Transplant Talk: Transplant, Chronic Illness, and Your Relationships

Katie Willard Virant is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist. She writes a monthly column for Psychology Today about living with chronic illness. On Thursday, February 9, 2023 at 7:00 PM EST, expert speaker: Katie Willard Virant joined us for our monthly Transplant Talk series to discuss Transplant, Chronic Illness, and Your Relationships.

Here is the recording of that Transplant Talk. To learn about upcoming talks follow us on Facebook, Instagram or sign up to receive emails.


Expert Speaker:
Katie Willard Virant, MSW, JD, LCSW, is a psychotherapist practicing in St. Louis.

This Transplant Talk features a discussion on how chronic Illness challenges relationships. 

It’s no wonder that many wedding vows contain a promise to love one another “in sickness and in health.” Chronic illness affects, not only the person bearing the symptoms, but also the person loving them, living with them, and caring for them. As one partner expressed to me, “My wife lives with the illness, and I live with her. So, in a way, I live with the illness, too.”

Relationships and Chronic Illness:  A micro-mezzo-macro approach

by Katie Willard Virant MSW, JD, LCSW

Social workers analyze issues by looking at three levels of a person’s relationships and connections.  The micro level explores a person’s relationship with herself – her beliefs and feelings about herself.  The mezzo level comprises a person’s immediate environment – notably family and friends.  The macro level, which encompasses the larger society, includes governmental, economic and cultural policies and values.  

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Lung Transplant Foundation last week on the issue of relationships and chronic illness.  I used the micro-mezzo-macro approach to organize my talk, and I outline salient points below.

Chronic Illness Barriers to Relationships 

Loneliness is an “unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relationships is deficient either qualitatively or quantitatively (Bekhet & Zauszniewski, 2008).”  When we are not getting enough connection, we feel lonely.  This feeling of loneliness is a warning sign alerting us to our unmet need for connection.

Chronic illness interrupts connection by removing opportunities for interactions.  This narrowing of opportunity occurs at the micro, mezzo and macro levels.  

Micro Level

The beliefs we hold about ourselves affect our relationships.  Many people who live with chronic illness carry a feeling of shame about their illness, believing that their illness makes them unlovable.  They feel as if their symptoms make them too needy and devoid of the necessary resources to be good partners, parents, and friends. This belief – often unarticulated – causes people to avoid connection or to “mask” their illness, hiding from friends and family the extent to which their illness affects their daily lives.  

Mezzo Level

Our interpersonal relationships with family members and friends also are affected by chronic illness.  Many people living with chronic illness are familiar with close connections disappearing or making insensitive comments. We may feel despair that other people do not understand what it means to be chronically ill.  

Indeed, many people (consciously and unconsciously) are frightened by the vulnerability that exists in being human.  Our illness brings that vulnerability (and their anxiety) to the forefront, causing them to defend themselves against their painful feelings by distancing themselves from our experiences.  

Read the full article on Psychology Today.