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Relationships: Improving the Lines of Communication

Bethany Ferguson, MSW, LCSW-C and Margaret Kazmierski, MSW, LCSW-C

MS is a chronic and unpredictable disease. A diagnosis of MS can affect every aspect of a person’s life, including the relationship between partners and spouses. The uncertainty of MS can influence the daily routine or rhythms of life between partners, spouses, and other family members, and in turn, influence the lines of communication. Couples living with MS may often find it challenges their usual roles in the relationship and makes it hard to prioritize their relationship. Learning and practicing some simple, yet effective, communication and listening skills can foster a more supportive and intimate relationship while managing MS.

To facilitate and practice effective communication with a partner/spouse, identifying what may impact a relationship while living with MS can be explored together. For example, one partner may need to shift their work schedule to accommodate the other partner’s medical appointments. Or one partner may need to juggle more of the household responsibilities while the other partner may need to scale back social activities. As roles and responsibilities shift, communication becomes even more essential to maintain a supportive relationship.

It takes time and energy to manage MS. The disease is often diagnosed in a person’s most productive work years and can cause financial stress in couples. Financial management of a chronic disease, as well as the time and effort it takes to re-think tasks and routines, can affect communication. It is important for partners to talk about financial and legal planning to ensure that both individuals are prepared for a future with MS.

Although living with MS can have its challenges, it can also be an opportunity for growth in a couple’s relationship. A life altering diagnosis can bring a couple closer together, and foster more open, honest conversations, deepening mutual support and intimacy.

The tips below can help facilitate more open, positive, and supporting relationships.

Communication Tips for Couples

  • Make your relationship a priority by creating a culture of positivity. Schedule “date” nights or couple time each and every week. Routine scheduled time for each other will allow for a foundation of positive communication to begin and blossom throughout the relationship.
  • Become an active listener. Listening is 99% of communication. Give your partner all your attention and verbalize how important it is to listen to what is being said.
  • When listening to your partner, maintain good eye contact, let your partner finish speaking without interruption, and then ask for clarification if needed. For example, “So, what I hear you saying is…”. This helps ensure you and your partner are hearing and understanding each other.
  • Use “I” statements with your partner whenever possible. For example, “I feel _____, when you help me bring in the groceries. Thank you.” This clearly conveys your feeling of appreciation.
  • Keep in mind that effective communication skills need daily practice. Pay attention to non-verbal communication like body language and eye contact. And, remember to be patient and open to growing together as a couple while learning to improve communication.
  • Identity ways to maintain balance by setting boundaries, scheduling time together that does not involve caretaking, and ask for outside help as needed to help maintain roles within your relationship.

Sometimes, couples may find they need more support and practice with their communication and listening skills. There many resources available within the VA Health Care System and through community organizations such as the National MS Society (NMSS). The Veterans Health Administration’s Warrior to Soul Mate (“W2SM”) series was designed specifically to enhance Veterans’ relationships. This evidenced based program uses group skills training to help Veteran families develop and maintain high quality intimate relationships. The NMSS also has a program for couples living with MS and managing relationships called Relationship Matters. This workshop is offered as a live presentation and a teleconference series.

Veterans with MS can also contact their local VA health care facility and ask to speak with a social worker regarding options for family or couples counseling. If appropriate, your provider can refer you for couples counseling.

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