Being in a relationship

We've met many couples and families who say that coping with Parkinson's together has made their relationships stronger.

But some people find that Parkinson's does affect their relationships, and this can happen at any stage of the condition.

How can Parkinson's affect relationships?

Factors that might affect some relationships include:

  • how each partner reacts to diagnosis
  • changing roles in the relationship
  • expectations of how Parkinson's might affect someone
  • communication problems caused by Parkinson's
  • self-image and feelings of social isolation
  • Parkinson's symptoms
  • emotional changes, stress and anxiety

But it’s important to remember that many people have sexual and relationship issues at some stage in their life, so any problems you experience may have nothing to do with Parkinson’s at all.

Each person with Parkinson’s has an individual experience of the condition and the symptoms you have may be different from other people’s.

Some people have relationship issues in the early days, when they’re adjusting to diagnosis, while others may run into problems after many years.

Dealing with the diagnosis

How you handle the issues Parkinson’s presents can have a big effect on your relationships.

Whether you have the condition or are in a relationship with someone who does, how you both react to the diagnosis can affect your wellbeing and your relationship.

Your reaction will be personal to you and people can experience a range of emotions, such as anger, frustration, denial or guilt. You may even experience relief in finally knowing what has been causing your symptoms.

It's not unusual to go through a number of stages when you’re coming to terms with your diagnosis.

People affected by Parkinson’s have told us how important it was to their relationship to allow for a period of adjustment.

Managing different expectations of Parkinson's

Your expectations of Parkinson’s may be very different from someone else’s.

Some people are fearful and assume they will become disabled very quickly. Others may barely expect Parkinson’s to affect their lives.

If you’re in a relationship, you and your partner may have different expectations. Perhaps one of you is more optimistic than the other.

One of you may like to talk about problems, while the other prefers to reflect on them alone. There is no right or wrong way to come to terms with a diagnosis. But trying to understand each other’s view can help to minimise conflict. Talking frankly to each other can be a great help.

Wherever possible:

  • share your opinions without judging each other
  • make sure you get as much accurate information about Parkinson’s as you can, so your expectations are as realistic as they can be
  • share this information with the people in your life who you think will be affected

Coping with emotional changes

After a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, some couples find themselves in a period of mourning for the life they previously had. You may be coming to terms with changes in your lifestyle, personal identity and your working life.

If you have Parkinson’s, your self-image may be affected. You may have symptoms, such as involuntary body movements, poor posture or excess saliva, that make you feel self-conscious or embarrassed.

Low self-esteem can cause you to become withdrawn, which may affect your relationship.

When relationships are going well and we feel positive about ourselves, it’s easier to manage life’s ups and downs. When they’re not, even simple things can feel like a struggle. You may find your relationship changes in ways you hadn’t expected.

Talking openly to each other can bring you closer as a couple. Some people may find they’re dealing with these emotions on their own and they may feel isolated and resentful. If this sounds familiar, you may want to try relationship counselling.

Dealing with changing roles

When someone has Parkinson’s, it’s common for relationship roles and the dynamics of a relationship to change. This can happen at any stage of the condition.

Any long-term illness or disability is likely to have a big impact on even the healthiest of relationships.

As Parkinson’s progresses, you may find you and your partner take the roles of carer and cared for.

This can be difficult if your relationship was very different before. For example, if the cared for person was used to being the breadwinner and decision maker in the household or if the carer had an independent lifestyle.

Some couples find it hard to see each other as equal partners in these new roles. It may take time to adapt to a new type of relationship that continues to be fulfilling.

You could both try to:

  • Maintain a sense of independence. You should have time to be alone and do your own thing, as well as doing things together.
  • Take any opportunity to reverse the caring role. This may be where the person with Parkinson’s continues to be an emotional or intellectual support.
  • Find mutual activities, such as playing board games, spending time watching a film or socialising with friends, where you can be equals.
  • Come up with a list of things you can continue to do together, or new things you’d like to try.
  • Keep communicating with each other. Parkinson’s can affect all types of communication – verbal, written, and facial expression, but it’s important to keep these channels open as much as possible.
  • Don't be afraid to look for help if you find it hard to sort out problems. Professionals such as occupational therapistsParkinson's nurses, counsellors and psychologists may be able to offer you support.
  • Our helpline 0808 800 0303 and our Parkinson's local advisers may also be able to offer you information and support.
  • Talk to other people with Parkinson's and their families who have been through problems like yours. If you don't know who to talk to, the Parkinson's UK forum could be a good place to start.
  • Get help before your problems have the potential to reach breaking point.

How can stress, anxiety and depression affect my relationships?

Adjusting to life with Parkinson’s may be stressful, whether you’re a person with Parkinson’s or you care for someone who has the condition.

Some people may experience feelings of depression. This may be due to Parkinson’s itself or felt as a reaction to living with the condition.

You may find the following tips useful:

Ask for support

Support from friends, family and professionals can help.

You may want to talk about your feelings with your GP or Parkinson’s nurse.

You can also call our helpline on 0808 800 0303 to speak to a trained adviser.

Relax

It’s easier to say than do, but it’s important to try to relax.

You could try having a bath, going for a stroll, reading a book or just chatting with friends, which may help lift your mood.

Treat yourself

Take every opportunity to give yourself a treat.

It might be something as simple as enjoying a cup of tea, listening to a new album, having a foot soak, or something bigger like having a weekend away.

Start a journal

Many people find it helpful to write down their thoughts and feelings.

Try to do this at a quiet point of the day when you won’t be interrupted. It can be encouraging to look back over time and see how much you've moved forward.

Look after your physical health

Sometimes, it can be tempting to eat comfort food and spend a lot of time sitting on the sofa, but this will only add to your negative feelings.

Taking regular exercise and maintaining a healthy diet will benefit your mind and body.

Talk

Not everyone will feel comfortable with this, but talking stops us feeling alone and allows us to connect with people.

It doesn’t matter who you talk to – it could be a trusted friend or a family member. If you’re in a relationship, it’s important to talk to each other.

Let yourself cry

There will be some days when you may just want to cry. It’s important to allow yourself to do this – recognise how you feel and let yourself express your emotions.

When you’re angry, let those feelings out too, where you can do so safely and appropriately. Keeping powerful feelings bottled up tends to make things feel worse

Laugh

It may be difficult to find things to laugh about sometimes, but when you laugh, your body releases feel-good chemicals.

If you like TV comedies, keep watching them, and ask your friends to tell you their latest corny joke.

How can I improve my relationship with my partner?

These tips are often suggested by Relate counsellors:

Love yourself

A strong relationship starts with positive self-esteem. If you don’t love yourself, it’s hard to believe anyone else will.

Accept difference

We’re all unique, so differences of opinion are a part of life. Accept arguments as a healthy part of life as a couple.

Argue well

When you argue, make sure you confront the issue, not each other. Listen, be respectful and try to find a common solution.

Say sorry

Love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry. We all make mistakes and can be wrong, so be ready to apologise.

Listen and learn

People change and grow over the years. Don’t ever think you know your partner so well that you can predict what they’re going to say.

Make good quality time

It’s a cliché but it’s true: quality is more important than quantity. Make sure you make time to talk, laugh, chat, or just to be quiet together.

Share goals

Another way to connect is to talk about and work towards common goals.

It doesn’t matter if that’s planning a party, decorating a room or saving for a holiday. The important thing is that you share the goal.

Spend time with other couples

It’s easy to think that only you have problems, but when you spend time with other couples, you’ll see you’re not alone. All relationships have their ups and downs.

Give each other the benefit of the doubt

Don’t jump to conclusions about each other’s behaviour or motivation. If you feel irritated about something, first check that what you think they’re saying is what they meant.

If it wasn’t then let it go. If it was, sit down and discuss the problem.

Explore your senses

Exploring your senses is something you can share and enjoy.

You can try:

  • laughing together – this is one of the most bonding activities of all
  • holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes
  • lighting scented candles or experimenting with different smelling oils in an oil burner
  • enjoying taste together by trying a range of foods
  • listening to music

Physical affection

Physical intimacy is a crucial part of many relationships.

Some movement symptoms may make it more difficult to be spontaneous, but touch is an essential part of being human and you can experience this, whatever your physical condition.

Touch has the power to soothe, support and encourage, whether it’s a peck on the cheek, a hug or making love.

When a relationship ends

We’ve heard from many people with Parkinson’s whose relationships have broken down.

Sometimes the effects of living with the condition and the demands it makes on a relationship can be a contributing factor. But there are lots of other reasons why a relationship may end and often it isn’t due to one reason alone.

It’s important to come to terms with what happened if your relationship has ended. This may take time. It often helps to talk to friends or family about things as this can make you feel less isolated. It can also help to give perspective.

You may also consider talking to a counsellor. Setting yourself goals or making plans is very useful – achieving something can be a great confidence booster and a helpful reminder that you are moving on, even if on some days, you may not feel like you are.

For some people we’ve spoken to, a separation or divorce has been a very difficult experience. Others have told us that they saw the end of their relationship as a change for the better.

Whatever the circumstances, if your relationship does end, it can feel overwhelming and you may worry about what the future will hold. But there will be others going through a similar experience and it’s important to remember there is support available to help you.

Organisations such as Relate offer counselling for people coming out of a relationship. Our helpline 0808 800 0303 and Parkinson's local advisers can also offer emotional support to you and your family.

You can also visit the Parkinson's UK forum to speak with other people in a similar situation.

Changing roles in a relationship

"We've had to adapt our lifestyles to live with Parkinson's, but we've never allowed it to take over our lives."

Shamsa and her husband talk about how her diagnosis has affected them as a couple.