4 Ways to Keep Your Cool When You’re Married to a Hypochondriac
Being in a relationship with a hypochondriac goes beyond merely tolerating “the man cold.” Like when dust in his eye requires a trip to the ER. Or when someone ELSE’s hypothyroidism diagnosis sends her running to the doctor for a full panel of bloodwork. Or when your kid’s playground scrape has him googling “Tetanus shots for toddlers.” But there is a middle ground between feeding into someone’s endless, anxious cycle of ailments and being wholly dismissive of their pain (not cool). And there are definitely ways to have a healthy relationship with a worrywart. Let us count them.
Know that he’s not faking
Hypochondria, aka “heightened illness concern” aka “Illness Anxiety Disorder,” is a legitimate psychiatric issue, a form of OCD, often connected to anxiety and depression, and it affects a reported one in 20 Americans. It may help you gain some empathy if you can view his panic attacks about phantom brain tumors and “My arm is tingling so I’m in cardiac arrest” leaps of logic as symptoms of a real illness —just not the ones he’s convinced he has.
It can be highly stressful to spend all your time with someone who requires endless reassurance, as well as to worry that he may actually be critically ill this time. If his general practitioners find there’s no cause for concern, then steering your partner toward a mental health professional is key. Reminding him—often—that there’s a psychological component to his symptoms is something you can do to help. Dwelling on and discussing them ad nauseam needn’t be. “Encourage [the suffering person] to verbalize fears about their health, but don’t join in. Be supportive, but don’t show too much concern and try to stay neutral in your answers. Express that you understand their struggle, without encouraging their obsessive thoughts,” say experts. Once you’ve heard him out, it is safe to change the subject.
“A little-known fact about hypochondriacs is that we don’t just tell ourselves that we have food allergies, epilepsy and alien hand syndrome (yes, it’s a thing). We are happy to persuade others they do, too,” author Nikki Moustaki once wrote. Those romantically linked to hypochondriacs are most vulnerable to contagion. If your beloved’s incessant worries are infecting your thinking, talk to someone—a mental health pro or a friend—to get perspective. The same skills you use to help them cope with anxiety—distinguishing feelings from facts, breathing exercises—may work for you, too.
Love is the best medicine
Some doctors suggest hypochondriasis is genetic. Others say it can be precipitated by a family tragedy or personal loss. Either way, if your partner could control it, s/he probably would. “Unfortunately people sometimes get very frustrated and even act judgmental or invalidating when dealing with someone who has illness anxiety,” writes one mental health pro. “But it is much more helpful to acknowledge the suffering it causes, and to lovingly encourage the anxious person to seek treatment for it. It is fundamental that family members or closest friends cooperate with helping the anxious person get better.”