When Someone You Love Has IBS

Advice for Spouses, Family Members and Friends

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IBS affects more than the life of the person who has the actual condition. The disruptive nature of IBS symptoms can have a profound impact on friends and family members. IBS does not come with an owner's manual, and the very nature of IBS symptoms adds an extra layer of difficulty for both patients and those around them. This article offers information and tips for friends and family members of IBS patients regarding how to be a healthy source of support.

Do not underestimate the power of your support. Research suggests that the symptoms of IBS patients who are in supportive relationships are less severe than the symptoms of those who do not have supportive people around them.

Educate Yourself

It would be most helpful to the person that you love if you understand what IBS is. It is a chronic condition in which people who have it experience ongoing abdominal pain and bathroom problems. For some, the pain can be quite debilitating. IBS can also cause urgent bouts of diarrhea or the frustration of chronic constipation. The reason behind IBS does not show up on standard diagnostic testing, but that does not make the condition any less real. IBS is thus considered a functional gastrointestinal disorder, as opposed to an organic one.

The treatments for IBS are limited, but there are some medications that might be of help. The role of food is poorly understood, although recent research has identified certain foods that are more likely to trigger symptoms.

Although IBS symptoms may be exacerbated by stress, they are not caused by stress. Therefore it is not helpful to advise a person with IBS to just "relax" and they will feel better. Similarly, IBS is not "all in someone's head." The dysfunction of IBS may not yet be clearly understood, but there is much research evidence that it is very real.


Because IBS is, for the most part, an "invisible illness," it can be hard for someone who doesn't have the disorder to "get it". A lack of understanding often leads to a tendency to minimize the distress of the other person. Educating yourself about the biology behind the distress can give you insight and help you respond with more empathy. One way to get started: Remember, in detail, the worst "stomach flu" you ever experienced. A recall of those physical symptoms that you experienced can give you a glimpse of what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone who suffers from chronic GI distress.

Follow His or Her Lead

The person best equipped to make decisions regarding how to handle IBS is the person who has IBS. They knows their body best and have learned from experience what works and what makes things worse. Also, remember that IBS is unpredictable. What works today might not work tomorrow and what was fine last week might not be so fine this week. The last thing someone needs when they are suffering from severe digestive symptoms is to feel like someone is blaming or judging them for something that they chose to do or chose to eat.

Therefore let them make decisions regarding what to eat, what foods to avoid, and how much to eat.

Don't expect to be a hero. While your intentions are admirable, no one can "save" the person who has IBS. Trained medical professionals have enough difficulty figuring out ways to bring about symptom relief. Setting an unrealistic expectation for yourself as savior is only going to add an unnecessary level of frustration for both you and your loved one.

Keep Conflict Low

Preliminary research suggests that high levels of relationship conflict can worsen IBS symptoms. Therefore, learning some healthy conflict resolution skills is time well spent. This doesn't mean that you have to treat someone with IBS with kid gloves, but rather to learn ways to communicate any differing thoughts and feelings in a low-stress, low drama manner. 

Be Flexible

Unpredictability is a hallmark characteristic of IBS. For some IBS patients, there seems to be no rhyme nor reason behind "good days" and "bad days." This can put quite a damper on event planning! Remain aware that it is difficult for a person with IBS to commit to dates, outings and get-togethers. It is usually a good idea to have a "Plan B" in place to soothe strong feelings of disappointment when plans have to be cancelled.

Another area where you can be of great help is in terms of helping your IBS loved one to feel a sense of confidence regarding access to bathrooms. It is best to do this without drawing much attention to the matter. You can scope out available facilities ahead of time and in a quiet, matter-of-fact way, point them out to the other person. If you are driving, make sure they know that you are quite willing to stop whenever they feel a need to get to a bathroom.

Live a Balanced Life

The simple fact that you are reading this article indicates that you are interested in offering a level of support and interest that is only going to be good for the relationship and for your loved one's health. However, it is important to not overlook the negative effects on your own life when someone that you care about is dealing with IBS. The burden can be high for the "well partner", particularly when IBS symptoms are severe for the person who has the disorder. Be sure to engage in the types of activities that are good for you - whether they be hobbies, exercise or simply curling up with a good book. I call it "healthy selfishness", when good self-care means that you have more to offer others.


Gerson, et.al. "An international study of irritable bowel syndrome: Family relationships and mind-body attributions" Social Science & Medicine 2006 62:2838-2847.

Wong, R., et.al. "Partner Burden in Irritable Bowel Syndrome." Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2013 11:151–155.

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