How To Support Your Partner with Migraine Subtle insight from a married couple who battles migraine together

How To Support Your Partner with Migraine: Subtle insight from a married couple who battles migraine together

Written by Molly O’Brien and Glen Whitfield

While everyone’s experience with migraine is different, there is one thing we all have in common– the need for support. Support can look different for all of us. 

As a woman who has lived with migraine since the age of four, it’s been a long road to figure out what things I can let go of (control) and what things I can ask for help with. Migraine has upended a lot of things in my life– my career, my social life, my mental and physical health, life plans, etc. But one thing migraine disease hasn’t hurt is my relationship with my husband. 

Yes, there have been growing pains along the way– but his efforts, compassion, and love have made my journey with migraine easier to deal with, for both of us. Providing support to your partner living with migraine can make all of the difference in their mental and emotional state. Your impact may even help improve their physical pain too. 

To get a better understanding of how you can support a loved one with migraine, my husband Glen and I wanted to offer two points of view. Answering the question from both angles. As a person who has had a lifetime full of migraine attacks, and as their partner. In part one, you’ll hear from Glen and I’ll wrap things up in part two.

Part One: How to support a partner with migraine; from the perspective of a man whose wife has chronic migraine. 

There isn’t anything worse than watching someone you love suffer, except for being the one suffering. This is true with any affliction. As a migraine muggle, I don’t have much room to weigh in on most topics with migraine. To date, I’ve had one migraine and it was unbearable. It was the haze from the western wildfires that got me. Weird to be afflicted by something that was happening 2,000 miles away. That’s my only first-hand experience with migraine. That being said, I’ve lived with my wife, who has chronic migraine, for 11 years. I’ve learned a lot about migraine disease, how it influences our relationship, and how to be there when she needs me. 

My role is that of any spouse or partner; I respond to cover the household duties until the migraine attack wanes. I try to anticipate the next one but these attacks are like the ads with the cheap Hulu subscription; they’re coming, but good luck predicting the timing. To be honest, in our house, my best contribution is making my wife feel like I have things covered while she’s down and out. I would assume that just as demoralizing as the excruciating pain and bothersome symptoms can be, is feeling like you are letting your family down. Her migraine guilt is real, so I do my best to reassure her- “It’s ok, I’ve got this and I’ve got you.” When an attack hits, I jump to respond and provide the ice water, turn the lights/sounds down, pull the shades, get the meds, and all of the other steps that are helpful, without being prompted. 

Oddly enough, I also have to remind her to be quiet herself. Oftentimes, she will not recognize that she’s compounding the issue by trying to contribute. I can’t tell you how many times she starts up a 10-piece marching band in the kitchen with the pots and pans. But the most critical piece for me is to let my spouse know that I’m happy to take the helm in the interim until the attack passes, tackling her normal duties, mine, and our shared duties. I’m also happy to wash that frying pan at a decibel suitable for human ears.

Now that we have a child, the stakes are at an all-time high. A migraine attack used to mean caring for my wife and then shutting up and keeping busy. With a kid, it’s chunks of single parenting. Very quiet parenting. We go in the basement to play, we take walks, we go to grandma’s. Unfortunately, a two year old doesn’t know what being quiet means. Ever. So you’re playing defense, coach, and referee at the same time. We step in for each other, readily and happily. No part of me can imagine caring for a two-year old while experiencing a migraine. 

Since I met Molly, I have gleaned quite a bit of knowledge about the odd ways that a migraine attack can manifest itself. I can see it in her eyes when an attack is imminent. It could be an atmospheric pressure change, she didn’t sleep well, there’s a natural gas leak, there’s a phantom smell of cigarettes, someone lights a sugar cookie scented candle three miles away. You and I don’t notice these triggers or symptoms right away because we don’t have super powers. Imagine having extra-sensory abilities, but those abilities can only hurt you? Sounds awful. 

If you couldn’t tell by now, Molly and I use humor as a way to cope with the challenges that migraine presents. We often say she would have made a top-notch police dog, sniffing out bombs and drugs, or a special agent with the gas company detecting potentially harmful gas leaks. But in the end, as a non-canine, she has to bear the heavy weight of these skills without reaping any benefits. Having your own brain and nervous system fight you daily must be exhausting and demoralizing. I do my best to be there for her, and a lot of times that is just listening to what she is going through, saying I’m sorry, and offering some validation or recognition. Sometimes she needs to hear, “it’s ok to go take care of yourself.”

Supporting a partner with migraine also means taking on multiple social responsibilities. I can’t tell you how many engagements I have attended alone. With migraine, every single plan that you make in advance is subject to change. Or, we just don’t go at all. We’re the Punxsutawney Phils of actually going to our engagements and are about as reliable as the 10-day forecast in New England. You worry about what people think, “Is he lying? Is migraine an excuse for her? Does she not like us? Did we do something to piss her off?”

I am not one to cancel plans and I pride myself on being reliable. Although, sometimes canceling plans is better than attending alone. It gets tiresome to constantly answer the question, “where’s Molly?” and hope that people understand. It took a bit of time to get over the hump of feeling like we were letting friends down, and thinking people were annoyed with us. Over time, your true friends not only accept your tentative social status, but they embrace it, send their love, and offer to assist in any way they can. While there isn’t much others can do during an attack, showing sympathy and sending a loving text can help. Migraine can make people feel so isolated and alone, a simple text can go a long way in letting people know they are NOT alone. 

I’m no expert by any means, but I can tell you what has worked for us. My best advice is to know your partner or your spouse as well as possible. Ask them questions, learn about their triggers, their comforts, allow them space to share. The better you know your partner, the better you can scout out or field a situation. 

