Chronic pain—whether it occurs in the muscles or joints…in the gut…or anywhere else—can surely be debilitating. If your significant other experiences chronic pain, it can be tough to live with, and over time you may get a little tired of dealing with it.
In fact, you may be inclined to trivialize your partner’s chronic pain, either accidentally or intentionally, by saying things like “Oh, it can’t be that bad,” “It must be all in your head,” “Just don’t think about it—you’re fine,” or even “You’re just trying to get out of doing chores!”
But a new study shows that making unsympathetic comments like that can be very destructive to both the person in pain and to the relationship—especially when the comments are aimed at men with chronic pain.
To find out how both genders—especially women—can be more supportive of spouses who have chronic pain, I called the study’s lead author, Laura Leong, MA, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Leong and her colleagues studied 78 couples whose average age was 54. Either one or both spouses had chronic pain, which was defined as anything “musculoskeletal that occurred almost daily for at least six months.” Researchers began the study by interviewing each partner individually. If the person had chronic pain, he or she was asked about the severity of the pain.
A few hours later, the couples were brought together and asked to discuss a topic that they frequently disagreed about, such as finances, chores or sexual intimacy, for 15 minutes. Researchers left them alone during this time, but each couple was told that the discussion would be videotaped.
When researchers later watched the videos, they used a standard psychological tool to measure the words chosen, tone of voice and body language to assess whether or not comments made toward the other person were “validating” (remarks that were accepting, respectful, affectionate) or “invalidating” (remarks that were disrespectful, angry or nonaccepting or that showed contempt or disgust).
An analysis of the interviews showed that the more often a wife invalidated a husband who was in pain, the more likely the husband would respond with an invalidating comment of his own and the more likely he was to have reported a high level of pain. But surprisingly, the same was not true when husbands belittled their wives who were in pain—in these cases, even when a husband invalidated his wife who was in pain, she was no more likely to respond with an invalidating comment or to have reported a high level of pain.
Leong isn’t exactly sure why these results occurred, but she does offer one theory—men are more likely to perceive themselves as “providers” in a marriage, so they may put more pressure on themselves to be stereotypically manly, strong and stoic, as old-fashioned gender roles would require. So when they’re in pain (and already feeling a little vulnerable) and they’re being verbally attacked, they may feel extra vulnerable and more threatened than women would. This could explain why men felt more severe pain—and it could also explain why they felt the need to “snap back” with invalidating comments of their own.
Now, this study doesn’t prove that the wives’ invalidating comments caused greater pain in their husbands—only an association was found. In other words, it’s possible, said Leong, that wives are more likely to make invalidating comments when their husbands have severe pain.
Leong added that the results show how important it is to watch what you say when your significant other suffers from pain. She suggests the following...
Make small gestures. If your spouse complains about his (or her) pain, don’t walk away. Instead, stand or sit down next to him and hold his hand or rub his back to show your concern.
Choose your words carefully. Reassure the pain sufferer with statements such as, "I can't imagine what you're going through, but it sounds very difficult. I'm here if you need me."
Try couples therapy. If the two of you are still struggling to deal with the problem and the constant bickering over the pain or other topics won’t stop, look into couples therapy.
Source: Laura Leong, MA, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit.