When the Relationship Gets Tough…Some Get Sick!

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to get sick when they’re in an unresolvable argument with their partner?  This also seems to happen if their partner is chronically mad at them.  And yet still…at other times they become physically ill after a bout of jealousy. 

This “sickness” often comes in the form of:

  • Cold
  • Migraine
  • Acute allergic reaction
  • Physical pain
  • Complete fatigue
  • GI upset

At clinical levels this is called somatization.  It was originally labeled Briquet’s Syndrome, named after the physician who first recognized it.  Somatization refers to health problems that have no medical explanation.  They’re actually a physical manifestation of psychological difficulty. 

Somatic symptoms are the leading cause of outpatient medical visits.  The symptoms can interfere with work and personal relationships.  They can affect the digestive, nervous, and reproductive systems.  

Common symptoms include:

  • Abdominal and back pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Headaches
  • Impotence
  • Pain during urination
  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath. 

However, most people have milder versions of somatization.  They tend to stay off the medical grid and don’t always see a physician when they’re sick.  Instead, they look to their romantic partners to take care of them.  Or, they just “self-care” in front of their partners…often acting martyr-ish. 

These sub-clinical symptoms appear to be caused by significant feelings of anxiety and/or insecurity.  Consider this, most people have sympathy for someone that’s sick.  Thus, manifesting these symptoms will make their partner more sympathetic toward them.  It’s a type of manipulation.    

People often report sickness so their partner will:

  • Be more sympathetic toward them
  • Let them off the hook
  • End an argument/conflict
  • Give them a “hall pass”
  • Forgive them
  • Conform to what they want
  • Pay attention to them

This type of mild somatization, although manipulative, isn’t always conscious.  These people truly may become sick as an automatic response to a stressful situation.  For many of these people, they learned this as a child.  Likely, the only legitimate concerns that were acknowledged by caregivers were physical health ones.  They learned that others soothe and care for them when they are sick.

If you find yourself in a relationship with someone that appears to somaticize….you should reevaluate the relationship.  This will likely be an ongoing problem that you’ll need to accept as part of your relationship.  With treatment, it may be better…but not always.  You will want to ask yourself if you’re able to tolerate this type of a behavior in a long-term relationship, as it will be repetitive.  If you are, then find ways to empathize with them and gently assist them in recognizing this tendency.

If you’re the partner that somaticizes you may want to:

  • Be medically evaluated
  • Have your physical health tested when you are well and when you are sick
  • Consider mental health treatment that can help you develop better coping methods
  • Learn stress management techniques
  • Increase your communication/assertiveness skills
  • Become more physically and socially active

The best thing you can do is to recognize its presence in your relationship.  The next best thing is to talk about it and get help.  

By Delicia Mclean, Ph.D., MHA