The Impact of Chronic Illness on Relationships

By Emily – 

Any committed relationship requires a lot of work from both parties. This isn’t a secret. Throughout a lifetime many challenges will be thrown your way and, to some extent, you can only rely on faith that your chosen partner will be there to weather the storm. But beware, there is one storm nobody sees coming: chronic illness.

Some challenges you can see coming–financial struggle, starting a family, difficult in-laws–the list goes on. That’s not to say that all marriages make it through these struggles, but you can prepare for the inevitable to some degree. You will probably, at the very least, discuss the possibility of these issues coming up and how best to handle them.

However, nobody sits down and talks about chronic illness and certainly not in your early 20s when life has seemingly just begun. But it happens, it happened to me, and it’s not easy on anyone involved.  

The Hard Facts

According to experts 75% of marriages, where one spouse is chronically ill, end in divorce. I was married in 2012, become sick in 2015, and now in 2017 I am going through a divorce. Becoming a part of this statistic was my greatest fear when I fell ill. It’s now become my reality.


Before my illness I saw myself as vivacious, ambitious, and an overall badass. There was nothing I couldn’t do and nothing could get in my way of the plans I had for my life.

Up until 2015, I really felt that I had found it all. I was married to my best friend and I felt I was really going somewhere in my career. My five year plan seemed to be right on track. Chronic illness at 22 has a funny way of bring all that to a screeching halt.

I went from being a badass to barely being able to take care of myself. I had to stop working and, as a result, we couldn’t make ends meet. We eventually ended up moving in with family because even making rent was impossible. If marriage were a feature film, we were in The Perfect Storm.

Noticing Red Flags

The signs showed up one by one. Slowly at first, with some bright spots of hope along the way, but steady nonetheless. I can remember the first day he didn’t quite look at me the same. Passion started to wane, he had lost all desire for me it seemed. Eventually it feels like we are back to being just friends. Glorified roommates if you will, and I was the burdensome roommate that you grow to resent.

We had one last hurrah celebrating our 4th wedding anniversary in September 2016. I think we both thought it was going to salvage what had been lost. It’s still the last really great memory I have with him, but it wasn’t enough. One vacation can’t fix a failed marriage.

By 2017 we were just going through the motions.  Through the first few months of 2017 it should have been obvious that it was over, that there was no more hope. However, I was in serious denial.

It was harder and harder to convince myself to stay in denial but it was the coping mechanism I had at the time. I told myself if I just did more, if I just tried harder, if we could just make it to the next good beach excursion to escape reality, maybe we would avoid the scary “D word” I feared so much: divorce.

My 25th birthday was at the end of April. I am the type that LOVES my birthday! The other 51 weeks of the year I typically do not want a huge fuss made about me. Birthday week is another story. That is my time to be the center of attention, for a minute, and revel in it. This year, the thought of my birthday actually made me sick.

I didn’t want gifts, I didn’t want to do anything, and I certainly didn’t want to see anyone. I felt terrible about myself and I didn’t feel I deserved all the birthday hoopla. I wasn’t myself; I was in the throes of depression.

Of course I was depressed! I was watching my marriage fall apart and couldn’t accept it. To add insult to injury, I was feeling that it was my fault. I got sick. I was the reason we were struggling, and I didn’t do enough to solve our problems. It was all finally catching up with me.

Two weeks later my husband left me. Friends and family were shocked but I wasn’t, I had been watching our relationship crumble first hand.

What happened next was the real shocker.

Finding Hope

Almost immediately the fog of depression had lifted. I was sad but I felt hope. I was terrified of the unknown future that lie ahead but I saw opportunity and unlimited possibility. Everyone around me was worried about my mental state but I knew I was finally in the best mental space I had been in years.

Something I think many Spoonies who were in committed relationships prior to illness can identify with is the feeling of guilt that you’ve somehow falsely advertised yourself to your partner. It’s easy to feel guilty that they agreed to a relationship with one version of yourself and now you feel like a completely different person. Like when you’ve finally gotten used to some version of your favorite technology and suddenly there’s a new update that changes everything.

The usual response a Spoonie is given if they decide to vocalize this feeling is “you are not your illness.”  And yes, to an extent that is true. But illness does change you. I am not my illness, but my illness is a huge part of who I am now. I’ve found that accepting that fact has been hugely important to me. I am not who I used to be and that’s okay. I am Emily 2.0.

Going forward, I no longer need to feel guilt that I’ve falsely advertised anything. I can now accept my illness is a part of me and not the entirety of myself. In my future relationships that part of me will be on the table from day one and that’s empowering in a way.

I will know going in if the next person is willing to accept this part of me. I will know that they will be warned about the unpredictability of the future and that gives me some assurance. Will that guarantee a long lasting successful relationship? No. But I will not have to feel the same guilt I felt in my marriage.

I know there is someone out there who will love and accept every part of me, someone who will stay by my side through thick and thin and weather the storms when they come. I know they are out there, it’s only a matter of time.

My greatest fear has been realized this year, but the best things are found on the other side of fear.

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