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Let’s face it: living with chronic illness isn’t terribly romantic. On the contrary: when you can no longer go out on exciting dates or have sex as often as you’d like, it can be challenging to keep the romance alive. And the practical and psychological problems that often accompany health problems can also place a strain on your relationship. So what can you do to express your love and keep that spark alive when you’re chronically ill?
In the bestseller ‘The Five Love Languages’, Gary Chapman describes how everyone has a preferred way to give and receive (romantic) love: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service or physical touch.
Knowing your partner’s and your own ‘primary love language’ helps you get a better understanding of each other’s deepest wants and needs, what fills up their and your ‘love tank’. You suddenly get why your lover is hurt that you never think to bring her or him flowers (love language: receiving gifts), although you feel you show them your affection all the time by bringing them coffee in bed every morning and cooking elaborate meals on weekends (love language: acts of service).
Because no matter how healthy or sick you are, we all long to be loved, cherished and appreciated. We all want to feel beautiful and interesting in the eyes of the one we love.
But when chronic pain, fatigue, brain fog and other limitations stop you from showing your love in your usual way, how can you still speak your partner’s love language?
Maybe you used to love picking up sweet little gifts for your significant other, but now you have too much difficulty getting around town to make that happen. Or perhaps that neck rub at the end of the day has now become too painful to be pleasant.
Luckily, according to Gary Chapman, the number of ways to express your love in a certain love language is only limited by your own imagination. So let’s see if we can find some accessible, low-energy ideas to express and experience your love, spoonie-style!
First of all, take the 5 Love Languages Test to find out which love language you and your partner speak. Remember, you probably won’t have the same desires and needs – maybe you really love getting roses and jewelry while your partner enjoys getting compliments.
Next, scroll to both your primary love languages below. Each section will show you several ideas how you can still speak your partner’s love language despite the limitations of your chronic illness, as well as what a healthy partner could do for their chronically ill boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse in an accessible and supportive way.
But of course, it’s definitely worth it to check out all 60 spoonie-proof ways to express your love to get plenty of inspiration!
1. Words of Affirmation
Do you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re told you look beautiful? If you feel all warm inside when your (wo)man whispers “I love you”, then ‘words of affirmation’ could be your main love language.
In general, this love language seems to be limited the least by chronic illness. Even if you’re sick in bed, you can probably still express your love through words. However, all-consuming pain, worries and anxiety can narrow your focus on your own problems (understandably so) and make you forget about giving compliments to your partner.
Here are some ideas to express words of affirmation when you’re chronically ill:
- 01. Put a little note in their lunch box saying ‘I love you’.
- 02. Compliment your partner on a project they’re working on.
- 03. Show your appreciation for all the little ways your loved one takes care of you.
- 04. Say “I’m so proud of you” whenever the occasion calls for it.
- 05. Send them a cute Valentine’s card, even if you think it’s commercial nonsense.
- 06. Call your boyfriend or girlfriend just to say how crazy you are about them.
- 07. Fill in the blanks of this ‘What I Love About You’ book, with 50 romantic, funny and serious prompts.
- 08. Let them know you admire the wonderful person you’ve watched them become.
- 09. Send a spontaneous text with a specific compliment.
- 10. Share words of encouragements when your partner wants to explore a new hobby, career or friendships.
- 11. Leave a trail of sweet notes through the house, with heartwarming words like “you are my rock” or “being with you makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world.”
Do you have a chronically ill partner? Show your words of affirmation in a spoonie-approved way:
- 12. Compliment your lover’s fighting spirit. Let them know you see how hard they work at getting better, at making the most of the situation. That means more than you may realize.
- 13. Remind him or her about all the things you love about them, despite their limitations, like how their eyes twinkle, their sense of humor or those killers legs.
- 14. Send your chronically ill partner a supportive text before important doctor’s visits or intense medical examinations. Knowing someone is thinking of them will make them feel less alone and scared.
- 15. Listen, without rushing to give advice or coming up with practical solutions. Often, what people need more than anything is to feel heard and understood.
2. Quality Time
Quality time revolves around giving each other your undivided attention, without being distracted by your phone, the TV, the kids or chores. It’s more than spending time in the same room – it’s about a shared activity or a meaningful conversation to really connect.
But when you have a heart disease, arthritis or Ehler-Danlos syndrome, you may be in too much pain to go out for dinner and a movie. Have a look how you can still spend quality time together, even if one of you is living with chronic illness:
- 16. Do you share a love for books? Take turns reading beautiful novels to each other or thrillers that’ll get your heart racing, whatever works for you.
