Your spouse’s back acts up just as your dinner guests are about to arrive. Frustrated, you mutter, “It figures,” and not quite under your breath because she hears you from the other room and accuses you of being nasty again.

Sound familiar? Chronic pain, regardless of its source, certainly takes its toll on the affected person, but it can also impact the entire family, particularly a spouse.

If you’re that spouse, you might be surprised to hear that your grumbly reaction to your partner’s pain can not only lead to tension between the two of you—that much is obvious—but can also literally make your spouse’s pain worse.

We’re not talking about just emotional pain here either—we’re talking about literal physical pain.

And that’s probably not what you want to do to your spouse…right?

If you sneer, scoff, roll your eyes or mutter when your partner grunts, groans, grimaces or braces from pain—even if you don’t realize what you’re doing—your actions can be seen as hostile or critical.

But would this actually make physical pain worse? The results of a new study address the question. At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, 71 couples, each including one person who had chronic low-back pain, participated. First, each couple engaged in a 10-minute discussion about how the pain-free spouse would like his/her partner to better cope with the pain. Then the person with back pain did a 10-minute series of physical activities, some of them sure to cause pain, while the spouse watched. Researchers noted any critical or hostile comments by the pain-free spouse. The people with chronic pain also reported how critical and hostile they had perceived their spouses to be…and how much pain they had experienced during the activities.

The findings: The more critical and hostile a pain-free spouse was, the greater the pain—both reported and revealed through behavior—suffered by the chronic pain patient. High levels of  pain were most likely and pronounced in women and in people experiencing depression (women and men).

These results speak to the immediate effects of spouse criticism and hostility. On top of that, according to another study by the same researchers, pain perception can be affected even three hours after a response from a spouse that is considered negative—even a response as simple and brief as an eye roll.

For the partners of people in pain, this can all seem like a catch-22: If a negative response to your partner’s pain makes the pain worse, but you’re actually only trying to give him advice on better coping strategies—what are you supposed to do?

There is an answer.


Here’s how you can turn the situation around…

Take an honest look at yourself. Many partners of people with chronic pain may not realize that they are being critical or hostile or that this type of behavior has become commonplace. Solution: First, open your mind to the possibility that your responses to your partner’s pain might not always have been as helpful as they should have been. Then, going forward, try to catch yourself before you say something (or use body language) that could be taken as hostile, and instead respond more positively. Instead of saying, “Here we go again,” say “It looks like you’re having a rough time. What can I do to help?” And instead of rolling your eyes, place your hand tenderly on your partner’s shoulder.

Be measured with your helpfulness. While you want to offer support and advice, being overly accommodating can backfire. The best long-term result comes from helping your partner help himself, not from doing everything yourself. Encourage your partner by saying, “I know you can do this”—and then encourage an open discussion about where your physical help is needed most and where encouragement would be appreciated instead.

Make pain relief a priority for the two of you. Offer assistance to ensure that your spouse is doing everything possible to safely and effectively treat the pain, from taking medication as directed to engaging in physical therapy and exercise, eating well, sleeping well and whatever else your health-care providers have advised. It’s much easier for a chronically ill person to “keep going” when he has a supportive, active partner in the effort.

Talk to your partner about getting treated for potential underlying depression. Depression worsens pain. Seeing a therapist will likely improve your spouse’s entire outlook including how he copes with pain, and this will have spillover benefits for the entire family.

See a couples counselor. If you’re both having trouble coping with your partner’s pain, couples therapy may help. The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies lists trained marital therapists who specialize in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a time-limited type of counseling that can be very effective in changing how people react to certain situations and triggers.

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