is harder now, that no one is at fault. Try to put yourself in your spouse’s shoes.
There is a way to fix this problem.
No one wants to be the healthy spouse saying, “Well, couldn’t you at least have done a few dishes?” No one wants to be the sick spouse saying, “I really need you to vacuum, I just can’t do it anymore.”
So, discuss what you can do. If she can still work a part-time job but is debilitated the rest of her free time as a result see if you can cut down living expenses to a point where you both feel comfortable so that she can still have good days. What chores can she do? Dishes? Brooming? Dog walking? What chores are infinitely easier for you?
Vocalize the things that are a necessity for you, the things that must be taken care of. Maybe you can’t stand the sight of dirty dishes but dust and weeds don’t bother you so much? Maybe she can’t handle the sight of an unmade bed. Take stock of the things that must happen and work together on being more laidback about the rest. Both your lives are so much harder now. If she’s having a rare good day and you are not too tired after work maybe just ignore nagging chores and cuddle on the couch.
Sit down together and discuss the things in your life that now cause more pain or frustration than they’re worth. For your sick spouse life has very little enjoyment left and the last things she wants is to spend her few good days exacerbating pain. You are under way more stress than you are used to with work, an ill spouse and all the extra responsibilities that entails. Where can you simplify?
- Maybe your high-maintenance yard can be replaced by no-maintenance shrubs and bark?
- Can a friend, family member or child help out occasionally with little things that would ease some of the weight in your mind?
- Can you afford a maid every week or two for heavy cleaning? Or a dog walker?
-Could you work together to prepare huge chillies or stews on your days off so that you don’t have to work too hard to have a hot, healthy dinner during the week?
- Could a friend pick up heavy groceries for you on their own shopping trips and drop them off on the way home?
There are many options for simplifying life that can lower your stress as a couple and make your lives easier.
Allowing your spouse to keep her dignity
There’s no way to get around it, being sick is an undignified way to be. The diagnosis and doctors visits are bad enough; with her blood being taken, her body being poked at and the constant barrage of invasive questions. The indignity of being sick will likely follow her everywhere.
She will sometimes feel guilty about her inability to help. She may feel unattractive and inadequate as a sexual partner when she has to stop or refuse intimacy because of her pain or fatigue. She may feel embarrassed about the high pain that requires her to be naked for hours at a time because she can’t handle the feel of her clothing on her skin. She may have times when she needs you to help her dry her hair after a shower because she can’t lift her arms.
Any combination of these things can leave your spouse feeling awkward, embarrassed, inadequate and undignified and though you won’t always be able to help her feel like the incredible woman you know she is there are many little things you can do that help her to deal with these changes in her life.
- Remember, and remind her, how much effort she puts into doing the things she does. It doesn’t matter that now ‘trying her hardest’ means doing only a fraction of what she could once do.
- Remind her that if you were the sick one, and she was healthy she would certainly be there to help you through it all.
- If you can help it try not to respond to requests for help with looks of indignation, exasperation or incredulity.
-Try to remember that it’s probably not easy for her to ask for help with things she could once do on her own.
- If you can try to sometimes precipitate her needs so that she doesn’t always find herself asking and begins to feel like a nag.
- When it comes to problems with intimacy and inadequacy try to imagine how it might feel if you were suffering from pain or incompetence. Be respectful and compassionate when she’s not able to enjoy sex. She probably misses it just as much as you.
- Try not to think of her as a sick woman but as the woman you love, who happens to be sick.
- Believe her whenever she talks about her symptoms. This will mean so much to someone suffering from an invisible illness.
Dealing with guilt
Ah, guilt. Most of us are constantly bombarded by it. We don’t exercise enough, make enough money, eat the right food, spend enough time with our kids, call our mother-in-laws etc.
In a situation where one spouse get’s sick you are both likely to discover whole new worlds of guilt. You will likely feel bad about your occasional frustration that your spouse can’t do the things she once did. Or about the fact that you can’t fix her no matter what you do. I know that for my husband one of the hardest things about my having FM is having to see me have FM and being powerless to stop it.
