When we enter into a relationship with someone, many of us envision a fun-loving and exciting bond with a companion exhibiting qualities that bring value to the relationship.
So when a food allergy enters the picture, we are forced to unwillingly enter into a relationship - one that doesn't fit our typical healthy relationship model. Simply stated, we end up in a relationship with a potentially emotionally and physically abusive companion.
Given that we typically don't have the choice to break up with our food allergy, we have to learn how to turn a bad relationship into a healthy one. So how can we accomplish this seemingly impossible task?
Accept the Not-So-Good Qualities & Identify the Good Ones
Think about your significant other, or even a close friendship. I bet you can identify both good and not-so-good qualities associated with that person. In relationships, since there is no such thing as perfect, we find ways to live with the characteristics that we find less than desirable in our mate or friend.
Try this thought on for size - your food allergy is just another relationship in your life. This "person" comes with positive and negative qualities. However, unlike other relationships, where you have a choice to engage or disengage, that's not an option with this one. You're forced to accept your food allergy as it is - it's the ultimate test of acceptance.
If you're going to have this relationship in your life for the long-haul, it can be useful to focus on ways that it may actually enhance your life, rather than only cause problems. You're probably well-versed with the not-so-good, and even downright bad qualities, but can you identify some positive aspects of living with your food allergy?
Identify and Be Firm With Your Boundaries
With relationships, whether it's with a family member, friend, or significant other, we typically set boundaries that help us maintain healthy connections. Those boundaries may relate to how much time is spent together, expectations, division of responsibilities, etc.
As your food allergy is an additional relationship in your life, you'll need to set clear boundaries with it as well. Some examples of boundaries you might want to set with this relationship are:
Being forced into a relationship with someone, or in this case, something that we don't like is a tough pill to swallow. But when we can't exercise the right to break up with it, we're better off finding a way to live cohesively with it. Otherwise, we find ourselves in an emotionally draining relationship pattern with our food allergy, giving it ALL of the control rather than finding ways to live harmoniously. What relationship rules do you have with your food allergy?
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It's hard when friends don't understand or follow your family's food allergy rules, but it's even harder (and more disappointing) when your own family members don't get it. Unfortunately, it's a frequent topic in food allergy social support groups, so it seems to be a common scenario.
Whether the rule-breakers are your in-laws or extended family members, navigating this scenario can be tricky.
Here are a few suggestions to help you deal with these down-right frustrating dilemmas:
The reality is that no matter how it’s handled, discussing this topic with non-compliant family members may cause ripples, as well as overwhelming feelings, which you'll need to work through. But ultimately, you have to do what’s best for your family. In doing so, not only are you putting your child's safety first, you're also modeling how to navigate tough scenarios, even if the outcome isn't ideal. (Comment below with what solutions have worked for your family in these situations. Your suggestions may help a fellow family with food allergies!)
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Parenting is hard enough on relationships, but add food allergies or other chronic illnesses to the picture, and even spouses with a solid partnership and seamless communication style will face challenges.
Oftentimes, parents are required to be so focused on the day-to-day logistics of managing food allergies, that residual impacts to their relationship aren’t noticed until they become impossible to ignore.
Here are three common ways marriages/relationships may be affected by food allergies and solutions to navigate them:
DWINDLING DATE NIGHTS
When food allergies are a factor, your pool of babysitter options may be more shallow due to increased safety protocols, especially when your child is still very young. Maybe you don’t have sitters you feel comfortable leaving your child with, or you don’t have family members that will follow the food rules. Maybe you’re just not ready to trust that someone else will be able to recognize a reaction and enforce the emergency action plan if you’re not there to help. Whatever the reason, the lack of alone time with your significant other can easy dwindle until it’s non-existent.
What You Can Do:
🔷 Not having a sitter shouldn’t be the reason date nights don’t happen, so get creative! Take turns planning date nights at home -- dinners, movies, or other activities. Get out an old photo album and reminisce together. Have a game marathon. The goal is to have fun, connect, and get your minds off of food allergies and back onto your relationship.
