Being a good partner means being a good communicator. That doesn’t change when cancer happens.
What changes is the level of struggle or strain imposed on the relationship. That struggle takes a different shape depending on if you’re the one who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or whether you’re their loved one. Healthy communication becomes critical in becoming a better partner when cancer makes things hard.
For all you loved ones out there, and those going through cancer who want to know how to better support your partners, this one’s for you. Here are some tips on how to cope as a partner, how those of you with cancer can better support your loved ones, and how to keep the romance alive when cancer is a part of life.
What we’ll cover in this blog:
How to cope as a partner
Communicate about the way you feel, and don’t feel bad about having needs.
Oftentimes, partners of those going through cancer don’t feel that they’re allowed to feel bad about their own struggle with their partner’s cancer because their loved one has it tougher.
This is not true.
According to our conversation on relationships with psychologist Dag Härdfeldt, cancer is often referred to as a “family experience.” What this means is that it’s a painful situation that strikes two or more people, but doesn’t strike them the same way.
Each individual is faced with very different kinds of challenges because of a cancer diagnosis. Yet, according to Härdfeldt, a common mistake is that people start comparing these challenges.
Who has it worse? Am I allowed to feel overwhelmed by this challenge when my partner is the one who’s struggling more? These kinds of comparative thoughts lead to feelings of guilt and shame.
The solution? Practice healthy communication. In order to effectively get rid of negative emotions, try practicing your ability to verbalize what you’re feeling to the person you love, who, in turn, needs to accept it, validate it, and try not to fight it.
Dare to express yourself because, in doing so, you and your partners are better able to understand the different needs that arise for each individual experience with cancer and become a more unified team against cancer.
What to learn more about communicating well in a relationship during cancer? Check out our recorded live event with psychologist, Dag Härdfeldt, here.
Use coping mechanisms to work through your experience
Coping mechanisms don’t look very different whether you’re the one diagnosed with cancer or the one who loves them. Research shows that journaling or finding another kind of safe space to express your internal world can improve your mental health, cancer or not.
Remember, it takes energy to take care of someone else and in order for it to not wear you out completely, take moments in your day or week to prioritize yourself. Do something that gives you energy – playing the guitar, going for a run, reading a book, taking a non-rushed shower, or walking and talking with a friend. Your wellbeing matters just the same and when you are more yourself, you naturally encourage your partner and strengthen your relationship.
Another way to cope with your experience is to connect with others who have been through something similar. Join War On Cancer’s community to connect with others, share your own story, or learn how they have handled the same kind of situation. Be inspired by them and get insider tips to tackle an experience you never signed up for.
Remember you can’t fix everything (aka cure cancer)
Oftentimes, when you love someone who is going through cancer, you feel the need to fix everything. For example, maybe the person you love who is going through cancer complains about their situation, how they’re in pain, the long process of it all, and you take it as your responsibility to find a solution to it all.
This is because you care, something innately good. But when the desire to solve problems grows unreasonable, it can lead to burnout for you and increased stress for your partner.
Unfortunately, a lot of the challenges cancer creates are not exactly problems we can solve. We can, of course, help ease the situation and that kind of support is priceless. However, try not to over-nurture or dote on your loved one with cancer. Yes, they may be struggling. But they are capable human beings that are going through cancer and we human beings need to feel useful and independent, even in the most dire situations. Show love, but don’t smother it, however good the intention.
Pro tip: loving your partner well means sitting down next to them and listening to their struggles, without trying to fix it. Being fully present and speaking the words “I hear you” or “I’m so sorry you have to go through this,” can be a more powerful expression of love than all actions combined.
How to support my non-cancer partner
Speaking of support, here’s what you can do to help out your loved one who is supporting you through your cancer diagnosis.
Understand role changes to ease the strain
One of the biggest changes a cancer diagnosis creates in relationships is the transition and shift in roles we are used to. For example, if you’re a person who’s naturally nurturing in a relationship or family, odds are, it’s going to be hard to be forced to take the role of someone who needs to be taken care of if you’re diagnosed with cancer.
Challenges can arise for each person from these shifts in roles because this change is forced and strains the relationship. It’s also shown that in later stages of cancer, there’s a much greater involvement and responsibility for family and friends.
Encourage your loved one to express themselves and the unique challenges they face in light of the changes of roles. Yes, you’re experiencing cancer and that’s a hell of a challenge. However, it’s important not to compare what you’re going through with what your partner is going through. They may be grieving your pain or struggle, or are overwhelmed.