- 17. Camp out in your own backyard. You get a sense of adventure with all your own facilities at your doorstep. To complete the picture, you could have a bonfire, make s’mores and tell each other scary stories.
- 18. Have a romantic dinner at home by setting the table with your best linen and china, lighting a candle and putting on some soft music. No fancy cooking required, just set the scene for good conversations and one-on-one time.
- 19. Stuck in bed? Build a comfy pillow fort and cuddle up. You could listen to audiobooks together or explore the 36 questions that lead to love.
- 20. Play a simple game that doesn’t require too much brainpower. From the quick card drafting game Sushi Go and the fast family dice game Qwixx to dominos with a twist or an old-fashioned round of Charades, there’s a fun game for every couple.
- 21. Hold a tasting session. Traditionally, you would try different kind of wines, but if you’re not a fan of alcohol, you could also have a tasting session with a small variety of artisan teas, chocolates or cheeses.
- 22. Put some good music on and make a giant jigsaw puzzle together.
- 23. Get to know each other even better by taking these couple’s quizzes!
- 24. Team up and bring the excitement of an escape game to your living room with an escape room in a box.
- 25. Eat your dessert first! On warm days, set up an ice cream sundae bar with a few flavors of ice cream, sprinkles and sauces like chocolate or salted caramel. During the winter time, you could have a simple chocolate fondue with seasonal fruits and cookies.
3. Receiving Gifts
It’s always nice to know that your partner has been thinking of you, and presents are a tangible show of love. If your spouse’s primary love language is receiving gifts, expressing your love that way might not be affected directly by chronic illness. But if you were used to spontaneously pick something up at the shops for your partner and now you struggle with getting around town, this sweet habit might not stick. Not to mention that many people with chronic illness have financial problems because they’re not able to work (full-time) anymore, while having hefty medical bills to pay.
Thankfully, according to ‘The Five Love Languages’ it’s the gesture that counts, not the price tag. Inexpensive or homemade gifts are just as meaningful as the fancy ones.
So here are some tips to give loving gifts, even if you’re low on energy and/or cash:
- 26. Buy one flower. An individual rose, sunflower or peony still looks amazing on its own. If you do have more money to spend but you’re housebound, order a beautiful bouquet from a local florist by phone or online.
- 27. Frame a photo of the two of you or of a happy memory together. You could even get creative with these inventive DIY picture frames.
- 28. Remember the mixed tapes/CD’s you used to make for your boyfriend or girlfriend back in the day? Make a modern version of that by creating a special playlist for the two of you.
- 29. Make a romantic care package for a date night at home, with a scented candle, massage oil, and a bottle of bubbles.
- 30. Get creative with a DIY booklet with coupons, that your loved one can exchange for a cuddle session, day of pampering or whatever you can think of!
- 31. Place an inspiring or motivational mini art print on their desk as a surprise.
- 32. Leave a trail of candy hearts all around the house, leading your lover to their favorite dessert, a bubble bath or the bedroom.
- 33. Put special occasions like birthdays, holidays and anniversaries on your calendar, so you’re reminded way ahead of time to get your partner a thoughtful present. That way, you can better pace your energy – no more last minute orders or rushing into town – and save up some money for those moments.
Is your partner is the one living with chronic illness? Here are some gift ideas they might enjoy:
- 34. Anything that takes your loved one’s mind off their pain works! Especially solitary entertainment that can be enjoyed seated or lying down, like an adult coloring book, a magazine or solo smart game.
- 35. Help make sick days in bed a little more comfy with cute pajamas, cozy socks or an eye mask.
- 36. Buy a cute mug with good-quality tea, honey and lemon.
- 37. Put together a ‘movie night in a tin‘ – great combined with some quality time together.
- 38. It may sound like a strange gift, but a cushion-padded lap desk can be used to eat in bed, place your laptop on or to write/color/craft on the couch.
4. Acts of Service
Who doesn’t love to see someone go out of their way to elevate your workload? But when it means a lot to you or your partner to see your loved one put in time and effort to take care of your relationship and household on a regular basis, you might be speaking the love language of ‘acts of service’.
However, traditional homemaking skills are often a challenge for people living with fatigue, pain and limited mobility. When you already struggle to take care of yourself, it’s hard to go the extra mile to look after your spouse, no matter how much you’d like to do so. But depending on your health and living situation, there are still ways to express your love through service on good days, albeit with a little preparation and help from delivery services.