🔷 Take advantages of opportunities to “turn towards each other”, or notice and appreciate one another. Even if you’re only able to have a quiet night together once a month, these little gestures go a long way and can help you reconnect in the meantime.
🔶 Nurturing what connects you and your relationship directly impacts how you will navigate the tough times together. The more connected you feel, the more likely you’ll work as a team during stressful situations. Make each other a priority again!
ELEVATED STRESS LEVELS
Computers have a constant antivirus software running in the background to ward off any surprise attacks. Similarly, parents managing food allergies are always on - preparing ahead of time, surveying situations, and being on high alert just in case. Let’s call it what it is - STRESSFUL! Cumulative stress can dramatically impact and change individuals, and therefore, it can directly affect the relationship between you and your significant other. Before you know it, you might be standing face-to-face, but barely recognize one another due to how much you’ve both changed from the stress.
What You Can Do:
🔷 Self-care needs to be a priority for you both. Much of your time and energy is spent focusing on your child’s safety, so your own self-care may quickly drop to the bottom of the priority list (which can be true for all parents in general). But remember that computer analogy? If we don’t turn off or reboot the machine from time to time, eventually it doesn’t run as effectively. The same is true of parents. Try and turn your hypervigilance off when you can and focus on your own needs, even if it’s only for mere minutes a day.
🔷 Another way to help manage stress is to be more mindful. Being mindful is “having the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” By the very nature of food allergies, emotions tend to run high and reactivity is always prepared in case it’s called into action. Take an inventory of which situations cause the most stress, and share that list with your significant other. If you’re aware of each other’s triggers ahead of time, it may help you both stay present and better navigate the stress together, as opposed to letting stress lead the way and cause chaos in your relationship.
🔶 Plain and simple, there will be stressors associated with managing food allergies. The key is to not let the emotions become so overwhelming that it infiltrates your relationship and drives a wedge between you.
CAUTION LEVELS DIFFER
When your child is initially diagnosed with a food allergy, caution levels tend to be at an all-time high. However, after some time and distance from the diagnosis, especially if there hasn’t been a reaction, some individuals tend to lower their guards when it comes to the food rules. If one of you sticks to the rules consistently, but the other doesn’t, it can cause fights and resentments, leaving you feeling like you’re the one that must be hypervigilant for your child’s safety.
What You Can Do:
🔷 If you’re not on the same page with food rules, it’s time to hit the pause button and do some wondering. Why is your significant other feeling comfortable veering from the plan? Has anything changed - any new results from allergy appointments? Is it possible that the initial guidelines should be revisited and re-evaluated?
🔷 In order to get to the core reasons, and therefore a solution, you and your significant other will have to explore this topic together. Emotions will likely be high, so try and remain calm and focused on finding a solution that is best for your child’s safety and that you both can be successful with.
🔷 The goal is to understand what risk level you each feel most comfortable with, as well as what non-negotiable food rule items you both have. Revisit the food rules, making sure to incorporate each of your non-negotiable items first, and then layer in the other preferred rules.
🔷 If you find you’re at an impasse and can’t agree on what guidelines need to be in place, it’s best to reach out to your allergist or an evidenced-based support network to determine which guidelines are necessary and which ones may not be needed.
🔶 Safety and precautions are the name of the game. However, the logistics of the game may need to be revisited if you and your significant other aren’t seeing eye-to-eye about them. Rather than argue about it, take a solution-focused, team approach. Remember, it’s not about who’s right or wrong; it’s about both of you succeeding with safety goals for your child’s sake.
Chronic illnesses, such as food allergies, may impact marriages and relationships, but they don’t have to derail them. Being aware of what affects yours, staying connected, and using clear and calm communication when issues do arise can help you troubleshoot even the toughest of times - as a team.
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