I’ll share some of my internal monologue– examples of things I ask myself to scout out situations and things I do to help ensure a healthy day:

Can she handle this deodorant? I’ll turn on the vent to get the hairspray mist out of the bathroom. No cologne until I get in the car. Don’t burn any food. Make sure her laundry doesn’t get in mine– different detergents, different dryer sheets. The car smells like oil, she’ll notice. This lightbulb smells weird. There’s onion grass and rosemary in the yard, and it smells strong when cut. (Yes, smells are a big problem for Molly.)

If we’re going to a store or someone’s house I wonder if they will have air fresheners? Candles burning? Will anyone be wearing perfume? Will there be a fire going? Will the overhead lights be too strong? Too dim? Too white? Too yellow? Will they have gluten free snacks? (Ok, that one’s actually more for me, a guy with celiac’s gotta eat.) You can get caught going down a real rabbit hole with your scouting, but that’s how you have to think in order to avoid casualty. I try to set us all up for success. Sometimes it’s hard, but I’ve learned that it’s ok to ask the host in advance to keep the scented candles put away. 

When you have a partner with migraine, recognize that at times, you may be inconvenienced. You might have more to take on, you might get overwhelmed or frustrated. It’s ok to acknowledge that and talk about it at an appropriate time. Internalizing or harboring any of those kinds of feelings can lead to resentment, and that doesn’t help anyone. If/when these feelings come up, try to remember your partner isn’t inconveniencing you, migraine is. Remember that migraine is not a choice. Your partner did not choose to have migraine and all the stuff that goes with it. 

In the end, I don’t think it takes too much to be a supportive partner. It just takes someone who can see outside of themselves when the time comes. It’s pretty terrible watching someone you love fight so hard just to have a normal day. It’s pretty easy to try to make that person’s journey just a bit more comfortable. Little things in the moment like offering a hug, holding hands, getting a blanket, or finding an eye mask can go a long way. Little things like thinking ahead, or taking over multiple responsibilities can go a long way not only during an attack, but to build a relationship with love, trust, and understanding.

Part Two: How to support a partner with migraine; from the perspective of a woman with chronic migraine.

Many people living with migraine feel guilt, stress, sadness, shame, and loneliness surrounding their disease. Migraine can be a huge burden on every aspect of life. And asking for help isn’t easy. Sometimes people may feel like even more of a burden by asking for help during an attack. Having support from your partner can make all the difference in managing the disease. Support takes many forms, both physical and emotional. And both of those are valuable. Here are my top 6 suggestions on how to support your partner with migraine. 

Be a task rabbit.

Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of an attack, or if an attack hits really hard really fast, I have to lay down immediately. Sometimes I can’t make it up the stairs without help. Having my husband do small tasks is make or break. This can be getting water or something to drink, grabbing my medicine and bringing it to me, turning on the sound machine, or finding a blanket. Those small tasks make a big difference. 

Absorb household duties.

Most of us have shared responsibilities, and things we do on our own. When I go down or simply cannot function, Glen steps up and says, “I’ve got it, go rest.” That can mean he’s responsible for making meals and cleaning up, duties that we normally try to split. Take the dog for a walk, feed the cat, drive your child to practice, whatever normal duties you share, take them on. And then communicate that it’s been taken care of. This can help ease your partner’s stress about all of their household responsibilities piling up, and that the family is taken care of. 

Offer to be their chauffeur.

Migraine doesn’t always interfere with our ability to drive, but when it does, having a safe and reliable ride is everything. This could be a ride to the doctor’s office, urgent care, emergency room, pharmacy to get a prescription, or physical therapy. It could be a ride anywhere they need to go, but can’t drive themselves because of medication side effects or migraine symptoms like vertigo or impaired vision.

Offer up your company if you are available. 

Migraine can feel so lonely. Picture isolating in a cold, dark, quiet room during an attack. Picture missing out on time with friends and family, saying no to the things you want to do, or missing out on big plans– all because of migraine. It can feel defeating, sad, and very lonely to spend so much time alone (disabled or in pain no less.) And don’t forget, some people experience mood shifts before, during, or after an attack, so their emotions might be elevated. If your partner is experiencing an attack, try offering up a hug, holding their hand, rubbing their forehead. Offer to sit quietly or lay down for a bit if you are able. Even after living through 35 years of migraine, sometimes I still need someone to hold my hand.

Give acknowledgement and validation.

Migraine is a beast. It can mess with your head. It can make you feel unsteady– both literally and figuratively. I have so much guilt with this disease. Guilt that I put an unfair burden onto my partner. Guilt he has to adapt, mold, change, and take on more, all because of my nervous system. Oftentimes the partner (and family members) have to change routines, sleep schedules, deal with dietary issues, and limit certain smells, and noises. It’s a lot of sacrifice and adjustment on their end. If you can, tell your partner with migraine, “it’s ok”. Provide acknowledgement that they are ill, they are not fully themselves, they are impacted– you see them and you see what they are living through. Let them know you love them. 

This suggestion goes both ways. For those of you living with migraine, if your partner makes sacrifices or gives you support, acknowledge it. Say thank you, tell them you love them. 

Make sure your own needs are met.

To be a supportive partner, to live life with someone who has migraine, you need to make sure your needs are met. You know that analogy, you can’t pour from an empty cup? It’s true. Try to communicate your needs, do things that are enjoyable to you, and establish time for yourself, talk to people you are comfortable with about what you are going through. 

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