A diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) can present profound challenges to a relationship. After a companion's diagnosis, a partner may experience his or her own grieving process and may even feel guilty about his or her own good health.
Communication is a key component in dealing with the added stress MS may create in a relationship. Openly discussing feelings and thoughts can help couples avoid frustration and alleviate some of the strain they may be experiencing.
A person with MS will experience fatigue, from general tiredness to extreme exhaustion. Fatigue may be triggered by physical exertion and improve with rest, or it may take the form of a constant and persistent tiredness. This has an effect on day-to-day life.
Activities that once seemed simple—like grocery shopping, vacuuming, or walking the dog—may now seem overwhelming. If possible, hiring some temporary help may be the answer. If not, reallocation of chores and using time wisely will help reduce the stress and enable couples to work together.
Another difficulty a couple may encounter is a decrease in commonly shared activities. As the severity of symptoms increase, couples may have a hard time finding things they can do together. More rigorous activities, like bike riding or hiking, may be too difficult. It is important to not stop shared activities though—try taking a walk or reading a book together.
Attempting to continue normal activities as best as possible is important. There may be times when the person with MS may also not be able to carry out the activities she or he once were able to do. This may mean that the partner may need to help out. This may cause strain on the relationship, especially if the partner begins to feel more like a caregiver. Therefore it is vital to find balance in the relationship in order to preserve closeness and ease strain. Realizing and coming to terms with the changes MS brings will help both partners accept the situation. It is important to always keep in mind that MS need not be the focus of a relationship, but just one aspect of it.
Many couples will encounter sexual adjustment problems. Men may experience impotence, and women may have problems with vaginal dryness. A doctor can help. If possible, the couple should talk to the doctor together, which will help both partners feel more comfortable. Many of the problems can be treated with medications or other remedies.
Prior to the onset of MS, couples saw each other in numerous roles—friend, lover, confidant. An important step in keeping a relationship strong is accepting how these roles may change with the introduction of MS. A partner who was once independent and outgoing may become reclusive and even depressed after an MS diagnosis. Recognizing how this may affect a relationship, determining the potential weaknesses it may cause, and developing appropriate responses will help strengthen the relationship.
Dealing with each situation as it arises will help the couple from feeling too overwhelmed. Set reasonable goals and have realistic expectations. Life with MS will be different, but open communication can help. Both partners will need to be patient, supportive, and understanding. In addition, support groups and counseling may help people with MS and their families find ways to cope with the changes MS may bring.
Multiple Sclerosis International Federation
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Canadian Osteopathic Association
Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada
Boland P, Levack WM, et at. Coping with multiple sclerosis as a couple: Peaks and troughs—an interpretative phenomenological exploration. Disabil Rehabil. 2012;34(16):1367-1375.
Dealing with MS in your important relationships. National Multiple Sclerosis Society website. Available at: http://www.nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Family-and-Relationships. Accessed January 6, 2015.
Intimacy. National Multiple Sclerosis Society website. Available at: http://www.nationalmssociety.org/Living-Well-With-MS/Family-and-Relationships/Intimacy. Accessed January 6, 2015.
Intimacy and multiple sclerosis. Cleveland Clinic website. Available at: http://my.clevelandclinic.org/services/neurological_institute/mellen-center-multiple-sclerosis/patient-education/hic-intimacy-and-multiple-sclerosis. Accessed January 6, 2015.
Multiple sclerosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated October 9, 2014. Accessed January 6, 2015.
Pakenham KI, Samios C. Couples coping with multiple sclerosis: A dyadic perspective on the roles of mindfulness and acceptance. J Behav Med. 2013;36(4):389-400.
Last reviewed January 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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