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Is Your Marriage Affected By Pain?

February 15th, 2008 · 12 Comments

In honor of Valentine’s Day, today’s guest article is by Dr. David Kannerstein, who answers a reader’s question about her marriage affected by pain.  Dr. Kannerstein is a psychologist who specializes in helping individuals and their families manage chronic pain.

Debbie writes:
I’ve been suffering from RSD (a painful neurological disorder – HtCwP) since 1999.  I was married to a wonderful man in February, 2003, but lately, my wonderful life has started to crumble.  As a result of my RSD, my husband has said he wants out of the marriage.  He feels like he is losing himself.  Needless to say, I completely lost it.

He still is loving, and kisses me goodbye, when gets home from work, and before going to bed.  He even calls me in the middle of the day to see if everything is alright. Yet at the same time, I feel like I am living with a man who is not there.  Part of me wonders if it’s just that he can’t handle seeing me getting worse, and knowing that he can’t do anything to take it away.

Any suggestions on ways to help him not feel as if he’s losing himself?  To keep my marriage together – that’s all I want.

Dr. Kannerstein responds:

You clearly are suffering not only from RSD, but also from your husband’s apparent withdrawal from the marriage.  Keeping a marriage or relationship together when you’re suffering from RSD, or other chronically painful conditions, can be extremely challenging.

Spouses or other loved ones often feel a mixture of negative emotions related to their loved one’s pain.  Your husband may feel guilty or even depressed because he feels powerless to help.  He may be anxious about what he fears may happen in the future – financial problems, further deterioration in your health, etc.  He may feel angry at you – despite his loving behavior – because of a perceived withdrawal of affection, a lack of sexual contact, or having to take over responsibilities you previously handled.

You didn’t say what your husband meant by “losing himself.”  It would be important to clarify this and help him identify what emotions, specifically, he feels and what triggers them.  For example, he may be coping with the pain of seeing you suffering, by shutting down emotionally.  He may also be referring to not having time or energy to do hobbies or recreational activities he loved, because he now has to do chores you previously did (if this is the case).

Chronic pain is a condition that affects not only the person suffering from it, but their entire social network – especially their spouse.  As Dr. Paul Brand wrote, “Pain sends a signal not only to the patient, but to the surrounding community as well.”  Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to respond to this signal in a helpful way – this leads to increasing frustration, anxiety, and depression.  Just as severe pain (and its associated losses and stressors) is traumatic to the individual suffering from it, it’s also traumatic for those who love the individual suffering with pain.  While they may not be in pain, they are surely suffering.

Fortunately, there are resources available.  Two excellent books that discuss how pain effects family members are Dr. Julie K. Silver’s Chronic Pain and the Family: A New Guide (2004, Harvard University Press), and the ACPA Family Manual: A Manual for Families of Persons With Pain (by Penny Cowan, 1998, ACPA).  I also recommend looking at the website of Mark Grant, an Australian psychologist, Overcoming Pain.  There’s no substitute, however, for personal contact with a therapist who is knowledgeable about pain.  Both you and your spouse might want to consult one together, as well as individually.

I don’t know if things will return to how they were before, since having RSD or any severe chronically painful condition has changed a lot in your lives.  However, much of the suffering endured by those with chronic pain can be addressed through some combination of medications, alternative medical approaches, physical therapy and exercise (tailored to the individual), and psychological treatments which take advantage of the intimate relationship between the mind and the body – hypnosis, meditation, biofeedback, energy psychology, guided imagery, autogenic training, and other approaches.  Successfully coping with pain may actually lead to a quite fulfilling life.

Dr. Kannerstein is a colleague, and a psychologist in private practice with Margolis Berman Byrne Health Psychology in Philadelphia, and SRI Psychological Services in Jenkintown, PA.  He specializes in helping individuals and their families manage chronic pain, and is currently accepting new patients.  He can be contacted at  Please note that all responses to readers’ questions are general comments, and not meant as individual guidance.  See this disclaimer for more information.

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12 responses so far ↓

  • allie // Feb 16, 2008 at 5:10 am

    OHHHH! This makes me so mad! What about for better or for worse???? I’m so lucky to have a wonderful caring spouse! I KNOW it is hard for them. But, to think the grass is greener on the other side is not necessarily so. HE will be sorry if he leaves you! And, he definitely does not deserve a wonderful person such as yourself if he does leave. Just my two cents…

  • Barbara K. // Feb 19, 2008 at 8:50 am

    I feel for you and your situation Debbie. It’s hard enough just dealing with the pain. My pain inserted itself into my relationship and forced me & my partner to adapt in ways we never imagined. I think Dr. Kannerstein’s advice is important. One of our biggest lessons was that we needed to communicate – more, and especially about the hard stuff (fears, helplessness, sexuality, anger, and love).

