Sometimes, it can feel like there are three of you in a relationship. You, your partner, and migraine. Migraine can challenge relationships. It affects you, the person who experiences the challenging symptoms of migraine attacks, but also the person who loves and cares for you.
When we experience migraine attacks, we often struggle with difficult and incapacitating symptoms making it difficult to keep up with the needs of our partner or family, our household responsibilities, our social connections, even intimacy.
DOES MIGRAINE CAUSE RELATIONSHIP PROBLEMS?
During the 60th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Headache Society in June 2018, an analysis was presented that showed the strong impact chronic migraine has on relationships, which is greater than that related to episodic migraine.
The data used in the analysis came from a longitudinal web survey called the Chronic Migraine Epidemiology and Outcomes (CaMEO) study. The study compared the relationships of 13,064 people. These participants either had episodic migraine (14 or fewer migraine attacks every month) or chronic migraine (15 or more migraine attacks per month). Respondents answered questions regarding relationships with their spouse or significant other, as well as their relationship with children at home. As outlined in the graph below, 78% of those with chronic migraine that live with their partners feel that migraine can cause relationship problems.
“As a clinician, it’s important to remember that migraine imposes a significant burden on all aspects of life, and it’s a good thing to ask about because disability should inform our treatment planning; not only is it going to help the clinician perhaps design a more comprehensive treatment plan, but it might help the patient to be more open and adherent to trying additional, new treatments, which may include a preventive pharmacological agent, a behavioural treatment,” Dr Buse said.
Often, people with migraine feel as though their partner, family and friends just don’t understand. As someone with migraine will tell you, they have all heard their unfair share of ignorant (not always on purpose) comments. “Are you ok? Do you have another bad headache?” or “Are you sure you can’t come? It’s just a headache.” The list of unhelpful and uneducated comments is endless. The stigma that migraine is ‘just a headache’ can make it hard for those living with the disease to feel recognised, understood and heard.
Migraine is not ‘just a headache’. Migraine is a common and complex inherited neurological disorder of sensory processing. Most people don’t know they have migraine until they start getting migraine attacks. Migraine attacks involve a combination of neurological symptoms such as severe headache, sensitivity to light, noise, smells, nausea or vomiting, and in some cases, weakness, numbness, dizziness and problems with vision. Many people who live with migraine may be symptom-free for years and never know they have migraine. For others, migraine attacks are frequent and can be quite debilitating. Some people also have symptoms between attacks.
There are many different types of migraine, and recent advancements in research has led to a recognition that we must accurately diagnose and treat by migraine type to effectively manage migraine. Many people who experience significant or frequent migraine attacks have more than one type of migraine and may find that different treatments work for different types of attacks.
SO HOW DO WE MANAGE MIGRAINE AND OUR RELATIONSHIPS?
We asked the members of our chat group for their best tips. Here are a few of the responses.
“My husband and I have migraine disorder. I am chronic and he is episodic (and we are both iconic!). The number one rule in our house is ‘if you love them, let them sleep’. We support each other by checking in with each other. Asking yes or no questions. Offering different types of relief- medication or other things like a wheat bag and Cefaly. We each do what we can. We have both grown up with parents with migraine so we know what it looks like for the outside as well as what it feels like.” - Nette Skye Judson
“Definitely educate them on what migraine is and how they can help you. Also, tell them when you need rest and when you're listing to what your body needs. Communication is key.” - Alissa Gigliotti
“Boundaries! Learn how to set clear, healthy boundaries with family and friends so you don’t overdo it, and make sure they understand that if you need to leave or can’t make something, it’s important and isn’t ‘unfair’. These skills are particularly hard to learn, and even more important if you’re a people-pleaser. It’s one of the best things you’ll do for yourself.” - Erin Hart
“Educate them! Too often we hide it, apologise for it, or otherwise try and deal with it by ourselves and not let our partner take care of us because it’s ‘just migraine’. By bringing your partner up to speed on what migraine is, your triggers and sensitivities, they can support you and help you have the environment you need.” - Raphaella Kathryn Crosby
“Be open and honest about what you're going through. Don't play down your symptoms, make them understand.” - Kerri Nicol
“Let your partner know what practical things they can do to help and let them know you appreciate it.” - Andy L Ester
“It can make you feel very guilty that the people around you have to deal with migraine as well. Communication helps a lot. Educating others that you can be affected for days before and after, and letting them know what you experience, gives them a greater understanding too.” - Jeni-Lee Kolman
“Lots of ‘thank yous’ and ‘I love yous’ to my husband.” - Wendy Rowe
“Explain how it impacts your life and what you need. Show gratitude when they are supportive.” - Francine Horobin
“My husband likes being kept in the loop so he can prepare mentally and work-wise for me potentially going down for 2-3 days. So even if it’s the barest chance of a migraine attack, I tell him and keep him updated with how I’m feeling.” - Claire Galbraith
“I have the most empathetic kids despite being young, they are acutely aware of my triggers (especially perfumes/deodorants etc) and are mindful of not using them near me. For the longest time, I felt so guilty for the debilitating condition being a Migraineur is to my family, but the encouragement I get from my husband and kids to let them know when an attack is coming on, or what they can do to help, has helped my mindset greatly.” Monique Gardner
Communicating with your partner, family and children is vital for your relationships. If you don't have open and honest conversations about migraine, migraine attacks and your feelings, you won’t be able to get the help from your loved ones that you deserve. People are not mind readers and often, we expect them to be. Our symptoms are often invisible. This makes it difficult (near impossible) for someone to know what we need or how we are feeling without being told. Be honest about your limits and triggers, and develop healthy boundaries.
Unless your partner has experienced migraine attacks or lived with someone who has, chances are they will not understand what migraine is, what a migraine attack feels like, or what it takes to manage migraine long-term. The same can be said for children. In both instances, it is important to educate those around you about the disorder. With children, be open, honest and age-appropriate. You might be surprised just how much they understand and how much empathy they can have.
Give your partner, family or children things that they can to help you. It might be taking care of dinner and allowing you to rest, taking care of the kids so that you can escape the noise for a while, or bringing you helpful tools such as hot or cold packs and medication.
Ask for Help
Asking for help is not easy and it is a skill that takes time to develop. All too often we try to minimise the impact our health has on others. However, it is important to remember, that if we aren't asking for help our partner and family can often feel helpless and that they can’t help us. Asking for practical help can alleviate that sense of helplessness they can sometimes experience.
Express gratitude to those that love and support you. This helps them to feel appreciated and reinforces that their assistance makes a difference to us. When they feel appreciated, they feel loved. This reinforces the bond you share and cherishes the connection.