Chronic Communication at Home: What Can I Do For You?

“What about me?”


That’s what a client, who I’ll call Tom, said to his wife, Maria, recently. They were in my office, talking with me about how hard it was to communicate with each other. Maria is living with a chronic condition that causes limitations in her ability to participate as much as she wants to in the daily activities of the home they share with their two children. Tom has been feeling a little overworked and a lot underappreciated.


“What about you?” Maria responded. ‘You don’t know what it’s like to have to live this way. Some days I’m not sure if you have any idea what I need.”


This conversation could have ended up with her folding her arms across her chest and him shrugging his shoulders in return. Going nowhere from there.


You may be wondering: “Did you ask her to explain to him what her needs were?”


And the answer is yes, I did. But I took it a step further. I asked Tom to explain to Maria what he needed.


This was a conversation the two of them had never really had before. Tom admitted that he thought he understood what Maria needed from him, not only in terms of helping around the house but also how to support her emotionally. But he realized he didn’t have the full picture.


And guess what Maria said? “To be honest, I never even thought about what Tom might need. I’ve been pretty focused on my own problems.”



“How can I help you?” How can I help you?” Support Goes in Both Directions!


Maria learned a lot about Tom in this discussion. She learned that he didn’t mind doing extra work in keeping up the house and taking care of the kids. In fact, he kind of liked it. But what he needed was for Maria to let him know when she was starting to feel like she was overdoing things, and asking for more help, instead of tiring herself out, which left him feeling guilty. He needed her to let him do things his way instead of criticizing him for what seemed like relatively unimportant. And most of all, he needed her to give him some emotional support, starting with being willing to listen to how he is feeling and offering some encouragement.


“I just need you to ask me, ‘what can I do for you?’ once in awhile,” Tom admitted.


“I can do that,” Maria answered.


Living with a chronic condition is no party. You didn’t choose this road. If you had a choice, you would be living minus one medical diagnosis, if not more than one.


But as Maria recognized, being in a relationship is a two-way street. Yes, it’s your job to make your chronic condition a priority, and to take the best possible care of yourself and to enlist your family members in helping you to do that. Absolutely! You’re doing everything you can to cope with the curveballs your chronic condition throws your way.


But here’s something to consider: Are you so focused on getting what you need that you may be overlooking your partner’s needs?


And what about this: Have you asked – and listened – to what your partners needs are? And then looked at how you can incorporate more caring and sharing into your daily interaction?


Want to give it a try? Here’s how to get started:


Ask. One of the best ways to learn about your partner’s needs is to ask. What’s sad is that so many people don’t take the time to ask. They assume to know already. Or they just don’t think about what their partner needs. The simple question – “What can I do for you?” – shows your partner how much you care. By asking it, you’re already one step toward helping your partner feel more supported.


Listen. With an open mind. You might be surprised at what you hear from your partner. Maybe you’ll learn that a simple gesture would help him/her have a better day. But you may also learn that your partner needs a lot more from you than you expected. You might hear about how overwhelmed your partner feels at times, or a lot of the time. A few disappointments or resentments might come up. Be open to what your partner has to say.


Get specific. You may hear a lot of generalities from your partner, e.g. “be more considerate” or “give me a hand.” That’s a start in the right direction but it doesn’t really give you much to work with. So press your partner to give you examples of what you could do that would help them feel more supported. Make sure you know how to translate your positive intent into action.


Schedule time to talk. Speaking of positive intent… everybody’s busy, and it can be tough to sit down with your partner and have a conversation about your relationship. Chances are that, if it’s not on the schedule, it may not happen. So think about scheduling a time when you know you won’t be distracted to sit together to talk things out.


Identify what you appreciate. Encourage your partner to do the same. When your partner talks or acts in a way that you appreciate, let them know how much you appreciate it and why. They may figure out the benefit of reinforcing positive actions and do the same for you. But if not, you might try saying something like “feel free to let me know when I do something that helps you in some way. That way I’ll know to do it more.”


Say “thank you.” These are magic words to the person who just did whatever you are thanking them for. Sometimes all the other person needs is to feel like their hard work is being acknowledged and appreciated.


Going it alone makes for a rough road. Nobody knows that better than someone who is living with a chronic condition. You’re dealing with a lot, and you need some support from your family members, especially your partner. But how about considering this perspective? There may be times when you feel lonely even in a houseful of other people. Your partner may feel that way, too. Especially if you find yourself focusing on what he/ she did wrong or hasn’t done enough of. Not letting your partner know that they are appreciated can leave them feeling like they are just blending in with the furniture. So a question: How is your partner feeling on those days when that road you’re traveling is especially rough?


“What can I do for you?” Imagine what it would be like at your home if everybody thought not only about “me” but also “you” and “us.” A little compassion goes a long way. After all, we’re all in this together!