Whether you are only anticipating dealing with chronic illness in a committed relationship or years into the venture, you’re not alone if you’re overwhelmed with living type 1 diabetes. You and your spouse/partner brave more than the average couple: Incessant blood sugar swings, serious threats of diabetes complications, gnawing fear of financial scarcity, anxiety about children developing the disease, judgmental friends or family, and the shame, anger, and despair that come when best efforts fail to provide the elusive control propagandized by a mercenary pop health culture. And we could go on.
All considered, it is no wonder that the reality of living with type 1 diabetes often imbues fear into relationship formation and processes. Chronic illness can indeed break couples apart.
But for many couples living with T1D, this hasn’t been the case (see Graham, 2000; Walsh, 2000; Yorgason et al., 2007). And it doesn’t have to be for you either. Although you’ll undoubtedly still experience normal stresses and fatigue associated with T1D, intentional effort on your part will not just save your relationship, but help it thrive.
We polled a few couples living with T1D and experiencing thriving relationships to get their insight.
From those living with T1D:
- “In my case, I feel that diabetes has 100% made our relationship stronger. It has allowed me to share my vulnerable self with my husband and has built our trust with one another.”
- “In my opinion, diabetes can be one of the hardest trials. Most times I feel alone in this trial and that no one understands…Allowing my husband to be a part of my health—letting him help me insert my Dexcom, fill shots, or simply be there for my hard days—has allowed him to take some of that burden off my shoulders so I don’t have to carry it all on my own. It has allowed us to respect one another’s trials more. It has helped us built trust, unity, sympathy, and love towards one another.”
- “Diabetes has strengthened our relationship through increased communication. I have to communicate how I’m feeling and how I need help. Without this [communication], we would be on completely different pages. I believe there is a level of shared responsibility that draws us closer together as well.”
- “I TOTALLY agree that diabetes can strengthen a relationship. Navigating this already high-risk pregnancy, during a pandemic and as a first-time mom has been wild. But having my husband to help me with my concerns, fears, and diabetes management has made all the difference in strengthening our relationship and has actually allowed me to be calmer than I would have expected.”
From their partners:
- “Yes, diabetes has strengthened our relationship for me too. I feel that diabetes has given me multiple opportunities to serve [my husband]. When he has a high or low, needs help changing/inserting something, asks me to pack some diabetic stuff, or as type of diabetic emergency, I get to help him out and the more I help him the more I love him. I also feel like he trusts me and that we’ve grown closer by sharing diabetic management. It feels like no one else will really understand how life is as T1D and I feel super grateful that he lets me in on a vulnerable part of life by sharing.”
- “I think diabetes, like any illness, gives an opportunity for unity... when a person without diabetes really tries to support his/her partner and understand them, and when the person with diabetes allows his/her partner to help them, they can grow in unity because taking care of diabetes then becomes a shared experience... [And because] When we serve each other and allow ourselves to be served, we grow closer together.”
- [Day to day complications arising from T1D] have greatly increased our capacity as a couple to abandon "the plans” …If plans fall through due to an endangering BG level, or if we have to save up for something a little bit longer than everyone else, it's not really an inconvenience to me, and it’s certainly not [my wife’s] fault…We simply focus on improvising our away to the next platform. Very useful life and relationship skill.
- “T1D has helped enable us be united in our resolve to break free of other people’s plans and expectations for us. I have grown rather proud of our collective ability to dig in our heels and say, “Mmm, no thanks” to anyone’s good-intentioned… and exhausting…[requests]. It feels indescribably liberating to not care what someone else thinks of us as a couple. We are united in our resolve to do what works for us because any alternative route usually includes facing [undesirable diabetes complications].”
Here are some additional ways diabetes may be strengthening your relationship:
- Healthy Communication: Couples with T1D quickly learn that diabetes management requires frequent and honest communication, whether it be about meal planning, diabetes supplies, or the current blood sugar level. Sometimes it’s exhausting, but the essential communication habits developed in diabetes management bleed over into other aspects of couple living. Strong couples know how to communicate.
- Quality Time: Many aspects of diabetes management provide ideal time for building the couple relationship. For example, a diabetic’s need for regular and healthy meals and snacks means more food prep time in the kitchen, which can become a setting for couples to talk, laugh, and strengthen their emotional bond. A diabetic’s need for regular exercise also gives a couple the opportunity to seek out wholesome recreation, which can invigorate a relationship. Trips to the endocrinologist, late-night lows, spiking blood sugars ... all of these can provide opportunities for the couple to spend quality time together.
- Respect for the Body: The relentless challenges of T1D provide a couple with clear vision about the gift of a functioning body. Anyone who has had to be their own pancreas, or has seen someone make the attempt, goggles in awe at a heathy body’s ability to function in such complex ways (even without a working pancreas), without any real effort from the person! This deep admiration for the body in couples with T1D helps sanctify the sacred act of physical intimacy and sustains gentle and humane interaction between committed partners.
- Support Networks & Friends: Sometimes it’s hard to make friends as a new couple; however, couples with diabetes have built-in support networks (e.g., online communities such as Type 1 Nation, BeyondType1,and JDRF; as well as local communities, such as local CDN chapters...) and with increased empathy and a “realness” about them (rare in many young couples), can bond more easily with others. Besides, with 1.25 million T1’s in the U.S. alone, couples with diabetes are bound to meet diabetic neighbors, co-workers, and colleagues who just “get it,” and through these associations, build more lasting and genuine friends than they could without diabetes.
- Trust and Emotional Connection: As seen in some of the comments from couples above, diabetes can create a climate where both partners feel comfortable sharing their “vulnerable selves.” It may begin with the person with diabetes asking for help during a moment of physical or emotional pain associated with diabetes management. As the person lets their partner really “see” them, the partner feels trusted and loved. Then, as the partner responds with empathy, the trust between the partners grows. This trust creates a climate where the other partner then feels comfortable letting him/herself be “seen.” As empathy and love is again shown, the cycle continues, and emotional connection grows deeper and more profound.
- Resiliency: When a couple is forced to navigate rapids from the beginning of their entire relationship, they will develop a level of teamwork and competence far beyond that of those just drifting in calmer waters. Such is the case with couples navigating diabetes. When the storm hits, as will happen in all relationships, those couples, well-accustomed to the waves, and having achieved a synergism beyond their years, will not likely capsize. Couples with diabetes can develop remarkable resilience, and not just in diabetes-related adversity.
- Love: Maybe a relationship begins because partners “fall in love,” but the love in a relationship will only endure as partners choose to love. In other words, as one loves (verb), love (as the noun) blossoms. So, when the partner without diabetes drives back to the movie theater to search for the missing glucose-meter or slips a hand into their companion’s at a hard endocrinology appointment, they are loving their partner. And because they are choosing to love, their feeling of love grows. Diabetes provides ample and regular opportunities for both partners to love (verb) one another and for the love (noun) in the relationship to flourish.
As you read over some of the ways diabetes can strengthen your relationship, we hope that you feel some hope! Perhaps you have thought about some of your own experiences. We invite you to talk with your partner about these and practice identifying more of your strengths together. If you don’t identify with what has been described above, we urge you to consider with your partner ways that you can claim the benefits of diabetes for your relationship.