Image: Sick couple
Kim Carney /
By contributor
updated 1/25/2010 8:53:47 AM ET 2010-01-25T13:53:47

Alone in his self-imposed isolation ward — the basement — Sam DeBord’s fever and body aches finally had eased enough to let him chat online, update his real estate Web site, and watch sports on TV.

Upstairs, his pregnant wife, Liz, was triple-tasking: caring for their 3-year-old daughter, working her public relations job, plus sacrificing sleep to disinfect each door handle. Every few hours she would “just kind of throw food down to Sam.” Within the same Seattle house, the couple communicated via Facebook. “Just stupid banter about the flu and how much it sucks,” she said.

After four days, Liz was spent and a bit frustrated.

“I keep hearing ESPN on down there,” she grumbled.

Liz’s pregnancy and Sam’s breed of virus — H1N1 — injected an extra edge into his quarantine. But even when it's just a routine seasonal bug or nasty cold that knocks one partner into next week, the warmest of relationships can feel a temporarily chill.

The fastest-spreading strain of flu can't beat how quickly patience can evaporate and resentment can rise when a significant other is significantly absent from household chores for several days due to illness. It's especially amplified among couples who have children. Certain silent, unspoken questions seem to gain volume with each extra day of solo spousal care-taking: Is he really that sick? Is she faking it?

The dynamics can get weirder still when both partners are simultaneously down with the flu — particularly if they’re naturally competitive. In cold-weather months, relationship counselors often hear about snowballing ill will between ill spouses. Whiny one-upsmanship can turn into a cranky game of “Who’s sicker?”

It’s your turn to feed the baby! My head is throbbing louder than yours!

“It’s all about, always about, two things: communication and expectations,” said Mike Lindstrom, a life coach and motivational speaker based in the Phoenix area.

Some of Lindstrom's clients have recently coped with sickness-fueled tensions at home. One confided that he harbored anger toward his wife because a week after her “girl’s weekend” in Las Vegas, she still claimed to be too tired to fulfill her parenting responsibilities.

“He told me, ‘She’s milking this thing!’ and that she’s using intimacy, even sex (to make amends). But he’s pulling back,” Lindstrom said. “The whole thing escalated into a two-week argument.”

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Lindstrom recalled his how he himself was able to successfully navigate an illness by applying clear expectations. After he was suddenly floored by the flu, Lindstrom told his fiancé they would have to temporarily shelve all their wedding-planning chats and house-move discussions because he felt so awful.

“She could tell by the way I delivered it, I was serious. I literally slept for 20 hours. But my actions backed up my words. If after two days I had my BlackBerry out and was flipping through TV channels, there would be incongruence there,” Lindstrom said. When suspicions arise, the healthy partner “has to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Look, you’ve got to muscle up here. I see you have enough energy to go to the fridge. I need a little help around the house. What can you do?’

“Some couples don’t have those communication skills” Lindstrom added. “That creates animosity and it grows into a full-blown argument.”

The legend of the "man flu"
Of course, gender often muddies the balance of tenderness. While the stereotype that men moan and groan more loudly about their symptoms than women persists, at least one recent survey, however, exposes “man flu” as a myth. In a 2008 poll of more than 2,000 British adults, 85 percent of female respondents admitted they exaggerated their flu symptoms to gain extra compassion compared to just 76 percent of the men surveyed. About one third of the women also acknowledged feeling “more emotional” when battling winter sniffles as compared to just one in 10 men.

When a partner falls ill, empathy can have an expiration date. And in relationships that are taxed or struggling to begin with, it comes sooner rather than later.

Elaina McMillan, a Denver-based relationship coach and clinical hypnotherapist, says she's known women who have run dangerously high fevers yet “found it easier” to climb out of bed to fetch medicine rather than ask their husbands to do it.

“Intimacy is less about candlelight dinners and more about being there when the other person needs you most. Intimacy,” she said, “is about putting another blanket on them when they feel like crap.”

Not a competition anyone wants to win
Still, McMillan acknowledged she, too, was in a relationship that became competitive — in sickness and in health. When she and her ex-husband developed the flu at the same time, she recalls both trying to beg off necessary tasks by trading statements like: “I have a higher temperature than you,” and “Well, I was the last one to throw up!”

“Nobody ever wins when it becomes ‘whose life is harder?’,” McMillan said. “If you take the position that ‘my life is harder than yours,’ or ‘I’m sicker,’ [you] are so committed to being right that it becomes your truth. You end up inadvertently reaffirming that scenario for yourself.”

What should be reaffirmed — even during minor sicknesses — is that a relationship provides each partner with “a safe haven,” said Brooke C. Feeney, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“When one partner gets sick, the other is needed ... for comfort and assistance. But this process can go awry in at least two ways,” Feeney said. “First, not everyone is equally skilled and motivated to provide a safe haven for their partner in times of need.”

Those who are emotionally ill-equipped or who fail to offer sips of juice or cold towels for feverish foreheads probably learned during their lives “to associate distress with negative outcomes,” Feeney said. “So, they may view a partner’s illness, vulnerability and distress as threatening.”

But even in folks who dutifully deliver extra pills and pillows to their under-the-weather partner, sympathy can lapse into irritation if the illness hangs on, Feeney said.

Back inside the DeBord home, sick Sam and weary Liz ultimately muddled through his flu spell with steady patience, honest communication and — especially in tougher times — a dose of humor.

"Sometimes my wife delivers me food like a prison guard — sets it down inside the (basement room) door and I come get it," Sam said. "Luckily for me, it's very good food."

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