Protect your relationships. Uncover your unconscious biases and assumptions around illness

Last week I wrote about how the unconscious biases and assumptions around illness, injury, recovery, disability and health you hold tend to become more visible when you have to deal with these issues. They test that ‘in sickness and in health’ vow in a committed relationship. And they can make or break a relationship.

But to do what you can to ensure your relationship remains in a good enough place, it helps to become aware of the unconscious biases and assumptions around illness you hold and figure out if they are helpful or potentially harmful to your relationship.

Last week I shared examples of what some unconscious biases and assumptions around illness look like in action. This week I share the process to uncover your own.

So this blog gives you an opportunity to have a quiet and gentle think. If you like to write your thoughts because that helps you to clarify them, then do that. But you don’t have to.

How to uncover your unconscious biases and assumptions around illness

Your unconscious biases and assumptions around illness will underpin what you mean by health, illness, disability and recovery (how you define them) and even how they come through in your behaviour.

Ask yourself these questions to uncover the unconscious biases and assumptions around illness you hold which may be helping or hindering your relationship

  • What are you like when you are ill or in good health? How do you treat yourself? What do you expect of others around you?
  • What are you like when others around you are ill or in good health? How do you treat them? What do you expect of them when they are ill? And what do you expect of yourself?
  • How sick do you and others have to be to be considered sick?
  • When is getting sick or injured due to your actions and hence your ‘fault’? And when is it not?
  • Regarding recovery, do you expect yourself or the other person to go back to the way they were pre-illness or injury? What if you/they don’t?
  • Do you believe that being positive will aid recovery? Where does being negative fit into the recovery process?
  • What if you or your other half or child looks ok but says they are tired all the time? And they sleep a lot? Or they say they are in pain? But they look fine, well even?
  • What if you or your other half or child becomes disabled physically and/or cognitively? How would you feel about that? What would you do? What do you think you would find really difficult?
  • You hear of someone who had a serious accident and was disabled as a result. You’ve heard they got back to work, are continuing their lives and they seem well and happy. Do you find them to be an inspiration? Why is that?
  • You’re on Tinder swiping away. You read a profile you like, get in touch with the person and through corresponding you learn they are a wheelchair user (or have mental health issues or another long-term condition). Do you meet up with them for a date? Why or why not?

These questions require you to think about your thoughts, behaviours and expectations of yourself and others. Some of them have been provocatively worded to elicit a response.

Then dig a little deeper

When you respond to the above questions, then ask yourself, ‘For these responses to be true, what do I have to assume about myself? And others? And what beliefs are these assumptions based on?’

For example, if you responded that you are only considered ‘properly’ sick when you have a really bad case of the flu and cannot function or have to go to accident and emergency at the hospital.

What do you have to assume about yourself (or others) regarding being ‘properly’ sick?

Maybe the assumption is, ‘I don’t get sick that much so it won’t happen to me.’ And maybe that points to a belief, ‘I believe I am a strong person with a good constitution.’

How our unconscious biases and assumptions around illness can negatively impact our relationships

What often happens is we project these assumptions and beliefs we hold on to others, i.e. what we expect of ourselves, we expect the same of others. This is where couples often get into trouble when a serious illness, chronic illness or serious injury enters the family.

For example, one of last week’s examples was when one half of a couple or your parent tells you to ‘get on with it’ — go to work, look after the house and kids, do everything else life throws at you — when you are experiencing ongoing fatigue, pain and/or weakness.

The ‘get on with it’ coupled with the sighs, frustration and remarks of ‘we all get tired’ can feel like this person who is family and close to you, just does not care for you or your needs. That can really hurt a relationship. Their ‘get on with it’ is their assumption about how they, and therefore you, should deal with illness/injury.

‘Pre-existing conditions’ in your relationship can also make it more difficult to cope with a serious health issue

In addition, how as a couple you deal with the impact of a serious health issue in your family can shine a light on the issues in your relationship which existed prior to the illness or injury. If you both haven’t addressed these relationship issues, they can make dealing with the health issue that much harder.

It’s important you get support and I cannot stress this enough. You may feel it is your other half which needs the support. But there are two people in any relationship and even if something terrible happens to one of you, like a serious illness or injury, you are both affected. There is something about both of you getting support to deal with and move beyond the challenge.

Whichever position you are in, the person with the illness/injury or the carer, if you feel that it’s your other half who needs to change or some kind of support, ask yourself what support you need. We often hear the saying by Ghandi, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ If you want someone else to change, look at what change you can make too.

What’s it like for you?

What did you think of this exercise to uncover your unconscious biases and assumptions around illness? Where there any questions which occurred to you which weren’t listed here? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below or alternatively email them to me (form below).

If you are living with a serious health issue, which may be a serious illness or injury or chronic illness, or are caring for someone who is, and would like support to deal with issues in your relationship, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

Help with research on acceptance

If you or a loved one experienced a serious health issue in the past 2 years and are struggling or wondering if you can accept what has happened, I would love to speak with you. I am researching the concept of ‘acceptance’ within the context of a serious health issue by collecting people’s experiences with it. Click here to find out more. And in exchange, I offer you a free 1 hour coaching session.

Pass it forward

Although I wrote this blog in the context of living with a serious health issue, the ideas contained within are applicable to everyone. If you think someone you know would benefit from reading this blog, or you just want to spread the ideas, click on the icons to share.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2018

Originally published at on October 24, 2018.