Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This Relationship Corner: In sickness

It's as inevitable as the sun rising and setting, a traffic jam when you're in a hurry, and that television show you like getting cancelled. Your significant other is going to get sick. It might be a simple cold, a less simple flu, or an extremely complicated disease that gets them mentioned in a medical journal. Whatever they've got, you are now the designated go-to caregiver. They need something, you're the first call.

You'll hear a lot of advice about when you know you should get married, and I'm going to offer one more. You shouldn't marry someone until they've been really sick. (And you should at least wait until they get better for the wedding.) The reason you need for one, or both, of you to be sick is that you need to know what it's like when that happens. If you're the one who's sick, can you count on your boyfriend or girlfriend to be there for you? Can you depend on your significant other? If so, that's a good sign. If not, that's a sign that you should re-think a lifelong commitment.

And no, I'm not being flippant here, their reaction to you being sick is a big deal, and it's indicative of things to come. As you get older, getting sick will become more and more serious, and you need a partner who will see it through with you. If you're dating and they bail on you, what do you think they'll do when you're married? There's a reason one of the traditional vows is "In sickness and in health." If they can't be there in both times, then they aren't really committed to the relationship.

It's a big deal. And that's why when it's your boyfriend or girlfriend who's sick, you've got to be their first call. You're the one who goes with them to the doctor, gets their medicine, makes them soup, and puts up with them at their decidedly un-sexiest. (That's another reason for the rule about not getting married until one of you is sick. You need to see each other at your absolute worst and still be able to say to yourself, "I want to spend the rest of my life with this snotty mess.")

Of course, it's more than just a test to see how committed you are. You are fulfilling a very real need, being a source of comfort and aid in a time of need. Being sick is awful. You're a miserable, achy mess, rendered an invalid. Your life comes to a screeching halt and it can be hard to remember a time when it didn't suck to be you. Growing up, most of us could count on our family to take care of us. As adults on our own, however, it's a lot harder being sick and having no one around who feels the least bit concern. Having a caring soul can not only make us feel better though these tough times, it can speed the healing process.

To fight off infections, we need a healthy immune system. One of the benefits of a healthy relationship is that our immune system is stronger. When we have a partner, life is less stressful, and that means we don't strain our immune system. When we're sick, having people who love us makes it easier, relaxes the body, and can help us recover far more quickly. Or it means our recovery time doesn't suck nearly as much.

Not only will being there for your partner help them, it's good for your relationship. One of you being sick can slow you both down a bit and give you some quality time together. (Yes, that quality time involves some gross bodily functions, but that's life, get used to it.) If they're lying on the couch miserable, it's the perfect time to catch up on a show you like and have an all-day marathon. (I recommend against House.) Grab a few movies you've been meaning to see and have a little film festival. Or you could break out the board games, video games, puzzles, or some activity you always said you'd do if you had the time. Now you have the time.

Yes, I realize that spending time with a sick person might not be the most fun. Whether they are very needy, gross, or just not having a good time, it won't be anything like a normal date night. However, it can be something that brings you a lot closer as you take care of them. It's a shared experience through a tough time, and that's never a bad thing.

Again, this is a test. When you're the one who's sick, look at your boyfriend or girlfriend. Are they there for you, or are you left to fend for yourself. Is your supposed significant other constantly complaining about how your illness is interfering with their day, or are they perfectly willing to drop everything to make sure you're well? Make sure you know what kind of caregiver they are before you marry, because that's how they'll be after.

Enough about why this is important to the relationship. I want to offer some advice to both the caregiver and the "sickee." Remember, while this can be a valuable experience for your relationship, it can also do some damage if you aren't careful.

For the Caregivers
  • Don't whine about taking care of your partner. They're miserable enough and you don't want to add to it. Besides, one day you'll be sick too. Consider this an investment in the future.
  • Treat your sick mate how they want to be treated. Everyone needs different things when they're sick, and it helps to go according to your partner's wishes, not yours.
  • Be empathetic. Your partner is in a miserable mood, and being sick can change people. Be understanding and patient, they're not the same person.
  • Don't make them feel ashamed of being sick. Illness can be a gross, disgusting process. The last thing you need to do is make your partner self-conscious. 
  • Follow the golden rule. As I said, you'll be sick one day, so treat them like you want to be treated. Go the extra mile and do your best to make this illness as misery free as possible. Otherwise you might have a caregiver who is as whiny and selfish as you were, and that won't be fun.

When you are sick
  • Be as low maintenance as possible. I realize that when you are sick, you're miserable and desperate for any relief. Still, don't get yourself a little bell and ring it every five minutes. Your partner wants to care for you, but don't treat them like a butler.
  • See a doctor if you need to. If you have more than just a cold, if you are running a serious fever, then go to the doctor. Don't be a stubborn fool who doesn't get checked out and then whines about not getting any better. A trip to the doctor can really speed your recovery along.
  • Follow good advice. One of the jobs of your caregiver is to make sure you get healthy, and that might be insisting you drink hot tea, eat soup, or take medicine. 
  • Return the favor. Again, the golden rule. If you were well taken care of when you were sick, remember that when you're the one who's the caregiver. 

Yes, being sick, or taking care of someone sick might not always be the most fun, but when you do it right, your relationship is that much stronger. And you'll need that strength because one day this might be more than just a cold. Sometimes it can be very serious, and someone will need to step up. That first bout with the flu can tell you all you need to know about what might happen down the road. Like I said, it's an important test. Make sure you pass with flying colors.

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