One important note: The suggestions below are by no way a nudge to get you to push yourself through the pain to please your partner. It won’t help anyone for you to be stuck in bed with post-exertional malaise the next day over acts of service. What’s more, these ideas also assume you have an equal relationship in which you both do your best to care for each other in your own doable ways. By no means should you feel obliged to do chores to be a ‘good spouse’. You’re just as worthy of love when you’re laying sick in bed all day as when you can work in and around your home.
With that in mind, take a look some ideas how you could perform acts of service with chronic illness if you want to:
- 39. Firstly, ask your partner what they appreciate most, so you can focus your limited energy on the things that are actually important to them. There’s no point in you tiring yourself folding laundry when he or she would really love to see a tidied living room or that the bed’s been made.
- 40. Treat your loved one to breakfast in bed. With a little prepping the night before, a healthy smoothie, overnight oats or baking off croissants doesn’t cost you too much energy in the morning.
- 41. Does your lover hate shopping for clothes while you have the best online shops bookmarked? Surprise him or her with a new shirt or outfit if you know their sizes and taste in clothes.
- 42. Order groceries online (occasionally) so the fridge is stocked for a weekend together.
- 43. If you’re able, get the car washed and/or fill up the tank.
- 44. Get their favorite snacks (home delivered) for the weekend.
- 45. Surprise your significant other by doing one of their usual chores for them when you feel up for it, like getting the trash out, paying bills or watering the plants.
- 46. Does your partner appreciate having dinner ready when they get home from work? See if meal planning and meal prepping ahead of time help you cook more effortlessly, especially on days when you’re not well. You could also put your slow cooker to work or let the oven do the cooking with simple sheet pan meals.
- 47. If your finances allow for it, splurge on services from time to time, from ordering groceries online to hiring the occasional cleaning services, gardener or babysitter. You may not be able to do the physical work but you still did something caring for your significant other.
If your chronically ill partner is the one who deeply appreciates acts of services:
- 48. Accompany you significant partner to important medical visits when possible. It’s so comforting not to feel alone at those times.
- 49. Bring him or her hot & healing drinks and good snacks when he or she’s stuck in bed all day.
- 50. Most importantly, don’t make your sick loved one feel bad for contributing less to your household and family life than before they became ill. He or she is probably already hard enough on themselves.
5. Physical Touch
Do you crave hugs, kisses and caresses on a regular basis? More than just a desire for sex, people who speak the love language of physical touch long for physical connection to fill up their love tanks.
Sadly, all too often, chronic illness makes it hard to enjoy being physically intimate. Touch can be painful and you may struggle with issues like low libido, all-consuming fatigue, embarrassing symptoms and a negative body image.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you or your lover want to show your affection through touch is that you have to have the same expectations. If cuddling and kissing automatically has to lead to intercourse, your chronically ill partner may stop taking the initiative to physical touch all together to avoid disappointment. If that’s the opposite of what you’re after, try to see if you can both enjoy touching without necessarily taking it all the way.
Try one of these ways to explore physical touch together despite pain, fatigue and physical limitations:
- 51. For one day, kiss each other a little longer and a little more often than usual.
- 52. Cuddle up on the couch when watching a movie together or reading a book.
- 53. Take a bath or shower together. If you’re not painfully sensitive to touch, let your partner wash your body or put body lotion on you afterwards.
- 54. Slow dance on ‘your’ song.
- 55. Run your fingers over each other’s bodies, without an agenda.
- 56. Recreate the famous kitchen scene from ‘9 1/2 weeks’ and feed each other strawberries and whipped cream – or whatever sensual foods you can find in your fridge and cupboards.
- 57. Give or receive a soothing foot rub or a gentle back massage.
- 58. Try couples yoga. No need for complicated poses, you can simply sit with your backs against each other in Supported Half Lotus or help your partner with their practice.
- 59. Hold hands when you’re in public (or just sitting together).
- 60. Check out these tips for more ideas on how to be intimate with chronic illness.
Which love language do you and your partner speak, and how has chronic illness changed the way you express your love?
For more in-depth advice on how to keep your romantic relationship strong with chronic illness, check out ‘In Sickness & In Health: How to Keep Your Love Alive’, ’12 Date Night Ideas at Home for Spoonies’ and ‘Let’s Talk About Sex: How to Deal with Intimacy Issues with Chronic Illness’.