She will likely feel guilty about the fact that she can’t do what she once could. She may feel bad about how much time she spends lying down or about exercising instead of cleaning. She’ll hate watching you get tired from working more, either at home or at your job (maybe both), and blame herself.
Is any of this guilt rational? Nope. Neither of you can help that she’s sick and odds are most of the time you both do everything you can to make your lives easier to live. That doesn’t change the fact that you’ll both probably experience this guilt at some point.
The best medicine here, as with so many other aspects of relationships, is open, honest, level-headed communication. When you’re feeling particularly guilty express it. Try language like, “It makes me feel guilty when…” instead of, “You make me feel guilty when…”. Knowing that your spouse is feeling this guilt too will go a long way in being able to accept it in yourself.
Another option, instead of expressing your guilt whenever you feel it is to remind your partner how grateful you are that they do the things they do. Say thank you when she does the dishes, because odds are it hurt.
If you’re feeling like your extra work is going unappreciated let your spouse know in the kindest way you can. If she’s being pushy about something that’s gone undone let her know that you’re trying your best to do what needs to be done, but you’ve taken on a lot more responsibilities than you once had.
Be aware that you are both suffering
It’s very important for both you and your spouse to understand that though she’s the one that’s sick both your lives are very affected by this illness. Yes, her daily life is extremely hard now. People who suffer from fibromyalgia are 9 times more likely to commit suicide than healthy people. This illness is it’s own little hell but your life is harder now too. By staying by her side you’ve agreed to deal with FMS every day to a lesser but still very real degree. It’s important that your spouse appreciates the challenges that her diagnosis causes you to face and appreciates all that extra work you’re doing.
Maintaining your relationship
So your spouse is sick, she’s still your spouse. Your partner in everything. You still want to feel like a person in love. You both want to be able to share the affection and romance that you had when she was healthy. FMS certainly doesn’t have to take that away, but it is going to change the ways you kindle that fire.
Dinner and a movie may no longer be a feasibility, sitting that long can be hard on her body, the sound and lights of a movie theatre may cause migraines but there are plenty of other options. Try:
- Renting a movie and cuddling on the couch.
- Take a bath together.
- Go to bed 30 minutes early so that you can snuggle and chat.
- Make a date out of take-out food by eating it in bed even when she’s feeling well enough to sit at the table.
- Try to avoid ice cream or coffee as sugar and caffeine can increase pain and end your date early.
- Formal clothing can be painful for your fibromite spouse. Casual dates where she can where jogging pants if she has to will make her pain more manageable.
- Used to go dancing? Dance in your living room in bare feet (heels hurt!). Hell, do it naked (clothing can hurt) and sit down after one song so she can rest.
- Read to each other out of great novels or books of poetry.
Be flexible about dates and plans as her pain is unpredictable. She may even need to rest for a day or two beforehand to make a date possible if your plans are more adventurous (for her dinner out may be plenty adventurous now).
Or a date may need to be cut short. That doesn’t necessarily mean the romance has to end. If you go out for dinner and her pain causes you to go home don’t flip on the TV. Turn down the lights (easier on her eyes and more romantic) light a candle and whisper about your past and your future. Make her laugh, it will help her pain.
Getting time for yourself
Now, more then ever, you and your spouse need to come together and work as a team and working effectively together can sometimes mean spending a little time apart. Both of you need some time to relax and refresh by doing something alone. For you that doesn’t mean mowing the lawn while she’s inside and for her it doesn’t mean dealing with a flare-up alone. Take some time when you’re not completely exhausted to do something you enjoy. Take an hour to play video games, surf your favourite message boards, work out, cook, hike, have some drinks with your friends; whatever helps you de-stress. Encourage her to use some of her higher-functioning time to do something she enjoys as well. For her something this simple may even help to reduce her pain.
When your spouse has fibromyalgia your life and hers have changed forever. In many (okay most) ways these changes are challenging but you still have your whole lives together and there are many simple changes you can make and simple things to keep in mind that will keep your relationship solid and fun through this adversity. This hub is a start, and not everything will apply. You and your spouse should commit to finding personal ways to make your life better. You don’t have to fight against her illness, it’s not going away, so instead work with it and make sure you find ways to still enjoy the life you have, even if it’s not the one you were expecting.