Recently I wrote about how to take care of a sick partner from a distance. This post was focused on mild sickness, but after I’d published it I started thinking: what about when your long distance partner has a long-term health condition (mental or physical), or something temporary but serious which affects their life in a deeper way?
When my current partner and I were long distance several years ago, he became sick and took 6 months to fully recover. In the age of COVID-19, this is again a real possibility for many long distance couples.
I’ve never seen this discussed anywhere else online, so I thought I’d share some of the advice that I would have told my younger self about dealing with that situation. I’m no health expert, so please do take the advice of professionals over my own (plus, all illnesses are different and so are all people, so some of these items might not apply to your situation), but I hope my thoughts are useful in some way.
That being said, here are 9 ways to help your partner cope when they’re going through a serious or long-term illness.
1. Show that you care, but don’t focus on their symptoms all the time
Of course, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask your partner how they’re feeling – this is part of being there for them. If their condition has changed recently, this might also be a good reason to discuss it. However, don’t excessively focus on their illness if there’s no real reason to do so, as this can actually make things more difficult for them.
To make a comparison with a different situation, this can be a little like asking a person who is job-hunting how the search is going: if things haven’t changed much from the last time you spoke, it may come across like you’re putting pressure on them to deliver good news and they’ll just feel bad for having to tell you the same thing every time.
So, be mindful of how often you bring it up, and why – and remember to ask them how they are doing as a whole, rather than just asking about their symptoms. If they have something to share, they probably will!
2. … But listen when they want to talk
It’s common to feel rather powerless when someone you love is sick. But being there to hear them out and lend a sympathetic ear is incredibly valuable – so let your partner know that they can always talk to you about things if they need or want to.
Don’t feel like you have to always say the correct thing or that you need to have all the answers in order to be helpful. Just listening to what they have to say is often enough.
3. Encourage them to seek help if they haven’t already
Just like with milder illnesses, some people are really into ‘toughing it out’ through more serious conditions, even when they should really be getting help.
If it feels like this is the case, encourage them to see a doctor if they haven’t already.
4. Encourage them to connect with people close to them
Illness can be isolating. Ironically, being in a long-distance relationship can be isolating too, because time spent with your partner is normally time you’re not spending with others – unlike regular relationships where you can hang out as a group (perhaps only virtually these days, but still).
Both of you should have a support network of friends and family who can check in on you. If you’re the only person who your partner is talking to on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, encourage them to connect with their loved ones, especially those who live close by.
5. Have their emergency contact details handy
Hopefully this will never occur, but if something happens (such as if you don’t hear from your partner when you were expecting to) you will want a way to check in on them.
Keep their emergency contact details handy. These could include their family/friends, a doctor, their neighbour, etc.
6. Don’t forget about you
When your partner is sick, it’s easy to focus entirely on them and forget all about self-care. Caring for yourself is part of caring for others – but moreover, it matters for its own sake.
Remember to focus on your own needs as well.
7. Ease the stress together
One of the best parts of being in a relationship is having someone there who can help you just escape from the world for a little while. Be lazy together, watch Netflix, watch comedy, just do something fun.
Even when you’re in the middle of a challenging situation, humour can go a long way. I won’t get into all the evidence about how laughter positively affects physical health, etc., but I think everyone can agree that it feels good 🙂
So find ways to hang out (even just virtually) enjoy yourselves and do light-hearted things every so often.
8. Understand that they’ll have bad days
A tip I heard from psychotherapist Esther Perel (host of the relationship podcast Where Shall We Begin) on the subject of illness and relationships was ‘don’t confuse state with attitude’. I think this makes a lot of sense.
Being sick can be a horrible experience and it can affect you mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Sometimes your partner might just be too tired to have a video call, have a laugh with you or do any of the things you normally do.
Be patient and remember that it’s very likely not a reflection on your relationship, or you.
9. Learn about their condition (but don’t try to control how they manage it)
Learning about your partner’s condition does two things: it helps you empathise and care for them better, and it also lets them know that you’re invested in understanding their situation.
However, try to be mindful of doing this in a supportive, rather than controlling way. The internet is full of suggestions about how to manage different conditions (especially mental health conditions and autoimmune disorders). Some of them are from reliable sources and some aren’t, and chances are good that a lot of them have been suggested to your partner by different people at some point. That’s not to say you can’t ever share information that seems promising, but be careful about sources and don’t insist on telling them how to manage it.