A reader asked me to talk about chronic illness and how it impacts one’s sex life. Her story of living with a chronic bladder infection and other physical issues is one that some of you may relate to. Maybe you have an ongoing medical condition that impacts your sex life or you live with someone who has a chronic illness.
There are good websites with information about chronic bladder infections. I have compiled a resource list, which you’ll find at the end of the article. Today we’ll take a broader approach to sexuality and living with a chronic disease.
Coping with a Chronic Illness
I know from first-hand experience, as a spouse and caregiver, that coping with a chronic illness takes tremendous strength and focus. There were times when I felt my needs and those of our children had taken a backseat to the illness. What I understand now is that such a focus is a vital coping mechanism. When we have a chronic condition, whether it’s MS, back pain, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes, it requires us to juggle symptoms, family and work life, and the many adaptations that may be required to live with our illness.
If you experience chronic pain or worry about a flare-up or other disease-related symptoms it’s pretty hard to feel sexy. Priorities shift, and in the need to take care of yourself, it is easy to become somewhat detached from your family.
Rosalind Kalb, a clinical psychologist and vice president of the professional resource center at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society talks about chronic illness and the imbalance in relationships where there is a “patient-caregiver” relationship, real or implied. The partner who provides care may resent the situation and the “patient” may feel threatened by the need to ask for help. Kalb says such a shift can threaten self-esteem and create a huge sense of loss.
If you have a chronic illness and feel it impacts your relationship it is important to find a way to communicate your thoughts and needs with your partner. There are good reasons to continue a sexual relationship with your partner; sex can be stress relieving. It helps to strengthen emotional connection and can help both of you in that feel-good way sex does, thanks to the release of vital hormones during orgasm. Research has shown that orgasms can lead to a temporary decrease in pain.
Sex is a complex activity that involves more than genitals; for women the brain plays an important role in arousal. You are still sexual, illness and all. It may be hard to see yourself in that light so you need to rethink and explore sexuality from a different angle. Counseling may help, as might talking with others who experience a similar chronic illness, and working with your partner to create a satisfactory sexual experience.
Think of sex as more than the act of intercourse. Expand your definition to meet your physical condition, adjusting for any limitations. Consider incorporating new activities like cuddling, sensuous touch or massage, kissing, mutual masturbation, using sex toys, or oral sex. These activities allow you to receive as well as give pleasure and can be adapted to meet individual needs.
Specific Ways to Address Sexual Activity
There are some specific things you can also do to help in addressing a loss of desire or discomfort when engaged in sexual activity:
- Talk to your doctor about the illness’s impact on your sex life. If it feels awkward, write down your questions and give the list to your doctor. She can advise you on safe activities and address possible medical issues.
- Ask if any of your medications cause lower sexual desire. If so, talk about possible substitutes.
- Consider counseling with an expert in sexuality and consider couples sessions.
- Talk to your partner. Tell him/her of your concerns, talk about what causes pain and what you want to experience sexually. Partners often want to help but don’t have a clue as to what they can do, or more importantly, what they shouldn’t do. They may be afraid of causing you more pain.
- Plan for sex. Spontaneity is nice but you want to have sex when you have high levels of energy and feel relaxed. Is that early morning, Saturday afternoons, a date night? Create the atmosphere that meets your physical and intimate needs.
Coping with chronic illness or pain is complicated—only you can know what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes you don’t know until you’ve tried. I urge you to talk with your partner—it will strengthen the relationship if you can help him/her understand how you feel. Chronic illness is isolating for both partners. Look for resources and forums specific to your medical condition so you can connect with women with similar concerns.
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Urinary Tract Infections by Christina Northrup