No one knows when a chronic illness will invade your marriage. Sex doesn't have to stop..just change
“It takes a really big man to love a really big scar.” –Carly Simon
I worked for nine years in Lubbock, Texas as an intimacy and sex counselor for cancer patients. They taught me more than any textbook or class. I celebrated their success with them, prayed for their healing with them, and sat by their bedside with their loved one when they took their last breaths. Many people would call that a depressing job, but I never lived as fully as when I worked with this population.
One of the many things I learned was that when you have a chronic illness such as cancer, MS or depression your relationships have to change. Intimacy and sex with your partner have to be discussed openly along with emotions such as fear, anger, guilt, and confusion. Sharing these feelings and concerns with your partner can actually make you closer to your partner than ever before. Infertility, impotence, a colostomy bag, the loss of a breast and not being able to feel or move your legs will contribute to feelings of being only half a person. The scars of the disease on the outside are many times minor compared to the scars left inside. It takes a loving partner to understand that illness is a temporary detour where adjustments need to be made in the way you express your love. Completely withdrawing love or affection can lead to depression or feelings of hopelessness.
Couples need to be more educated on how to express their intimacy and love when their partner becomes ill. Sex is never something that should be avoided among couples, healthy or not. All humans enjoy and need intimacy to feel healthy and loved. These feelings help overcome the obstacles that chronic illness often inflicts. Below are suggestions for couples who suffer from chronic illness in their relationship. My intention is to help you get started. As you become more confident in your ability to express your feelings of love to your partner, I encourage you to seek continued counseling with a therapist of your choice.
1. Share the diagnosis. This simply means that you talk to your spouse and tell them that you are a team. Anything that affects their wellbeing will affect yours. This makes the “patient” (your spouse) feel loved and more confident with being able to endure their illness. It also provides an opportunity for you to help with routine care that may be necessary during this time.
2. Intimacy takes only minutes. Rather than thinking about a vacation or get away, take advantage of “mini vacations.” These are moments that you can be close by holding hands, watching a funny movie, cuddling on the sofa, listening to old songs together or talking to one another. Many times, these are “miracle moments” that life’s busy pace robbed from you prior to the illness.
3. Rediscover the joys of “touching.” With chronic illness, skin sensations change. Chemotherapy, for example, can heighten sensitivity of the skin, where as M.S. can deaden it. Learning to touch one another again without a goal and talking about how that feels can make you feel like a kid again. In a sense, chronic illness makes anyone who endures it an unfamiliar person. Take time to rediscover and allow your partner to set the pace.
4. Start in the tub or shower. Most of us are comfortable in warm water as it relaxes us and takes some of our pain away. Sitting in the tub with the one you love is an opportunity to relax, look at each other’s face, and talk. Washing each other’s back or feet is also a wonderful way to express your love and intimacy to your partner. Many times it is the intimate setting of a bath where partners are permitted to see and touch the scar. Your reaction will mean everything, and the best reaction is to thank your partner for showing you and reassure them that their scar makes you love them more.
5. Medicate before having sex. When couples want to share intimacy and sex, it is important that it is planned. This is necessary because pain is often part of a chronic illness. No one feels sexy when they are in pain so planning your medication at least one hour prior to engaging in sex, will help to insure your comfort and ability to enjoy the expression of intimacy.
The loss of a breast, body part, or one’s mobility is symbolic of a loss of their independence and sometimes their identity. The partner has so much influence at this time. In fact, the partner is often the one who is able to influence how their spouse handles their chronic illness the most. No one wants their partner to suffer from chronic illness, but if they do, remind yourself that you and you alone may provide the emotional healing your partner needs to reclaim their sexual and intimate self.
-Mary Jo Rapini
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