Medically reviewed by Matthew J. Hamilton, MD
Dealing with a chronic illness can challenge any relationship, whether you’ve been married for decades or just started dating. It can be especially tough watching your partner deal with the pain, stress and everyday struggles of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The good news is, helping a significant other handle their IBD can bring you closer together. Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Talk About Your Role.
Want to know how you can best support your partner? Ask them. Sit down and have an open, honest dialogue about your involvement in their IBD. Bring up specific questions to nail down boundaries and expectations: Where do they need the most help? When should you pitch in? When should you butt out? Keep the discussion open-ended. Revisit it occasionally, and understand that your role may change with your partner’s health status, or as you get more comfortable with each other.
2. Just Listen.
People with IBD can find it hard to discuss their disease. They may fear being judged, or want to avoid burdening other people. So, let your partner know you’re all ears. Encourage them to talk about their symptoms, their day-to-day life and their emotional ups and downs. Listen without judgment and validate their feelings—tell them being sad, stressed, angry or frustrated is perfectly normal. Make sure they realize it’s not a one-time offer, either, and they can always talk to you about their IBD.
3. Lend a Hand with Their IBD.
Clear it with your significant other (SO) first, but if they give the go-ahead, one of the best ways to help anyone with IBD is taking part in disease management. That could mean picking up medications, keeping track of symptoms and triggers, or going with them to doctor’s appointments. Again, ask how you can be most useful.
Don’t forget: They’re your partner, not your patient. Accept it’s their body and they may make mistakes or health decisions you don’t agree with. Avoid judgment and pick your battles wisely.
4. Pitch In around the House.
When pain and bowel issues keep your partner from chores, childcare or simple everyday activities, try to pick up the slack. That’s goes double after IBD surgery—during recovery, patients can have trouble with even minimal movements like lifting or bending.
Remember, too, that fatigue is a common symptom in people with IBD. Your SO might be not be in obvious distress, but trust them when they say they’re too exhausted to cook or clean.
5. Be Flexible.
IBD is unpredictable. Your partner’s illness may limit their ability to socialize—or even leave the house. Patients often have to arrange their calendar around their disease, and when symptoms act up, they may need to cancel plans last-minute. When this happens, don’t blame your partner or make them feel guilty. Understand they’re sad and frustrated, too, and roll with the new situation. Settle in for a game night or invite friends over if possible. Offer alternatives and stay positive.
6. Brainstorm New Ways to Spend Time with Each Other.
What can you do together that will go easy on your SO, especially when symptoms are acting up? Be creative, and think of how to best accommodate their needs. For example, if you’re heading out, weigh location, toilet access and crowds; any place with long bathroom lines is likely a bad idea. Take restaurant menus into account, as certain food or drinks can aggravate your partner’s IBD. Plan around bedtimes, too, since good sleep is critical to disease management. When in doubt? A movie night at home never fails.
7. Talk about Sex.
Sex with IBD can be tricky. Your partner’s desire and ability may be shaped by fatigue, pain, accidents and body image, among other things. That’s why it’s important to A) boost their confidence as much as you can, and B) communicate. Talk honestly about concerns preferences—especially what they can and can’t handle. Work with their capabilities the best you can and explore other ways of being physically intimate. Kissing and snuggling are powerful ways to build your bond.
8. Be an Advocate.
On a smaller level, try to help friends and family members understand your partner’s IBD. Give them good medical information, and be open to questions and conversations. On a larger level—and only with your SO’s go-ahead—dive into the IBD community. Get involved with local support groups and programs focused on awareness and education. Volunteer and take part in fundraisers, whether it’s a walk program or an Ironman event. Look online for available opportunities; there’s sure to be one for you.
9. Remember Self-Care.
Caring for a partner is tough if you’re burned out yourself—so don’t ignore your own mental and physical health. Take breaks when you need them, and set time aside for your interests, whether it’s a hobby or a ballgame. If you’re overwhelmed, talk to a trusted friend or counselor about your feelings, and look to loved ones to pitch in with everyday responsibilities. Remember: It’s okay to ask for help.