Going through cancer, whether at the beginning of the experience or learning to live life with cancer, almost always affects the relationships in your life. Like with any hard time, it can bring you closer together or push you further apart. However, whether it bonds you or breaks you isn’t up to the stars. We spoke with our in-house psychologist, Hana Jamali, about what to focus on in your relationship during cancer (whether romantic or with family or friends) and tips to strengthen it and grow closer together amidst the challenge cancer can pose.
What we’ll cover in this blog:
Work on what you’re good at together as a team
Prioritize your health and wellbeing to gain energy
Coping with cancer rather than solving it
Make the time you spend together better by spending time apart
Have fun and be silly
1. Work on what you’re good at together as a team
When there’s difficulty or tension, people tend to talk as individuals in a relationship rather than a team. For example, statements or negotiations can sound like, “if you do this, I’ll do this” or “I hate it when you act out like that” or “if you just stop doing, that I’ll do more of this.” It becomes a way to deal with each other.
Now imagine two seats opposite each other. This is what those statements create, a pitting of yourselves against each other. Instead, move the chairs so that they are situated next to each other and look at the problem together. Talk about what is happening between you and how you can deal with cancer together. How can we help each other tackle the hardship rather than each other?
Hana says that a great place to start is to work on your strengths together as a team. Usually, when we’re in a relationship, we have strengths together and weaknesses together – things we create together. When in a relationship during cancer, it’s best to focus on you two together against the problem or situation, and that’s best done when you know what you’re good at and keep doing those things.
For example, are you good at sitting down in the evenings and talking about it? Maybe you communicate best through writing? Or, perhaps you enjoy walking together or discovering new places. Keep focusing on what you do well together and carve out time to do those things intentionally, rather than letting them slip away when difficulty arises.
2. Prioritize your health and wellbeing to gain more energy
Another important thing that affects our relationships is health factors. Make sure that each of you are in balance in whatever ways are possible. During a diagnosis and depending where you are in your experience with cancer, this can be more or less challenging. But depending on the resources you have, do what you can in order to make it easier to be a team by refilling your cup, your energy, so that you’ve got your body and your mind on your side.
Getting enough sleep and making sure you’re eating well are key factors in order to be able to function. Then add things on; get in the right amount of physical activity if you can, and try to spend a bit of time in nature or doing something you enjoy.
3. Learn to cope with the problem rather than solve it
When going through cancer, couples, family members, close friends tend to start approaching cancer as a problem that needs to be solved. What you actually need to do instead is to focus on the things that keep you together in order to accept or handle the problem instead of solving the problem. Turns out, cancer’s a hard one to solve, and the more helpful thing for everyone involved is to feel less alone.
A large part in losing connection with your loved one is because you lose contact with what you love to do together. This is not to say to forget the problem or that there is no problem. But build on your strengths to be able to face the problem together. Go out and do things that you like. If you can’t or are not able to because you’re sick, then get creative. Do those things in a different context or pinpoint what the core feeling is you’re seeking and find ways to experience that. There are different means to an end.
When you know what those things are and fill your life with things that bond you, then everyone has more energy and the tools needed to face a cancer diagnosis together. Experiencing positive and good situations together strengthens your relationships during cancer and makes you more resilient.
4. Make the time you spend together better by spending time apart
It’s also common that when you or a loved one has cancer, you distance yourself or drop out altogether of your own social life because you spend so much time together facing cancer – whether it be the checkups, the administrative load, exhaustion (physical and emotional), you name it. The tendency becomes to repress your own social life and independent needs and social needs.
Besides the sheer practicality and amount of time that cancer requires, Hana explains one aspect of psychology behind this kind of behavior: fear. You’re clinging on because you’re frightened to do things on your own again or you’re afraid that you’ll miss out on time with your loved one, or other things.
Keep in mind that however good it is to spend time together, be aware of what is driving you to spend time together. It doesn’t necessarily come from a good place if you want to spend more time with your loved one if it’s primarily driven out of fear.
Try to force yourself out and do things, because that will also give you energy that feeds back into your relationship. We know that during hardship we get really inflexible because we just want our lives to “work.” But when you push yourself to take time to do things that matter to you, or spend time with friends apart from your loved one, you tend to broaden your perspective and become more open, which strengthens your relationship during cancer. In that situation, you can handle hard conversations or conflict by actually listening and being able to change, without becoming too defensive.
Something I usually tell my couples and couples in crisis is that you need to bring in more information and more perspectives to the table. When you’re too into each other or not doing or experiencing other things, you won’t be able to surprise your partner, bring out something new in them.
That’s another beautiful thing about relationships – you need elements of surprise, of fun, of new things, variation. It can be something as simple as, “I saw this person on the street and I thought I’d tell you because you’d think it was funny.” A small story like that can give the other person energy or remind them of why they fell in love with you or love you.
Keeping your independence and making sure you do your own things is important – for you and for strengthening your relationship. It’s harder to be flexible, open, and changeable if you don’t have that refill in your life.
5. Remember to have fun and be silly
A cancer diagnosis can make a lot of life more serious. This mirrors in a relationship, too. A lot of people withdraw because they can’t handle so much seriousness in their life. They start questioning, “What happened to us? We used to laugh so much and have so much fun together and now all we have is tension in the room – when we’re not talking about really heavy topics, we’re just sitting there and not really addressing it.”
Once again, here it’s crucial to focus on what your relationship thrives on, what you’re good at, in order to improve your relationship during cancer. If you know that a way that you handle hardship is by eating your favorite food, watching a movie, and laughing together, make sure you do more of that during this period so that you also have the energy and capacity to deal with heavy conversations or clouds in the room. These moments enrichen your relationship. If you only have hard conversations and no fun, it’ll cause you to slip apart.
In the end, problems don’t appear because you’re in a crisis, but they usually deepen or you gain insights. Be aware about your health, your strengths and focus on them, your needs and follow them, and communicate together about them all.