Being in a relationship with your significant other is bound to be filled with highs and lows.  Having a healthy relationship involves a lot of effort, time and patience as the allure of new relationship peters out and we begin to truly know and understand our own and our partner’s relationship quirks, strengths and challenges.  When you throw a massive wrench like cancer into the works, it inevitably exposes the work we need to do individually and as a couple to evolve.  Let’s take a look at why that might be happening, and reflect upon some ideas that might help you and your partner grow together through the process, rather than apart.

First and foremost, when the crisis of a cancer diagnosis happens, you are in a constant process of triaging the most important issue/concern/need of the moment.  This often creates a backlog of things that have not been attended to.  The person who has been diagnosed is the focus of support, which can lead to loved one’s needs being neglected, especially if the system is facing multiple stressors (health, financial, children, etc) at once.

A common scenario is that the person who is diagnosed becomes immersed in the health crisis and therefore less available, and the partner becomes immersed in managing everything else and therefore less available.  The image that comes to mind is of a camel, initially the camel is able to sustain the strain on it’s system because it has it’s reserve of water and energy stored for a long haul.  Yet, if the camel does not have regular infusions of water and food, it becomes weaker and weaker.  This metaphor can apply to a couple managing the crisis of cancer, over time the reserve of intimacy will be spent if it is not replenished.

To add to the challenge, we each have our own unique way of managing stress, and when you are under pressure it is much easier to misread and/or personalize incidents.  Communication struggles that were present before become amplified if we aren’t mindful.  We may feel desperation to process difficult things, like death anxiety, which may be intolerable to the other person.  Our community may not be able to see or appreciate the individual and family needs, which can deepen the sense of isolation.

With this in mind, developing a compassionate approach with one another can ease the tension and provide some breathing room in the moment.  Compassion is the art of bringing kindness into our relationship with our selves and our partners.  We often turn towards criticism of self and others as a mean of trying to change or control a situation, which only does harm.  A compassionate approach may include asking for a change, but the emphasis is on being able to communicate from the heart about what you observe about yourself, your partner, the situation and the needs.  When we attempt to show our partner that we are trying to “walk in their shoes”, we are building an opportunity for connection which repairs attachment.  Time, patience and practice are necessary to reap the rewards of this form of communication.

Some other ideas to cultivate connection include:

  • Sharing regular small moments of non-cancer related time, ideally free of distraction, to share a story or moment from the day
  • Making a list for one another about small tokens of appreciation your partner could do that you would enjoy
  • Creating an affirmative motto for living life with cancer as a family
  • Honestly, gently discussing the impact treatment will have on sexual intimacy, and finding or exploring acts of sexual intimacy that honors the situation as it is. trusting that the tenderness will facilitate the return to sexual health
  • Recalling together the tender, funny, moments of your story together, the reasons why you chose to be together through the ups and downs of life, and writing them down to reflect on later

We frequently need to revise our expectations for situations, especially when they are causing tremendous challenge.  Most of us have inadequate preparation for facing a life threatening condition, and that vulnerability can cause us to become defensive.  Some will rise to the challenge, others need extra support to get there.  Discussing this with your treatment team is really important, in order for them to connect you to the professional available.  It’s not a time to be shy to ask for help.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, workshops, and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting: www.creative-transformations.com, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.