Can migraines hurt your relationships?

Yes, they can, and often do. When migraines enter the relationship, it becomes a struggle for both partners, not just the one with the headache.

To be fair, every relationship works this way — two people bring things from their own lives into the relationship, and it becomes part of the partner’s world as well. But migraines introduce a host of complications that can overwhelm relationships for both partners, not just one or the other.

Migraines often occur with little warning. Even if it was actually triggered hours prior to the onset of aura or headache, once it enters awareness, it can quickly spell the end of the day (if not days) for many migraine sufferers. This affects not only relationships themselves, but jobs, careers, parenthood, and vacations. Some won’t travel out of the country, or even out of their home area, for fear of what will happen if a migraine is triggered and they’re too far from their personal medical providers.

Partners of people who have migraines quickly learn how debilitating these episodes can be. The partners are under stress, too — they may have to take over parental responsibilities on the spur of the moment, run home in the midst of a day outing, or cancel trips when their partner ends up in bed in the midst of vacations. There may even be trips to the hospital for more severe episodes.

For many sufferers, combating migraines brings about constant adjustments, as well as redefining rituals. For example, dietary changes and restrictions while identifying and avoiding known triggers can cause significant issues with daily meal habits in the home. Couples may be limited in where they can dine out together. The regular outpouring of money for traditional or alternative medical visits can cause further relationship stress.

Migraine sufferers often feel that their partner, family and friends don’t understand. In my private psychotherapy practice, where I specialize in working with people who struggle with migraines, almost every person has focused on this lack of understanding from others as a major issue with dealing with migraines. Migraine sufferers have most likely heard more than their share of, “What’s wrong? It’s just a headache,” or “Do you really have to leave work (or class) just for a headache?” The list goes on and on. The underlying assumption from the ever-growing list is the same: “It’s not that bad, you’re just babying yourself.”

A migraine isn’t merely a headache. It’s an event. Those who don’t experience aura can go from no headache to full headache, nausea and vomiting within an hour or two. The pain and sensitivity can be so bad that actually opening their eyes and seeing light can cause more vomiting. Hearing the sounds of people talking can further increase the headache and nausea. For some people, medication can help, but for many, it doesn’t. They can deal with this for as little as several hours to indefinitely. (Some people who come in have had a migraine episode for years).

An aura adds an entire dimension to a migraine. Some people experience some mild tingling in the extremities, while others experience visual disturbances (seeing flashing lights and colorful patterns moving across their vision). Others experience significant numbness or paralysis, fainting, confusion to the point of not knowing how to speak or think straight, difficulty walking, and slurred speech. This often is followed by the headache, nausea and vomiting described above.

The migraine experience is different for each person. What’s important to know is that the word “migraine” doesn’t just indicate “bad headache.” That’s a common misunderstanding that leads partners, families, and friends to believe that a person is more functional than may really be the case during a migraine episode.

The migraine journey is an internally lonely experience. Giving the benefit of the doubt and offering compassion goes a long way. Partners often fear that their migraine-suffering partners may take advantage of the situation and use the migraines as an excuse not to do things in a relationship. Most of the migraine sufferers I have seen find their episodes so unpleasant that they won’t consciously dare tempt fate by faking episodes or using them to their advantage.

If you suffer from migraines and your partner is able to deal with it, some appreciation for their patience can go a long way, too. It can become easy to forget that partners merely deal with this part of the relationship, and aren’t required to.