If you've ever been in pain, you know how it can affect our relationships. Whether it's an infected tooth, a headache, or anything else, we're not our best at relating to the people around us.
For those dealing with chronic pain, the toll on relationships can be severe. Both partners tend to suffer as the pain takes center stage, crowding out other parts of life.
Based on a recent study, some of the common ways chronic pain affects couples include:
What's more, a couple's conflict can get in the way of treatment for chronic pain, leading to greater dropout. Thus a program that improves one's relationship may lead to better outcomes.
Since both halves of a couple are affected by chronic pain, it makes sense to include both partners in treatment. A team of researchers at Wayne State University recently did just that, developing a couples-based treatment program called Mindful Living and Relating (MLR).
The program aims to increase psychological flexibility (each person's ability to act with greater flexibility) as well as relational flexibility (breaking unhelpful patterns of interacting with one's partner).
Although the program was tested among a group of couples who deal with chronic pain, the principles of the treatment apply to any couple in which one partner suffers with a chronic condition.
If you've ever had someone truly listen to you, you know it can be a powerful experience. More often we listen with one ear while doing or thinking about something else. The first component of MLR provided training in mindfulness to help couples focus their full attention on their partner. (Chronic pain was one of the first conditions for which training in mindfulness was shown to be helpful.)
The program started with three individual mindfulness practices:
Once the couples had a foundation in mindful awareness through these individual practices, they began joint mindfulness exercises:
Mindful handholding: This simple and intimate exercise involved focusing on the sensations of holding the other person's hand; it allowed spouses to practice giving their full attention to the other person.
These exercises proved to be very effective for couples in which one partner often feels invalidated and the other struggles to provide continual empathy. They also helped couples reverse the habit of avoiding emotionally difficult conversations.
It's easy for any of us—not just couples with chronic pain—to experience a disconnect between how we want to live and how we're living. The many stresses and strains of life can sidetrack us from our best intentions, allowing the important parts of our lives to wither.
Thus the other half of the treatment focused on "values-based action" to deliberately cultivate a rich and meaning-filled life. The treatment included:
The program tended to produce relatively modest improvements in pain. The more dramatic change came in a person's relationship with her pain, as it had less of an impact on well-being and activity level.
In other words, MLR increased one's ability to live the life one wanted, even while dealing with chronic pain.
Couples also had decreases in their depression symptoms and improvements in their relationship satisfaction. By living with greater intention in their relationship, they were able to start feeling more of the closeness they had shared in years past.
Any major stressor can deplete a couple's resources for relating to each other. Thus this type of program can be a lifeline for couples dealing with other chronic health conditions or other kinds of stress.
In fact, there doesn't even have to be a particular "problem" for couples to benefit from these practices. Being a better listener for our partner, enjoying the moment, living out our values—these are healthy practices for any couple.
When two people are joined in marriage they often vow to love and cherish the other person "in sickness and in health." It's a powerful pledge, letting our partner know we'll be with them no matter what the future brings.
Living and relating mindfully can support that promise, helping us be the partner we want to be—even in the hardest times.
Cano, A., Corley, A. M., Clark, S. M., & Martinez, S. C. (2017). A couple-based psychological treatment for chronic pain and relationship distress. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. doi:10.1016/j.cbpra.2017.02.003