Trigger warning for breakups, pregnancy and infertility
Relationships are hard work. Anyone can tell you that. Even when they feel as effortless as breathing, they need looking after or that sensation will go away.
Add endometriosis into the mix and things get a whole lot harder.
Quite apart from the impact on your physical intimacy, which I will talk about more in a later post, endometriosis can be a real burden to both partners (or presumably more, if you are polyamorous. I’m not, so I don’t really feel qualified to discuss that particular dynamic here. Guests posts welcome). As I’ve talked about before, endo puts a whole bunch of limitations on your ability to earn money, be an equal participant in household chores, help with the physical work of caring for children, and drains your ability to be emotionally available. How can you give your partner’s struggles the care and attention they need when you are barely keeping your own head above water, emotionally speaking?
I’ve always earned less money than my husband despite being on the same career path. That’s a function of being five years younger and not being a super whiz-kid who tore through a degree in record time and marched smartly up the ranks of the legal profession. I was three years older than my husband was when I actually started practising as a lawyer.
Mostly, that’s never bothered me. My income is still good and I love the work I do. However, I do get bothered when I am sick all the time and not earning anything at all. Financial security is good, and not having it is scary. Although it has yet to become a source of conflict between us rather than mutual fear and sadness, financial problems are the number one cause of relationship breakdowns in Australia. It puts an enormous amount of strain on your partnership.
It would be very easy for my husband to be angry or annoyed at me for my inability to contribute. I celebrated a small victory yesterday because I did some laundry AND unloaded the dishwasher (I was too sore to reload it, though). I’m paying for that today, apparently, with crippling pains, muscle weakness, nausea and a truly angry stomach keeping me home from work.
One struggle that I often see my husband going through that I simply can’t help with is his own frustration and guilt that he can’t make me better (irrational but totally unavoidable when you love someone), and his anguish at seeing me in pain. That can be incredibly hard to deal with, because then I feel guilty that I am making him sad, and upset that I can’t comfort him because I need comforting myself, or frustrated that I am comforting him when I need him to comfort me. It hurts me to see him hurting just as it pains him to see me in pain.
In a way I am very lucky that my troubles began when I was already in a really well-established relationship and we had committed to a life together with the deepest sincerity. If I’d been this physical wreck when I first met him, I think I may have scared him right off. I wouldn’t want to date me, that’s for sure.
I’m also lucky that an inability to have children isn’t a dealbreaker for him. I don’t know if I’m truly infertile. We’ve never tried to conceive. However, the fact that I require 2-3 contraceptives to live life like a relatively normal human doesn’t bode well for having babies.
However, in too many cases, the relationship will be too young to survive the troubles, or the frustration of the healthy partner and the guilt of the one with endo will just create a fracture in the relationship that can’t be fixed. I don’t have a cure for that. I’m not a relationship expert and if endo is the cause of the trouble, that’s not something that will go away. However, I do have five tips that I’d suggest any couple where one (or both) parties have endo consider.
Ok, yes, every relationship book ever says this, but it is doubly true in this case. Tell your partner what you are experiencing in terms of pain, and make it clear what you need from them. Tell them what you can and can’t do. Say, “If you bring the washing over here I can fold it if you can put it away.” “I can chop the vegetables for dinner if you can do the actual cooking.” “I’m in terrible pain and I need a heatpack and a hug.” This helps give them a way to help you, which will help alleviate guilt they may feel about not being able to cure you. It also demonstrates that you are willing to help as much as you can. On that note…
2) Do what you can
If there is a household task you can accomplish that won’t leave you bedridden for a week, do it. If you are having a healthy time of it, get stuck in – cook a bunch of meals to put in the freezer, do a deep clean of the bathrooms. It stores up brownie points for when you are sick, shows that you aren’t slacking off for funsies, and helps take some of the burden off your partner when you do have a flare-up, because they only have to maintain the house at the level you have it at.
This applies to dates and taking time for yourselves as a couple, too. If you are healthy, seize the day. Go and have dinner out together or see a movie. Go for a walk. Spend time as a couple, unburdened by illness for just a few hours. Talk, kiss, reconnect. Treat yo’ selves, emotionally speaking. Treasure the good times and store up good memories.
Don’t forget to say thank you. We are worthy and deserving of love, but our partners will often have to go above and beyond for us. A simple thank-you can remind them that you notice the hard work that they do, and that it doesn’t go unappreciated.
3) Be thrifty
This is a good tip for life anyway, but when you are getting paid regularly, put as much as you can afford to into savings so you have a cushion for when work just isn’t happening. I’m a massive hypocrite for saying this (although less so this year) but avoid splurging on things you don’t need except as the occasional treat. This applies to both partners – putting money away against financially hard times will help ease the financial stress and pressure when the income starts to vanish.
4) Be clear at the start
If you are only at the beginning on the relationship, but think things might be getting serious, you have to have the serious talk, regardless of how embarrassing it is or how clingy you think it might make you. You need to talk about how much having children matters to each of you, because it may not happen, and if that’s a deal-breaker for your partner it is way better to find out at the beginning. Talk about how your endometriosis effects you. If your partner requires someone who will always be their running buddy, their sugar-mummy (or daddy), their dedicated housewife who will always have the home in tip-top shape, or someone who will spend 90% of their free time in the bedroom, endometriosis may well throw a spanner in those works. If they love you and can live with the inconvenience and the consequent emotional burdens, fantastic – full-steam ahead. If they can’t, end it now before you have intertwined lives that you can’t separate without horrible pain and angst.
Which leads me to…
5) Accept the end
Sometimes relationships end, even really strong ones. I practice in family law, and it just breaks my heart when 80-year-olds who have been together 60 years come to me for advice about their divorce. The thing is, seeing some of the trouble in these relationships, and being a human being who has her own failed romances, I know that sometimes it is better that things end.
Ending a relationship when you have endometriosis is and will always be very hard. You will have to struggle with a lot of feelings, including guilt for having the disease in the first place, anger that the other person’s love for you wasn’t strong enough to deal with the bad stuff, and terror that you won’t be able to handle things without the support you have grown reliant on. Ending relationships, particularly long-established ones, is a messy, expensive and difficult business, and often it drives warring couples to stay together far longer than they should and make everything even more toxic. I don’t really have any tips for dealing with that, except to engage with a professional to talk about it if you can, and to recognise when the emotional trauma of staying together exceeds the practical benefits.
That’s a depressing note to end on, but it is worth noting that not every relationship with endo will crash and burn. It is common but not universal. Strength, patience, courage, kindness, love and determination are needed in bucketloads by both partners. I’m going to end this on a quote that I think really defines what makes a relationship in any circumstances, but is just vital for people with endometriosis.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Have you lost relationships due to endometriosis? Do you have any tips on keeping things together, or on picking yourself back up when they fall apart? Or please, share a happy story about how your relationship has prospered despite it!