5 Ways Your Relationship Could Be Bad for Your Health (and How to Fix It)

5 Ways Your Relationship Could Be Bad for Your Health (and How to Fix It)

10/12/2020

Ask a Doctor is PEOPLE’s series getting you the answers to the medical, health and personal questions that you always wanted to know but weren’t sure who to ask.

When you're in a relationship, you often share a lot of things: your bed, French fries, dessert, deep secrets, and, occasionally, health concerns. While sometimes sharing health information simply means letting your partner know if you've got food poisoning so they can give you some space, other times those health issues are actually linked to the relationship itself, like, say, in the case of a sexually transmitted infection or anxiety caused by your partner's maskless grocery-store trip.

If you are facing a health concern, whether it's physical or mental, with a clear tie to your partner, it's important to discuss these issues openly, include your significant other in your treatment plan (if you have one), and work together to ensure everyone can feel their best. PEOPLE spoke to top doctors about how you can navigate these issues—if and when they arise— together.

I got a sexually transmitted infection from my partner, and I know for a fact neither of us has been with anyone else. What now?

First, don't freak out. Men, especially, can be asymptomatic carriers of certain STIs and it doesn't mean anyone in the relationship has been unfaithful or was deliberately misleading/dishonest. Second, remember there are two kinds of STIs: those that are curable, and those that aren't. If the infection falls into the "curable" category, you'll both want to get on a course of antibiotics ASAP, so have a straightforward conversation with the other person, advises Katharine White, MD, an ob-gyn and an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Boston University Medical School. Dr. White explains that some states even allow whoever's physician diagnosed the STI to prescribe antibiotics to both partners, but check with your doctor and individual state laws about this. The important thing is you both get treated. "You'll also want to use condoms for at least a week to avoid the infection ping-ponging back and forth between you," says Dr. White.

If the infection is not curable, like herpes or the human papillomavirus (HPV), "that is a tougher conversation," says Dr. White. "You want the dialogue to be open—let the other person know what happened, and navigate the emotions around that." Dr. White stresses that in many cases, the person who "gave" the other an infection didn't hide any information, and rather probably didn't know they were a carrier. "Still, you have to decide if you can get to a place of trust and comfort with them moving forward," she says. In addition, your doctor can help you devise a treatment plan that will manage your symptoms, if you have any.

Lastly, if you're worried about having to tell past partners about a diagnosis in the interest of protecting your current relationship, "the public health department in your city or state will do it for you," explains Dr. White. "STIs are reportable infections, and if you are unable to contact your exes, you can give the public health department your information and contact information for your previous partners, and they’ll let them know in a way that protects your identity," she says.

Penetrative sex with my partner is painful. Is there anything I can do?

"If the pain with sex is new and it happens more than once, that's indication that go to the gynecologist for an exam, to find out if there’s a treatable cause," says Dr. White. Unfortunately, often there isn't a treatable cause, and in that case your doc can help you find a specialist, like a pelvic floor physical therapist, to work to reduce the pain over time. 

If painful sex is something you've been dealing with for a long time, it's best to talk to a partner about it before the first time you attempt intercourse. "If sex is hurting and you want to stop, you want to make sure you can be with a partner who will respect that and stop—even if you’re in the middle of things," says Dr. White. "Some people think they need to power through, but when it comes to pain with sex, if you continue to power through, you’re teaching your body that sex hurts. That can be a brutal cycle to break," she says. "Pain with sex is common, but that doesn't mean you need to live with it."

I just found out I'm pregnant— and I wasn't expecting to be. How can I work through it with my partner, especially since he's not able to come with me to doctors' appointments due to COVID restrictions?

"No matter what your decision is—whether to continue the pregnancy, or not, or if ends in a miscarriage—your partner should still be there for you before and after appointments," says Dr. White. "If you choose to continue with the pregnancy, there are lots of ways to use smartphone and video to include your partner in your prenatal appointments: I've had patients record their ultrasounds or record the baby's heartbeat so [the other person] can feel involved," she says.

If you choose to terminate, she says, "you might not be able to have visitors waiting for you, but you will need someone to take you home, to get you a hot water bottle, to pick up any prescriptions you might need— all of that is still care, and that is still part of the process."

What about mental health issues? My partner has been really triggering my anxiety during quarantine— we're not on the same page about our comfort levels with COVID-exposure risk.

She wants to go to the gym for anxiety relief; you think it's super-unsafe, and it's causing you anxiety. "This cycle can create a lot of tension," says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a psychologist specializing in relationships in Mill Valley, Calif., and author of The Stress Proof Brain.

If you weren't anxious before, your elevated stress levels might indicate that you're feeling "angry, [like] they don't care about you," she says. Conversely, if you already had anxiety, your risk tolerance might be low to begin with, which could be difficult for your partner to understand.

Greenberg advocates for communicating within a framework like this one: When I see you (going to the gym), I feel (anxious/fearful). I need to feel (safe, and like you're respecting my concerns about COVID). So would you consider (not going to the gym, and running outside instead)? It's really important to me. "It can also help to talk about feelings in your body—saying things like 'my chest feels tight when you get mad at me,' or 'when I am anxious, I feel like I can’t breathe,'" she says. "Sometimes people can relate to those physical feelings."

These tips aren't just for COVID-related anxiety, of course— any intrusive or anxiety-provoking thoughts that you want to explain to your partner can benefit from this kind of communication. "Explaining 'I have thoughts I can’t seem to stop or control,' and asking for what you need—patience and some support to help calm down—can help reel anxiety back in," Dr. Greenberg says. 

I've been feeling depressed with all that's going on lately, and my partner isn't making things any better. Why don't they get it?

First, ask yourself: are you expecting your partner to "fix" your depression? That probably isn't a reasonable expectation— you really should work with a mental health professional if you have depressive symptoms that need to be treated— but if your partner isn't being sensitive to your depressed mood, that you can work on together.

Dr. Greenberg recommends explaining: "I do not feel completely like myself right now, and I’m working on it, but I need you to treat me more gently. I need you to not expect me to be happy." She also notes that it can be beneficial to recognize their point of view before asking for help: "Tell them: 'I know you’re trying to help me, but sometimes when I talk to about this you feel like you shut me out. When we connect, that in itself helps the depression a lot, and when we argue, that triggers my self-esteem issues. Because I'm feeling depressed, I'm extra sensitive right now.'" 

Lastly, if you feel your partner is causing any mental health issues— for example, if you’re having repetitive screaming matches about the same topic that are getting worse, meaner, or not improving; if your partner cannot understand your mental health issues and doesn't seem to want to; or if you have found yourself living separate lives and aren't communicating at all, — these are all signs your relationship itself may need counseling, says Dr. Greenberg.

Remember, there's no shame in getting treatment for anything—physical or mental— that is negatively impacting your quality of life. 

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