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By Becky Upham
Medically Reviewed by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Managing type 1 diabetes can take a physical, emotional, and financial toll on your relationship, whether you’re dating, married, or in a long-term partnership. Although every relationship has challenges, there are some issues that can seem especially tricky when you have a chronic condition like type 1 diabetes.
A qualitative study published in March 2013 in Diabetes Care found that people with type 1 diabetes and their partners feel that the condition impacts their relationship, posing both emotional and interpersonal challenges — and that partner support is a vital source of support for those living with the condition.
If you find that your type 1 diabetes has taken a toll on your relationship, there are steps you can take to help reconnect with your partner and get back on track.
Common Relationship Challenges
Here are some common issues that people who have type 1 diabetes and their partners may face, as well as tips to help address these concerns and maintain a healthy relationship.
Lack of support Diabetes requires many daily management tasks. If your partner isn’t aware of what all those tasks are and why each is important, it can be difficult for them to support you, says Mark Heyman, PhD, a certified diabetes educator and the founder and director of the Center for Diabetes and Mental Health in Solana Beach, California. “I encourage people to educate their partner or have a healthcare team who can help educate their partner about each step in managing type 1 diabetes. Your partner needs to be able to offer support — not only when you aren’t feeling well, but also in the day-to-day,” he says. “That means support in making healthy choices when it comes to eating, exercise, and other activities. It can be really hard to manage type 1 diabetes when you feel like you’re all on your own.”
Feeling micromanaged On the other hand, you may sometimes feel like you’re receiving too much support. It may seem like your partner is constantly asking you about how you feel and what you ate, and monitoring your every move. “It usually comes from a place of caring and not always knowing how to help,” says Dr. Heyman. In those cases, it’s important to let your partner know what’s helpful for you and what’s not helpful, he says.
“For example, you might tell your partner, ‘It’s really not helpful for you to be looking at my blood sugar numbers all the time and commenting on them. What would be more helpful for me is if we could plan time this weekend to take a walk together or prepare a healthy meal,’” says Heyman. “That does two things: It helps you set boundaries with your partner around how they interact with you about your condition, and it also gives them a concrete way to help you manage type 1diabetes, which can help relieve some of the anxiety your partner may have,” he says.
Lack of spontaneity Because type 1 diabetes involves a lot of planning, it might feel like there isn’t enough spontaneity in your relationship. While it may feel counterintuitive, doing a little planning in advance can help you be spontaneous. “Having supplies packed and ready to go can help if a last-minute trip or fun activity comes up,” says Heyman. Keep extra insulin and anything else you might need in a bag, he suggests. “If you want to take off on a weekend road trip, it’s nice to know you can just grab that bag and have everything you need to stay healthy,” he says.
“If one of you would like to be more spontaneous, ask the other person, ‘What can we do together to make you more comfortable with that?’” he says. “You may be amazed at the ideas that can come about if one of you just asks the question.”
Intimacy challenges A study published in May 2018 in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that people who have type 1 diabetes may be at an increased risk of sexual disorders. Communication is key in helping with these issues, says Heyman. “You have to let your partner know how you’re feeling, just as in any relationship,” he says.
“Lots of things can impact the desire for intimacy. There are times when you just don’t feel well. Maybe there are fears about having low blood sugar while you’re being intimate,” he says. The more you can communicate about what you’re experiencing and what your partner may be able to do to help, the better. “Being able to talk about it may lead to increased intimacy; often communication can make you feel closer to your partner,” says Heyman.
Financial strain The cost of managing type 1 diabetes can vary, but according to the American Diabetes Association, people who have diabetes spend approximately $9,600 a year on diabetes-related medical costs. This may include anything from doctor visits to medications and supplies. These extra expenses can add stress to your relationship. Communicating and planning are key, says Heyman. “Have a really frank conversation about your financial health and what your goals are. How does diabetes impact this? How can we manage it?” he says.
Sometimes there can be resentment if one of you feels “stuck” in a job you don’t like because you can’t afford to lose your health insurance. Talk about the situation and brainstorm together, suggests Heyman. “Is there a solution that can be agreeable to everybody, and if not, can you find a compromise?” he says. Bottom line: Staying healthy is critical to living your best life.
Dealing with low blood sugar When you’re experiencing low blood sugar, you don’t always act like yourself, says Heyman. “You may become aggressive or defiant,” he says, which can be concerning, medically dangerous, and stressful. “It’s helpful for couples to set rules around how they’re going to deal with an episode of low blood sugar — before it happens,” he says.
Sometimes you may be in the middle of a low blood sugar episode and not realize it, or think you’re just fine and your blood sugar will correct itself, he says. Developing rules that are “non-negotiables” are a good idea.
“For example, if your partner thinks your blood sugar is low, agree that you’ll check it. If your partner sees that your blood sugar is low or if you’re exhibiting signs that it is, agree to take the snack they offer you without question,” he says. “Agreeing and sticking with rules like this can go a long way in easing tension and letting your partner know that their concerns are heard and you’re going to be okay,” says Heyman.
Find Support — for Both of You
Your partner needs to understand that sometimes you just don’t feel well. “High blood sugar doesn’t always feel good and low blood sugar is not only dangerous, it just doesn’t feel great,” says Heyman. “That can be a hard thing to communicate to people; diabetes can be a very invisible disease. Someone may look fine even if they’re not feeling well, and explaining what the different symptoms feel like can be challenging.”
Seeking social support, either in person or online, where you can get other couples’ perspectives on what these things are like and how they handle them, is a good idea, says Heyman. “Online communities are a great source of support,” he says. Beyond Type 1 and Type One Nation are two helpful resources for people with type 1 diabetes.
“Diabetes can be overwhelming and frustrating. You can experience lots of emotions that go along with that,” says Heyman. Having a partner you can count on and who can understand and empathize can go a long way.