It’s a question that comes up often: How does living with a chronic health condition like multiple sclerosis (MS) affect a marriage?
Well, depending on who you ask, the answer can range from a diagnosis of MS strengthening a relationship, to the strains of living with MS ultimately leading to divorce. While these scenarios fall on opposite ends of the spectrum, one theme that seems to emerge — regardless of the outcome — is that of support.
For licensed counselor Ritu Reimer, the wife of a man living with RRMS, a diagnosis of MS often means you’ll likely need more support from your partner.
Early on, Reimer and her husband Tim (who was diagnosed with MS at age 15) welcomed the opportunity to build a life where Tim felt safe and knew his well-being was of utmost value. It’s that stability and security that’s kept them together for 19.5 years.
While there are countless stories like Ritu and Tim’s, there are also stories of struggle that ultimately lead to divorce.
How MS can impact relationships
Since no two cases of MS are the same — just as no two marriages are the same — there could be a number of reasons why couples divorce in this situation. For example, Reimer says if a marriage is already on shaky ground, a diagnosis of MS could be the last straw.
“Once the individual diagnosed with MS starts treatment, they face the unpredictable effects of their MS symptoms and the side effects from the treatments,” she explains.
“This can create an even bigger obstacle for an already volatile relationship,” adds Reimer.
Dr. L.A. Barlow, LLP, LPC, doctor of psychology at Detroit Medical Center, says another way a chronic health condition can impact a marriage is when a spouse assumes the role of caregiver.
“The need for extra support can create several different scenarios in a shaky marriage, including increased guilt and the desire to make amends in order to provide care for the spouse,” she explains. On the other hand, Barlow says the opposite can occur with increased resentment and more of a desire to dissolve the marriage.
Additionally, she says depression is more common in people living with MS and that when combined, all of these factors can be an added stressor on the marriage and ultimately lead to divorce.
How to move forward when a relationship ends
Divorce is never easy. And when a relationship ends, it can be challenging to focus on extending compassion and kindness to yourself while moving forward.
Reimer says this is when we often neglect ourselves and make poor choices. “The emotional trauma from a divorce amidst the daily challenges of living with MS can feel like too much to handle and often becomes consuming,” she explains.
That’s why it’s critical to have the right tools to help ease the difficult journey of healing from a divorce.
Seek professional help
Major life transitions are difficult to navigate on your own. If you’re going through a divorce, consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor.
“Not only does psychotherapy help decrease the impact of the emotional trauma but it also increases medication compliance and consistent medical care, decreasing the progression of MS,” explains Reimer.
Give yourself time
Regardless of how a relationship ends, you need to allow yourself time to grieve. Reimer describes it as a time to grieve the loss of the future you envisioned.
You also need to give yourself permission to create a new normal. Reimer says the focus should be on putting your emotional and medical needs first.
Be mindful of flare-ups
Relationship problems can trigger a flare-up, especially since there’s no disconnect between emotional health and physical health. That’s why Barlow says individuals diagnosed with MS must be mindful of the negative impact of emotional trauma, which can increase the likelihood of causing an MS flare-up.
Give extra attention to your physical needs
- getting regular sleep
- fueling your body with the right foods
- taking any prescribed medications consistently
- getting physical activity
- keeping regular doctor’s appointments
Lean on your support team
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your friends, family, MS community, and other support groups.
Divorce expert, Kiri Maponya, says most people tend to shy away from this because they don’t want to feel like a burden on others.
Ask a lot of questions
Education is key. Maponya says learning about MS and how it’s going to impact your life moving forward after divorce is a critical step in this process.
Take time to determine what you need in order to navigate this chapter.
Have a plan
One of the key areas usually impacted by divorce is finances. That’s why Maponya says it’s crucial to have an idea of how you’re going to cover expenses such as living (especially during periods when you’re not able to work long-term) and medical costs.
She says consulting a financial advisor may be helpful to make sure all bases are covered.
Tune into your body
Now more than ever, you need to pay attention to your body. Reimer recommends proactively addressing any changes in symptoms with a neurologist and other specialists.
Don’t forget about self-care
Take time to engage in the activities that bring you joy, feed your spirit, and make you feel good. Consider yoga, meditation, journaling, gardening, hiking, or any other activities that help you care for your emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being.
Sara Lindberg, BS, MEd, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.