How Chronic Pain Changes Family Dynamics

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

Chronic pain can have a strong impact on the relationships we have with our families. Most of us are glad and appreciative when we have families that help us get through some really tough days and make life more enjoyable. Unfortunately, for many pain sufferers the support of family is lacking.

Chronic pain can make you angry, moody and intolerant.  As a result, we sometimes take our frustrations out on those closest to us.  Sometimes we just want to be left alone and our loved ones, even though they have good intentions, won’t leave us alone.  Further, we can feel guilty for what we put our family through and try to make up for it, often feeling like we fall short.

As a single mother who lives with chronic pain, I feel like I fall short sometimes when it comes to being there for my boys.  I hurt on most days, but on the days where the pain is tolerable, I do everything I can to be there for them. On days when the pain is bad, I just want to be left alone.  I feel guilty my boys don’t have the mother I “think” they need and deserve.

Some days, I tell them I am hurting and pray they forgive me for being irritable, tired and wanting to be left alone. Other days, I feel like a version of myself I can’t be proud of.

It might be something different that gives you guilt and makes you feel like you fall short.  Perhaps you don’t speak up about your pain because you are afraid to be a “complainer.” Maybe you have spoken out, and felt your family wasn’t supportive. Or maybe your family reached out and you just prefer not to be a burden them.

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Family Roles Change

Many people with chronic pain feel their families do not understand or believe their pain.  I, too, have felt that way.  This is upsetting because chronic pain is invisible.  It changes from day-to-day and there is no way to prove the extent of it or how to get others to believe it. 

The person who is physically hurting may start taking on a dependent status, which can lead to depression and feelings of helplessness.  Another family member may start to handle the majority of the family responsibilities and start to feel resentful. 

All these factors -- alone and combined -- cause stress on even the best relationships, leading to arguments, conflicts, isolation, withdrawal and discord in the family structure.

Chronic Pain and Marriage

Chronic pain is the worst on couples. Studies show relationships where one partner has health issues are more likely to end compared to those where health is not an issue.

A 2014 study from the University of Michigan looked at 20 years of data on over 2,700 married couples and found that 75% of the marriages in which a spouse had a long-term health problems ended in divorce. Divorce was even more common when the wife got sick. 

The partner in pain isn’t the only one struggling.  In fact, according to the Caregiver Action Network, spouses who become caregivers are six times more likely to become depressed.

It is difficult to adapt when your spouse or partner develops a health condition or gets injured, resulting in permanent pain.  After all, everyday life has changed and so has the future you planned together. Both partners have to make adjustments, which can lead to fear and anxiety.  Healthy spouses can also try to shield themselves from the reality of chronic illness, adding further stress and strain to the relationship.

My Experience

I wish I could share some good advice and personal experiences on how to make family relationships work despite chronic pain. But I can only commiserate.

I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia in 2008, and everything went downhill from there.  My marriage didn’t survive chronic illness.  My family didn’t understand and they still don’t. I have been depressed – even suicidal.   I have struggled in more ways than I am willing to admit.

Dealing with lack of support from the people who are supposed to be there for you isn’t easy by any means.  I have been fortunate because I made many new friends since have being diagnosed, who understand my struggles and who have been there for me when I couldn’t rely on family. 

And even when people bailed on me, I learned to support and hold myself up.  I got help from a professional in dealing with my depression and learned to cope with the many challenges chronic illness and pain brought into my life.  I take better care of myself because I need to be there for my boys, and I remind myself daily these experiences make me stronger, wiser and better, with or without family support.  

The Take Away

All families face obstacles, but some just aren’t strong enough to bear the fallout from chronic pain and illness.   The extent of family disruption depends on the seriousness of the pain and illness, as well as the parties involved. In some cases, major health issues bring families together. For others, even the simplest challenges tear families apart.

The fact is, families take work.  And we always have two choices.  We either keep trying or we give up.  Sadly, too many give up.

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Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.