This is not your fault. You don’t need to be defensive about it. Meet them where they’re at, and validate what they’re feeling. Then, share how you feel. By creating a space for mutual exchange, both will not only feel heard, but less isolated and more unified to face cancer.
Remember you’re angry at cancer, not your partner
It’s normal to feel frustrated, irritated, and depressed when going through cancer. According to Dag, people going through cancer are angry and frustrated towards the situation, but human beings are built in such a way that we almost always experience our feelings in relationships to another person. So, they become the catalyst of all these negative emotions.
Maybe you think you’re frustrated at the other person. Most probably, you’re angry about the role transition that you and your partner are experiencing.
A helpful communication technique is to use “I” statements to express how you are coping. This means formulating your feelings in a way that expresses only what you are sure is true and at the same time, puts your loved one in a less vulnerable or defensive position. For example, rather than saying “You’re completely useless,” say something along the lines of, “The way you’re approaching me right now is making me irritated. I’m not sure why, but it’s not helping me.”
Your loved one will be less defensive, and you’ve been able to express yourself, which is a more constructive way to express negative emotions.
Clearly communicate what it is you need and want
Turns out, we have what we call two kinds of language: an emotional language and a rational, practical language. When there’s a breakdown in understanding, it’s usually because we confuse these two languages.
For example, you might use practical communication to ask your partner to put the socks in the drawer. However, your partner might interpret this as an emotional language where you’re criticizing their level of cleanliness. And thus, conflict ensues.
The same goes for pain. If you’re going through cancer, you may experience excruciating pain and feel the need to complain a lot about your pain because that’s what we do first. We need to complain about it. Usually, what we want to achieve is an understanding with the other person that “I’m hurting. I’m fighting right now, it’s difficult.” What we seldom want is the other person to fix it.
This is why it’s common that loved ones express a feeling of not knowing what to do to help you or fix the situation, and don’t understand why you’re complaining if there’s not much they can do about it.
Here’s a practical tip to fix this glitch in communication: Specify what kind of language you’re using and what you mean by it. Yup, it may feel stiff. It’s worth it. For example: “Look, I’m having an awful day today. I’m going to complain a lot. Now, I don’t want anything from you, I just want you to let me complain. Don’t feel stressed that you have to fix it or do anything.”
How to keep the romance alive
Staying close to each other romantically (or finding your way back) can be tough under difficult circumstances but makes all the difference when going through cancer together.
Build mutual understanding through open communication
This all boils down to understanding – understanding each other, how cancer affects your relationships, how you can make yourself understood, and how to express understanding to your partner.
Listening is the first step in building understanding. Listening with humility. Listening without the need to defend. Listening not to solve something or come up with a solution right off the bat, but listening in a way that makes your loved one feel heard. Listen like you’re on the same side. Because you are.
The more you make an effort to understand what your loved one is expressing and going through, the easier it will be to manage everyday life in sync with each other, which leaves energy and time to spend together.
Intimacy is multi-layered and can take on a variety of different forms. Be intimate physically. Sex isn’t always possible – if it is, great. If not, there are many other, and equally important, physical expressions of affection. Do whatever feels natural and whatever makes you come closer. Hold them. Really look them in the eyes.
Another aspect of intimacy is doing something that has always bonded the two of you together. This could be enjoying a meal out or watching a movie that means something to you both. Did you meet while doing a specific hobby or at a specific place? If nothing else, put your phones and other distractions away and spend one hour of uninterrupted time together, however you choose. Bring with you the intention to bond and put your best foot forward. They’re worth it.
Encourage wellbeing outside of your relationship
Support each other in your lives outside of your relationship. Encourage each other to take part in healthy activities that bring each individual a sense of purpose and happiness. This is a beautiful way to show that you’re on someone’s side, that you genuinely care about them. Whether it’s cheering your loved one one in staying active, being part of a social club that gives energy, learning something new, exploring a new area of town. Literally, whatever brings a smile from the soul.
A helpful framework to go by is the SPIRE framework, developed by Dr Tal Ben-Shahar (learn more from his book or this podcast where he’s a guest) that focuses a whole person approach to happiness – Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Relational, and Emotional wellbeing.
Encourage each other to do things that feed all aspects of their being and in so doing, support each other’s mental health and show love by being on their side. The more we are in our own element, the less burdened we feel, and the more able we are to support and love those around us.
Download the War On Cancer app to connect with other loved ones and those diagnosed to learn from and better cope with a changing world. After all, those who know, know.