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Couples and Relationship Satisfaction During Illness

How to maintain well-being and a good relationship during serious illness.

Key points

  • According to a recent study, individual responses to illness within a relationship are related to well-being.
  • Patients who experienced partners as emotionally supportive and having helped discuss the illness experienced greater relationship satisfaction.
  • Adjusting coping styles may improve the quality of life during a serious illness.

Why do some couples successfully navigate through serious life-threatening illnesses while others experience significant relationship dissatisfaction?

I have seen many couples grow closer following a diagnosis while others end up divorcing. There are a few major issues at play here. They include survival concerns, emotional well-being, and the coping style of the couple. I have often wondered why couples who seem so happy during a relationship are often unable to see their way through a diagnosis.

A study by Paschali et al. (2021) shed light on the issues raised above. In this European study, the participants comprised 92 women who had received a recent diagnosis of cancer which was, in most cases, breast cancer. They had all been with their partners for at least two years. The coping style of the diagnosed partner and the dyadic (coping style of the couple) were assessed as they related to the emotional well-being and the relationship satisfaction of the diagnosed partner.

It is no surprise that the ill partners experienced a higher level of emotional well-being when they utilized positive coping skills, which included trying to maintain a positive outlook and the use of helpful problem-solving skills. These coping skills were far superior to passive coping, including negative rumination, avoidance and denial, and hopelessness.

The dyadic (coping style of the couple) was equally important. The patients who experienced their partners as emotionally supportive and having helped discuss the illness experienced greater relationship satisfaction than those whose partners lacked the ability or willingness to engage in such supportive behaviors. Individual and dyadic coping styles were related to each other.

The authors pointed out that a more positive individual outlook leads to a better response from a partner. Likewise, a more negative individual coping style was negatively associated with positive dyadic coping.

Clearly, this study has implications for a couple's style of coping with all sorts of adverse life events. Additionally, the results of this study may serve to guide therapist interactions as they help couples develop helpful individual and dyadic coping skills. Both the life of the patient and the life of the relationship are at stake here.

Future studies should also focus on the well-being of the partner supporting the recently diagnosed partner. Their lives are deeply affected in so many ways.


Paschali,A.,Palli,A.,Thomadakis,C.,&Karademis,E.C. (2021)The Interplay between individual and dyadic/common coping in female patients with cancer. European Journal of Psychology,80(4),143-151.

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