Criticism's Effect on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Loved Ones' Emotional Response to Your Illness Examined

Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/Getty Images

Could your significant other's attitudes about chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) actually make you sicker? They just might, according to a new study.

Through questionnaire answers over a six-month period, researchers asked 55 people with ME/CFS and their significant others about things like critical comments and emotional over-involvement from the significant other, then compared them to how the ME/CFS participant fared.

"Significant other," in this case, included not only spouses and romantic partners but also parents.

They found that high levels of both criticism and emotional over-involvement could predict a more severely ill partner. Lots of criticism was also linked more symptoms of depression, which they say may be responsible for the overall worsened illness severity.

Researchers say parents tended to be more emotionally over-involved than spouses/partners.

The study recommends further investigation into the impact of relationships on ME/CFS as well as treatment interventions aimed at significant others. This could include education, counseling, or possibly support groups so that the spouse or parent has an outlet for frustrations.

Is it possible that a more severe illness led to more criticism and emotional over-involvement? Certainly. The numbers show a link but don't establish cause and effect. Still, it's an interesting link that does suggest the reactions of others to our illness does impact us directly.

My Perspective

To me, this study underscores something too many of us already know – that when the people closest you are critical of you because of your illness, it's depressing!

Negative comments, skepticism about your illness, and harsh judgments can hit us right in the insecurities we already have because our symptoms limit us so much.

Guilt over a messy house, unwashed laundry, missed days of work, or leaving a job are already tough for us to deal with, especially on top of our many symptoms. We hardly need someone else heaping more on our plates.

To me, the biggest take-away from this study is the message that, for your own well-being, you need to take steps to curtail this problem. That can be a difficult subject to broach with someone who's close to you, and it may be tempting to throw this study in their faces. You'll probably have better luck, though, if you present it as an opportunity for them to understand how much they affect you. Perhaps it could open up a dialogue about family counseling, if you feel that would help.

Understanding Others' Emotions

When you're gauging this study's relevance to you, or evaluating your own relationships, it can be hard to separate a significant others' emotions about your illness from their emotions about you.

In some cases, it's clear that the criticism is aimed at the sick person. Comments about "faking" illness or "whining" are hard to mistake.

However, we need to realize that it's normal for the people close to us to be frustrated or even angry about the unwanted changes our illness inflicts upon them.

Take my husband for example. My illness meant a significant drop in income, making it more important for him to work overtime. Meanwhile, he has to do a lot more around the house -- laundry, cleaning, cooking, running kids around, etc.

Anyone in that situation would feel frustrated and overworked at times. It's exhausting. I've had to learn that the emotional responses he has toward all of that are aimed at the situation, not at me.

When the negative emotions are aimed at you, though, this study shows how important it is for you to find solutions. You don't need to be sicker because of someone else's negativity.


Band R, Barrowclough C, Wearden A. Health Psychology. 2014 Sep;33(9):1092-1101. The impact of significant other expressed emotion on patient outcomes in chronic fatigue syndrome.

Continue Reading