Can Relationships Make Us Sick?

My heart was breaking, I couldn’t get through a day without tears and I was an emotional wreck.


That was 5 years ago, when my ex-husband and I were on the verge of divorce.

But there were physical symptoms, too. I was nauseous all the time, I was experiencing frequent stomach pain, I had trouble sleeping. At the time, I didn’t realize (or maybe I didn’t want to admit) the connection between my stressful marriage and what was happening to my body.

Dr. Trupti Gokani, a board certified neurologist and the Director of the North Shore Headache Clinic in Highland Park, estimates that 40% of the patients she sees with physical symptoms that include headaches, depression, sleep trouble and difficulty focusing, have these issues due to stress caused by relationship problems.

“Patients tell me they’re not getting what they want out of the relationship. They’re not getting enough help at home, or not enough romance. They have a lot of unmet needs, and that plays a big role in their pain,” says Dr. Gokani, who has received the Consumer Research Council’s Top Physicians Award.

She says that oftentimes it’s hard to get patients to acknowledge that the stress stems from their relationship. “They want to attribute the symptoms to something else because they don’t want to face the fact that they have relationship issues,” she says. But, once they do admit the root of the problem, she says the first step in healing is to journal the pain.

“I tell them to write down when they get the headache. Oftentimes they’ll say, ‘this one happened right after a fight,’ ” she says.

My symptoms went away after my ex-husband and I separated.  Now, I’m not recommending divorce as the cure for physical problems caused by marital stress, but living apart alleviated my symptoms tremendously, and validated the fact that the strained relationship was causing a great deal of tension and anxiety.

Dr. Gokani recommends identifying specifically what the stress is in the relationship. “In other words, communicate!” she exclaims. “Talk about it with your spouse. I often hear, ‘I do so much around the house and he doesn’t even appreciate me.’ Let him know that. Take 15 or 20 minutes a day to tell each other how you’re feeling. Address what you can do with each other to feel more relaxed and happy.”

She recommends eating well and working out together. “Be each other’s cheerleader.  Encourage each other,” she says.

Sue and Glen Sondag of Glenview are a couple who do just that.  Both in their sixties, they work out together almost every day.

“I’m very self-motivated but Glen isn’t,” says Sue. “He needs me to push him a little bit.”

Stacy and Burke Sennott go for long runs together. “We both gained weight after our second child and it was difficult to lose it for both of us,” says Stacy. “So, we started a program and we’ve been working out together ever since.”

“It’s a strong connection,” says Burke, who told me that while he’s running with his wife, they can talk and not get interrupted by the kids.

“We need to build each other’s self esteem!” says Dr. Gokani, “No critical, negative talk when someone is trying to heal.”

Watch author Jackie Pilossoph’s WGN appearance below:

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