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 Nora Garland, MSW, LSW, 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, she 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 four 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, Nora 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."
"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," Nora explained.
It's also important to explore other forms of physical affection. "The simplest expression of physical affection is nonsexual touch, " she explains. "You might reach over to your partner and put your hand on his arm.
This expression of affection goes both ways, she 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 Nora. "For instance, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society offers financial support for in-home care for people living with MS.
She 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.
Informal support systems can also be really helpful for both the caregiver and the person living with MS. Sometimes it is hard for someone with MS to ask their family and friends for help, so providing a comforting forum for this can be very beneficial for everyone.
"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 Nora. 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, " Nora says. "It can help to understand that other people are going through the same things, and help is available. "