How to Be a Better Friend, Spouse, or Relative to Someone with FM

Do you know someone who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia (FM) or a chronic pain illness?  Perhaps they are disabled from working due to several conditions associated with these illnesses. Sometimes it's difficult to know what to expect of yourself and the person you care about with the chronic illness.  Perhaps the following practical suggestions can help you better support your friend, spouse, or relative who has FM or a chronic pain condition.


Educate Yourself


FM is a pain amplification condition. One’s central nervous system is sensitized to experience a lot more pain than others would under similar conditions. For instance, for someone with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as other conditions, those conditions are much more painful for them than for someone who doesn’t have FM. It’s as if the "pain switches of the brain get locked on." As you educate yourself, you’ll be less likely to blunder into saying things like, "It’s all in your head." (Medical research has shown, for instance, that there is more Substance P [which facilitates the transmission of pain] in FM patients’ spinal cords. Also, they have significantly reduced dopamine synthesis in multiple brain regions.)


Don’t Take Cancellations Personally


A person with a chronic pain condition is ofter a "gamer." She’ll quickly say "yes" to many activities with friends. But she can’t count on being able to "answer the bell" when the time comes and sometimes has to cancel. Remember when you’ve been too sick to do something you really wanted to do and how disappointed and even guilty you felt for canceling? Sometimes she’ll push herself to go and then have a day afterwards when she is in a lot more pain and can do little. These are common experiences for someone with FM. Don’t stop asking her or him to do things with you. Even if the person with FM can’t make it, he or she feels good for continuing to be asked.


No Pity Parties Allowed


If you care about someone who has FM, don’t feel sorry for yourself because of how it’s changed the relationship. If you do, you’ll start to feel guilty as you realize the great physical discomfort he or she experiences daily. Instead, treasure what you do have. You’ll feel a lot better if you do, and the relationship itself will improve.


Offer to Help Out


You are appreciated for doing the vacuuming, the bulk of the grocery shopping, and other physically painful chores.


Be a Good Listener


We all like to be understood. A person with FM often feels isolated and misunderstood. You don’t have to give great advice to be tremendously appreciated. Sometimes they will want to express their frustration and other times they’ll want to focus elsewhere. We all love it when someone works at tuning in to how we feel and what we think.


Don’t Catastrophize About Their Condition


Catastrophizing about one’s condition has been shown to actually increase both pain and disability. Instead, keep a balanced perspective on not just what they can’t do but what they can do. They are not helpless! Treasure them for their strengths.


Be Sensitive and Supportive


Conflict, stress, and criticism all have been shown to increase pain. This doesn’t mean you don’t deal with issues in the relationship. It does mean that you be respectful and caring as you discuss differences (which is how we should deal with others anyway!).


Take Care of Yourself


Research has shown that spouses of those with FM have an increased risk of withdrawal, a weakened immune system, deterioration in physical health, discouragement, worry, and loneliness. Twenty-five percent of spouses are diagnosably depressed. These issues all can be countered, but it requires extra attention to self care. Exercise regularly. and maintain a nutritionally sound diet.  If faith is a resource to you, that can be a powerful help. Continue doing enjoyable activities and keeping other friendships going. These are all good things to do, whether a spouse, relative, or friend has FM. Recent research by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., on happiness has shown that savoring briefly each night three good things that happened that day significantly increases happiness and decreases the risk of depression.


Keep the Positives Flowing


Psychologist John Gottman’s research on marriage has shown that couples who have five times more positives than negatives in their interaction have almost no chance of divorce! The same principle applies to any relationship.

Vidal Sassoon said, "The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary." This is really true of all relationships, including the one you have with the person with FM or a chronic pain illness.. You really have everything to gain by implementing these suggestions. Otherwise, as Richard Wilbur said, "What is the opposite of two, a lonely me, a lonely you."


(Image courtesy of Luba V Nel | Dreamstime Stock Photos)


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