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By Dr. Karen Shirer, Ph.D.

Our health and family well-being are closely linked to each other.  When a family member suffers from ill-health due to chronic disease, the health and wellness of both the individual and his/her family are impacted.

Chronic illnesses like diabetes, cancer and heart disease cause not only physical difficulties but also stress among individuals and families. Yet, family support and positive communication provide important protection against developing chronic disease and dealing with it when diagnosed with one.  Dr. Tai Mendenhall at the University of Minnesota in the webinar (title) gave two powerful examples of the relationship between physical health and relational health in families.  

  • In couples, relationship quality affects partners’ immune function and endocrine stress hormones, and as a result, the development and course of chronic illnesses. That means, couples in high conflict relationships have higher stress and, therefore, can be at higher risk for illness.  In addition, physical health of partners affects their relationship quality.  Illness can “get in the way” of the couple and cause caregiver stress and burden.
  • Chronic pain in a family member can lead to poor relationships and the onset of depression and anxiety in both partners.  When couples learned to communicate in a more responsive and facilitative manner and showed support to each other, pain intensity and depression decreased, and couples were more satisfied with their relationship.

We spend the majority of our time with our families and as a result, they impact our health.  How we communicate and interact with each other can play a significant role in the health and resiliency of our families. Dr. Mendenhall described these important communication skills to promote health:

  • Listen carefully instead of thinking about your response while the other person is talking
  • Reflect back what you heard the other person say rather than minimize or say things like “yes, but …”
  • Focus on behavior that can be changed instead of the other person’s character
  • Be honest and avoid “niceties” like telling the other person everything is fine or that it is nothing
  • Take time-outs to defuse strong emotions or respond while tired

Dr. Mendenhall reminds us that the family’s main functions focus on protecting the safety of its members and teaching them health behaviors. As family service and health care providers, we need to consider the whole family when providing services and care, and look for ways to strengthen their ability to fulfill these basic functions.  When a family faces a health crisis of one of its members, a team of providers representing both physical and behavioral practices need to work together.  This team’s role involves understanding the patient’s and their family’s world listen with empathy; seeing the world through the eyes of the patient and their family; and valuing their lived experience and wisdom.  The patient and his/her family need to be critical members of this multi-disciplinary care team.

Take time to view Part 1 to learn more about the connection between chronic illness and stress, and how it impacts individual and family health.  You will find additional information and strategies for strengthening families’ well-being and for collaborating with other service provides when working with families struggling with chronic illness.  It is a great investment of your time!


Karen Shirer is a member of OneOp Family Transitions Team and the Associate Dean with the University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Family Development. Karen is also the parent of two adult daughters, a grandmother, a spouse, and a cancer survivor.