Sex and Chronic Illness
You have met the partner of your dreams. The both of you have excellent communication and your sex life is very healthy. All of a sudden 10 years into the relationship, you are diagnosed with a chronic illness. Life changes and you are at a loss. You feel shattered. Your partner starts to feel overwhelmed because you feel shame. What do the both of you do? When you have a chronic illness, sex can involve a mix of feelings and emotions. Once someone is diagnosed with a chronic illness, there is a grief and loss process and a deep concern on what the diagnosis means in their life. You may think, how will I continue to enjoy sex and will my partner stay with me? Your partner may think, will I be enough for support and what will our future look like? Thinking about sex may be overwhelming because you have the worry over other concerns such as the disturbance of the diagnosis, the physical changes with your body, changes in the with your family and finances, and the pain and discomfort in your body.
Sex can bring up a several different feelings. You may feel less attractive, less confident, concerned about how your body works with the illness, the way your partner feels about you, worry over the pain during sexual activity, and the energy because you may not have the desire for sex. We know that physical intimacy is paramount to the quality of life, and it is still important if you are living with a chronic illness. I tell my clients, we have to look at what is still possible. When you have a diagnosis of a chronic illness, it takes away of what once felt “normal” to you and your partner. However, sexual activity can be a great source of comfort and pleasure as you are coping with a chronic illness. For example, I have a client who was diagnosed with Post Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) 3 years ago. When she does not feel dizzy, fatigued, anxious and nauseous, she reports having a high desire for sex. She has informed me sex is the one thing that brings her joy these days because most days, she is not able to function the way she did in the past. She also has great support from her partner, which is critical.
Having a chronic illness can profoundly affect your relationship as well as your sexual function and satisfaction. Some changes may be physical, such as the changes with your body, side effects from medication or fatigue and pain. You may experience psychological changes where you develop depression and anxiety. You may develop fear around your sexual ability or performance. Several of my clients worry how their partner views them since being diagnosed with a chronic illness.
So here are my tips:
1.) Communicate your needs to your partner and have them communicate their needs. Problem solve together by making it a team approach. State your emotional needs around sexual intimacy and the other factors in your relationship.
2.) Consider couples psychotherapy. I recommend you see a sex therapist. I say this because they will have the knowledge and skill set in helping you and your partner with sexual problems such as the issues related to sexual functioning. They will also provide you with other suggestions to engage in if there is sexual dysfunction (i.e., desire and arousal issues, erectile dysfunction, and sexual pain).
3.) Read up on your condition and share this with your partner. Having knowledge on the illness can bring you closer together. This can build intimacy!
4.) Check in with each other. For the partner who does not have a chronic illness, watch for depression in them and keep an eye on their health as well. The goal here is to be lover not a caregiver, but we find at times, the partner may take on this role. They may want to seek individual counseling. This is healthy!
5.) Acknowledge your loss and build a relationship with the illness. This can help the both of you develop the “new normal” in your relationship. With acceptance, the issue isn’t whether or not you can come to some profound insight about the nature of the illness and your experience with the illness, but rather, it is about how to live your life day to day. The ultimate goal is to accept condition and learn to live well with it. Of course, this is not easy. I watch couples experience this all the time in my practice and when they finally decide to work as a team instead of opponents or avoiders, there is this sense of hope that emerges. This hope promotes what is possible instead of what is achievable. They also report a healthier sex life!
6.) Address stress as much as possible. I would not avoid the stress. Avoidance can make the pain worse or it cause a flare up. I see this all the time with my clients with fibromyalgia. I know this is easier said than done, but try to address the financial issues and the divisions of family responsibilities. Addressing these stressors can help promote the desire in being physically intimate.
7.) Try to be sociable. Socially isolating is common for people with a chronic illness. Try to find a balance where you can be sociable because this can make you feel more positive about life. Support groups are great!
8.) Being kind is great. Doing something for your partner can build what is needed for sexual intimacy.