by Julie Ryan
Posted 2/10/18

Last spring I asked my husband for a divorce. It wasn’t a decision I came to lightly; our relationship had not been going well for a long time, and I’m sure my poor health played a role in its demise. I suspected that ending my marriage would end some of my stress—and probably create some new stress, too.

What I didn’t expect was that splitting would actually improve my chronic health conditions.

I’ve lived with chronic pain and chronic fatigue in some form for nearly 10 years, and anxiety and depression even longer. My physical ailments started shortly after I began dating my partner, in the form of recurring strep and mono. Less than a year later, I had my tonsils out. Within a year after we were married, I was hit with a new set of chronic health issues in the form of TMJ (temporomandibular joint syndrome), migraines (aggravated by the TMJ), ulcers (created by the medications I was taking for my migraines), and a failing gallbladder.

When my health finally started to improve a couple of years later, I thought things were back on track. However, less than a year later, the initial symptoms of fibromyalgia came on.

I am by no means saying that my partner or our relationship caused my illnesses, but the stress of our problems—stress that I often under-played or flat-out ignored—was definitely a factor.

Normal Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Healthy

It wasn’t until I took a course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in early 2017 that I really began to evaluate how I felt emotionally as well as physically. Intellectually, I knew that relationship stress played a significant role in my health, but I began to see that I often ignored the signs. I also realized that I tended to overstate our progress when we got to the other side of a marital rough patch. In reality, “improvement” was really just a return to our normal state of unhealthy relationship.

Through my MBSR practice, I started to pay attention to my anxiety and stress. For the first time in years, and possibly ever, I was fully listening to my body. Sure, I knew how to tune in to the physical and accept when it was time to slow down, take a break, or stop. But now I recognized when I was mentally uncomfortable, and how that manifested physically.

Throughout the course of my illness, I’ve written several articles about how our relationships can create stress that makes us sicker. The big question that always comes up is, how do you escape those relationships when they are with the people you are closest to—your caregiver or spouse?

I’ve never had a good answer for that. Often, we feel the only choice is to carry on and find other ways to minimize stress. That’s what I did for several years, until I realized those adjustments weren’t enough, and that in order to be truly happy, I had to walk away from the life I was living.

But I couldn’t walk away from chronic illness. I’d still be sick, and life wouldn’t be easy. I’d have to learn to live on very limited resources. I’d need to navigate Affordable Health Care with fingers crossed that the team of doctors I’d so carefully curated would accepted my new insurance. And I had to do it all alone.

Still, I knew that whatever I had to face, I was strong enough to figure it out, and that doing so would be less stressful than continuing to live the way I had been.

Let Stress Be a Lesson

It’s been more than six months since I divorced, and I’m happy to report that I’m getting by just fine on my limited income. I was also able to get Affordable Health Care insurance that all my doctors accept.

Most importantly, I feel better, both mentally and physically. I’m living my life for myself, not to avoid upsetting someone else. Am I healed? Definitely not. Do I expect to be? No. It’s called chronic illness for a reason. But, when the bad days come, I’m better able to cope, and my life has improved in so many ways. Here are just a few of them.

  • I avoid less and live more. Looking back, I realize some of my self-care habits were as much about avoiding conflict and stress as they were about physical need. I used to sleep in until my husband left for work, watch TV shows I wasn’t really interested in for a couple of hours to deter conversation, and take a 30-minute bath before bed in hopes that he was already in bed asleep before I got out. Now I spend that time doing things I enjoy. Sure, I watch some TV, but only when it’s something I really want to watch.
  • I sleep better. It used to take me at an hour or two of reading in bed before I finally nodded off, if I was lucky. Some nights I still couldn’t fall asleep, so I’d get up and watch TV until I passed out. Now, thanks in large part to a reduction in stress, I usually fall asleep within 15 minutes of getting in bed. Even better, I sleep through the night and don’t wake up feeling anxious about facing my day.
  • I spend more time with friends and family. When I was unhappy, I avoided the people who are most capable of pointing out my unhappiness—the ones who know me best and ask the pointed questions that make me consider things I’m not always ready to face. It didn’t help that my partner didn’t really like my friends or family, so I often felt I had to choose between them, which was another source of anxiety. Now, I can choose to spend time with those who make me feel best, and being around them actually makes me feel good and calm.
  • I’m okay with my new stress. Yes, I am entirely responsible for myself financially, but my independence is more valuable to me than knowing I can rely on someone else. And when the house is a mess, somehow it’s a relief to know that I can only blame myself.

Please don’t take this as a suggestion to get a divorce. My only advice to you is to really examine your life and determine what might be causing you undue stress or making you feel worse. Maybe it’s a relationship with someone other than your partner, or your job, or financial or legal concerns that are causing you angst. The truth is, stress will always be there; it’s how we respond to it that makes all the difference in your wellness.

So don’t ignore your stress—it’s trying to tell you something. There are always options, and exercising them may be the key to feeling better. It was for me.

Julie Ryan is a patient advocate. She has written for, and regularly shares on her blog CountingMySpoons. She lives with fibromyalgia, migraines, endometriosis, cluster headaches, and thyroid disorder, but she chooses to live positively, despite her illnesses, and encourages you to do the same.