    I have a blog that focuses on couples and illness:

    I wish you and your partner strength and pain-free health.

  • Matt // Dec 27, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    I am the spouse with chronic pain and sometimes we need to look within our personalities and how they have changed with our illness. I know that with all the problems we face just living we sometimes do not take responsibility to look out for our loved ones emotions. I got so used to having her take care of me I forgot I needed to take care of her. The small things, that granted are not easy, like cooking or doing the dishes when I could would have made a big difference. I was stuck so deep in my own psychosis I forgot to, every now and then, look after her well being. It is a bad habit but unfortunately I allowed myself to become self involved with my own problems. Who wants to be married to that?

  • How to Cope with Pain // Dec 28, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Matt, thanks for your honesty. Pain often has a way of making us focus on ourselves. And you’re right, that needs to be watched.

    Keeping the lines of communication open – so situations like the one you described can be discussed – is crucial. And talking about our relationships in supportive and non-blaming terms can create room for progress, rather than more hard feelings.

  • Mike // Jan 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm


    I have been battling with Chronic pain for over 15 years. Pain has practically destroyed my marriage.

    I’m on Permanent Disability and my wife is the “bread winner”.. You can imagine how that makes me feel as a man.. I live on a fixed income ect. SSD..

    My prayers and concern go to you and your spouse..

  • saundra // Nov 10, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Allie’s response is not helpful…it only shames the spouse, who is likely already shaming himself for not being the ideal partner that he wishes to be. Compassion for both partners, along with understanding, support and encouragement would be more helpful than a rebuke.

  • michael // Jun 25, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Hi all. I am a firefighter who suffered a spinal injury 5 years ago and like you all now live with pain 24/7. My wife told me she could not cope with my inability to do much and the resulting depression, and she left me taking our daughter. I now have no future and am about to lose my home in the settlement. Life deals out some difficult challenges…..

  • How to Cope with Pain // Jun 25, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Michael, I’m really sorry that that’s happened. A tough blow! I hope you’re coping as well as you can.

  • Pam // Nov 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I too am dealing with this to the point of separation. My husband doesn’t like to take care of me. He does not like being stuck at home and doesn’t want to sell his toy’s or our home to move somewhere warmer so I will feel better. It sure isn’t for lack of sex either. He has admitted it and is now having to deal with it in counseling. He had to take a lie detector test! Can’t stand what he has done to me as his wife who happened to have an unfortunate illness. He had a heart attack and is wheat intolerant. I have been there for him every step of the way. Now I deal with constant panic and anxiety at the way he looks at other, healthy women and trust me, I have never let myself go.

  • George T. // Nov 8, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    Having been married for 16 years, and cared for my wife who lost 5 babies in miscarriage. I now have had chronic spine/leg pain for almost 10 years. It takes a massive toll on the faith of both, and an even more massive toll on the relationship…my wife is in the kitchen angry…always angry…we slingshot back toward passion and again back to arguing. If it took me 6 years to admit to myself that I was seriously injured, then I suppose I should expect her to take some time to accept a husband who has lost his lucrative career, untold shame, social stigma, and more from this condition and its psychological and social effects.
    Somehow everyday I will not give up. I will put my feet on the floor every morning, and one way or another one foot in from of the other.
    I pray for Serenity, argue with Morpheus, and do great battle with Dragons.
    No matter what don’t give up (on each other).

  • Savanah // Jun 23, 2014 at 1:30 am

    My husband has had 15 epidurals , 3 surgeries, and a reconstruction fusion of his back. He goes crazy when I am not with him. It’s almost as if he wants me by his side 100 percent of the time. When I go out to dinner with my sisters or to a cousins party he texts me so much I can’t enjoy myself. He claims that Fridays , Saturdays and Sundays are family time. Another one of his manipulative ploys. He constantly tells me how selfish I am and I only go out maybe twice a month. And mind you today was a birthday party with my boys. He tells me what a easy life I have because I’m not suffering. I try and pray for him and never have complained in the 66 months that it sucks to be with someone who is always in pain. I listen to him complain 40 times a day! I tell him, I am so sorry you are going through this. However, I don’t know how much more I can cope with him controlling me. He is so insecure if I go out to a broadway show or if I go out to a birthday party and when I invite him he says he is into much pain. He controls my every move and to boot I don’t work in the summer, and he monitors my gym time. He focuses in on me, I guess to not think of his pain and it really is taking a toll on my marriage, I wish this chapter of my life and his was closed!

  • How to Cope with Pain // Jun 23, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Savanah, can you suggest a counselor for both of you, so this situation can be improved? It sounds really tough for each of you!!!

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