When a partner is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), it might seem like a once-perfect relationship is suddenly put to the test and facing new stressors.
“There are many stressors that might come up when one partner has MS,” says Michael Pappano, MSW, LCSW, social worker at the Penn MS Center. “But I think a lot of relationship strain has to do with people feeling so uneasy because of the unpredictable nature of MS.
No one knows what’s going to happen the next day, week, or month, he explains. “And dealing with this constant stress is a lot. It’s a lot for an individual, and a lot for a couple.”
Knowing what types of stressors might arise can prepare you and your partner to face them head-on. Here are 4 stressors for a couple to be on the lookout for if your partner has multiple sclerosis.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. Those are prime years for employment and income potential for many people. They’re also the years when people are starting and raising families.
When one partner is diagnosed with MS, it can seem like the entire family’s financial future becomes uncertain.
For example, Michael says, “Think about a working mom with MS. She works as hard as she can until she’s 35. But then she has to exit the workforce because her MS is taking a toll on her, physically. Think about the strain she feels at home, because she is no longer bringing in an income, and the perceived loss of her role as a working person.
These things can cause a very significant strain between herself and her husband,” Michael explains. “They now have one income to support themselves and their children. They have concerns about finances that are making the relationship between her and her husband difficult.
It's important to acknowledge and address these issues, rather than ignore them and let them develop into sources of further stress—and possibly even resentment.
“MS can literally knock people off their feet because of nerve and muscle impairment and spasticity—tightness and stiffness in the muscles,” says Michael. “It’s hard, especially when childcare is involved.
The person who doesn’t have MS might need to take on more of the physical aspects of childrearing, which can be stressful in a partnership.
MS can also make physical intimacy more challenging, Michael adds. “Women living with MS can have difficulty with vaginal lubrication, so during intercourse they can experience a lot of pain. And that can strain relations between them and their partner.
In some cases, she might start to feel unwanted or unworthy,” he says. “She might be reluctant to have sex, and then her partner might feel he has been pushed away.
Also, men with MS can experience erectile dysfunction. This condition can be treated with medications such as Viagra and Cialis. Talk with your physician if you’re experiencing issues like this.
Michael also says honest communication is key. For example, if you can’t have vaginal sex because it hurts, be open with your partner, and suggest other forms of sexual intimacy.
It’s also important to explore other forms of physical affection. “The simplest expression of physical affection is nonsexual touch,” he explains. “You might reach over to your partner and put your hand on his arm.
This expression of affection goes both ways, he adds. “For a person who’s significantly debilitated by MS, she might experience affection by having her partner touch her, just in a way that she knows she is wanted.
Sometimes, one partner also takes on the role of caregiver, which can be its own source of relationship strain.
I might suggest that the partner who is doing the caregiving look around for grants to help with the cost of care for his partner,” says Michael. “For instance, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society offers financial support for in-home care for people living with MS.
He adds that even just enlisting the help of a support system—family, friends, and neighbors—can give the caregiver a chance to take a short break, re-energize, and return to his partner feeling renewed and ready to face the challenges of living with MS together.
“MS, like any other major change in a person’s life, can really bring to the surface tensions that may have existed prior to the diagnosis,” says Michael. That’s particularly true when partners are spending more time together.
Counseling and connecting with other people who have MS—like support groups for partners of people with MS—can be a great resource for couples who are struggling with this. “It’s important to reach out to others,” Michael says. “It can help to understand that other people are going through the same things, and help is available.”