Millions of people around the world cope with some form of chronic pain.
Chronic pain creates insomnia and fatigue, low moods, and even mild depression, and together these things often leave people feeling that it’s not possible to enjoy intimacy with their partner. Just when you need help most, intimacy challenges between you and your partner can leave you feeling disconnected from, or even fighting with, the very person you most desire the support of.
Physiotherapists and massage therapists will likely advise you to engage in intimacy as long as “it doesn’t hurt”. They can provide you with alternate ways of physically being with your partner that make it as easy on yourself as possible. This physical information is helpful.
But if you are worried that sex itself will always trigger your chronic pain and leave you in further physical agony, it is also helpful to remember that intimacy doesn’t have to be a purely physical act. The joy of intimacy is having the time to be with your partner in ways that you can both enjoy. So what steps can you take instead if you are presently continually turning down your partner for fear of intimacy causing pain or because you feel too unlike yourself? How can you stay connected – or even become more connected – during this challenging time of your life?
How to Keep Intimacy Alive When You Suffer Chronic Pain
1. Take an honest inventory.
Is the pain truly being aggravated by intimacy, or is the fear of causing pain that prevents you from being intimate? Have you lived in pain for so long that you are always in ‘fear mode’? Is it only living with pain that is affecting your desire to have intimacy with your partner right now, or are there other things that are also having an affect, such as feeling upset at the way they have dealt with your pain issue, or that you just don’t feel attractive when you are in pain? Get honest about what is really holding you back on the intimacy front. Trying journaling might help, or talking to a trusted friend.
2. Open the Lines of Communication
Take an empowering step by letting your partner know about your worries. It’s hard to live with pain, and the things that come with it. This can even include a sense of guilt that you are no longer the person you once were, and guilt inevitably blocks connection. Talk as openly and honestly as you can.
3. Give your partner credit for being able to understand you.
They wouldn’t be in a relationship with you at all if they didn’t understand you at least part of the time, and assuming they can’t at all understand what you are going through is only makes them feel pushed away. Remember, people can only understand what they are told, so if you have been keeping things to yourself, you can’t place all blame on them for not understanding something they haven’t personally been through. Assume they are intelligent to understand if you explain clearly and take it from there.
4. Discuss ALL the issues that bother, worry, and concern you.
Don’t hide things, and ask your partner not to hide things. Intimacy is about openness, after all. If you feel your sex drive has vanished due to your pain issue, but are worried they might no longer want to stay in the relationship, be honest. Often what drives people out of relationships isn’t when sex goes on hold, but that the other partner feels disconnected as they are given to explanation. And interestingly, communicating is known to reignite lost sex drives.
5. Then discuss all the issues that bother you partner.
Suffering chronic pain is difficult and without meaning to one can narrow perspective down to include just themselves. But your partner is struggling too. Give them a chance to talk. Listen without interrupting and with empathy. They want to be with you, but they may not know what to say, or how to approach you about the problem. Telling them you want to hear their side can help.
6. Reach out for support – together.
There are wonderful resources and many excellent professionals who can assist you in rediscovering your intimacy. And there is very good information available (such as online) about how live with chronic pain. The act of finding and using these resources together can empower you and your partner to become closer. Another possibility is to together attend sessions with a professional couples counsellor or sex and intimacy issues counsellor who understands and has expertise in this area.
7. Get active as a team.
With chronic pain, it is very tempting to lay off all activities and live a more passive life. This, in turn, often feeds into the pain. The human body is mean to be active, and so it is essential to find ways of being as active as possible, even if that is just daily light stretches. The interesting thing about physical activity is that it is thought to release the body’s ‘happy chemical’, the neurotransmitter serotonin. When we are happy, it feels easier to bond with others, and as a side benefit serotonin has also been linked to wound healing due to a growth factor it causes some sorts of cells to exhibit.
8. Explore new ways of being intimate.
Again, this always begins with good communication. Ask your partner ,what other acts of intimacy would be wonderful for them? Take the time to find alternative positioning, and any tools you can use that may facilitate your intimacy.You can discuss ideas with a physiotherapist who will understand the need to explore your intimacy in a healthy and pain-free way. Try to remember the simple things you can do, such as kissing, and mutual massage.
9. Revisit your definition of intimacy.
Intimacy really is about connection and mutual valuing. See this as a chance to reconnect in ways time and familiarity might have led you to forget. Take an inventory of things that are not physical-focussed that leave you both feeling strongly connected (even if it was a long time ago) and that you are still able to do. For some this might be doing a hobby together, having a movie night, listening to the songs you used to play when you first met, or just enjoying a daily scheduled nap while holding hands. It doesn’t matter what it is, what matters is that you take time for just the two of you to forge and maintain your bond.
10. Consider mindfulness meditation.
Another technique which is being found to help with chronic pain is mindfulness meditation. The technique requires time and practice, but the efforts you expend will pay off with positive results. By using meditation, one can significantly reduce their body’s attention to pain. As a side benefit, mindfulness-based meditation is now seen as an evidence based practice by mental health organisations because it leads to better moods and less anxiety. And learning to stay in the present moment can be a wonderful way of bonding, as you both experience ways to be more available to what is and thus to each other.
Intimacy is about how people communicate their deeper feelings, desires, and needs with their partner. It offers us the opportunity to truly share ourselves with another person. If we shut that part of ourselves off because of living with pain, then we not only deny ourselves the beautiful moments we can share with someone else, we also deny ourselves the ability to receive and give in one of the most meaningful ways we have open to us as humans and the healing that feeling valued brings in and of itself.
Do you have a tip about keeping intimacy alive when living with chronic pain? Share below!
Photos byMislav Marohnić, Nicholas Smale, Akban Martial Arts Academy