Many people live with a chronic illness, their own or their partner’s. Often that situation leads to less sex and intimacy. It is possible to maintain a sexual life with a few modifications and a willingness to explore different avenues to sexual satisfaction.

When one person in a relationship has a chronic illness it impacts both of you. And, even if your physical ability to have sex remains unchanged there are many changes to life after a diagnosis that can affect the sexual relationship. My husband lived with progressive multiple sclerosis for almost 20 years. Every aspect of our relationship changed with that diagnosis—and long before sex became challenging there were many other issues that followed us to the bedroom.

If you or your partner has a chronic condition, whether it’s MS, chronic back pain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or another condition, it requires you to juggle symptoms, family and work life as well as deal with side effects and other changes.

The question that many of you have, but don’t always ask is how to maintain desire in the face of physical and emotional changes. If the disease is demanding lots of attention it becomes harder to focus on the rest of life. Sex gets pushed to the bottom of the list.

Caregivers also go through many changes. This article from WebMD offers relationship tips, with quotes from experts like Rosalind Kalb, a clinical psychologist and a vice president at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. She addresses the dynamics of a ‘patient-caregiver’ relationship. The caregiver may resent the role of providing care and the ‘patient’ resents being in the position of needing to ask for help. Kalb says such a shift can threaten self-esteem and create a huge sense of loss. It can require work for both individuals to shift into a role of equal partners.

Sex is important in every relationship and maybe more so when one partner has a chronic illness.

  • Sex relieves stress, it can help you relax and have a fun, non-illness related block of time.
  • In some cases orgasm has been shown to cause a reduction in pain.
  • Regardless of what type of sex you’re having, intercourse, oral or some combination of touching and erotic stimulation, there is a sense of well being that comes from sexual intimacy. Those who suffer a chronic illness need that touch and closeness even more.

Sex isn’t just about genitals. It is more than ‘penis in vagina’. Arousal starts in the brain; independent of physical limitations. Feeling sexy can help bring a sense of normalcy to individuals who experience an illness.

If sex is more of a challenge than in the past here are some suggestions to help you with sexual desire:

  1. Talk to your doctor about how the illness is affecting your sexual activity. You can write down questions if that’s easier than asking. Ask if your medications might be causing a lack of interest in sex—this holds true for caregivers as well. Many anti-depressants have reported side effects of low libido on safe activities and address possible medical issues.
  2. Think about seeing a sexuality counselor or therapist- alone or, preferably, with your sex partner. They will have more information about how to cope with sexually related issues.
  3. Talk with your partner about your sexual concerns. Communicate your desires, talk about what feels good and what doesn’t and share what you want to experience during lovemaking. Your partner, or lover, may not know how to approach sex with you if you have adaptive equipment or other special needs. You can turn the conversation into a sexy game with both of you sharing your turn-ons.
  4. Chronic illnesses like MS are accompanied by severe fatigue. Plan a sex date. It can still be spontaneous and lots of fun, particularly if you’ve agreed on a time that suits both of your needs.

Every case of chronic illness or pain is unique, only you really know what you need. And, it may be that experimentation will allow you to find new things you can do and enjoy with, or without, a partner. But you have to be willing to try. It’s perfectly acceptable to say to a partner, “I want to try ___________, but I’m not sure if it will work. Are you willing to experiment with me?” Agree ahead of time that you can stop without anyone feeling guilty.

Chronic illness is isolating for all involved. It’s easy to find forums on coping with new medications, or dealing with illness-specific side effects; talking about sex can be a little embarrassing or scary. Look for places where people are discussing sex—do an internet search. Find a friend you can talk to. Ask for resources and forums specific to your particular illness and get connected. You are not alone.

It is important to remember that sex can be a wonderful tool for coping with your illness, or your partner’s. A shared moment of intimacy can go a long way to fighting off the fear and challenges of your daily struggles.

RESOURCES:

Your Health: What to Do When Chronic Disease Affects Your Sex Life LINK: https://www.cardiosmart.org/~/media/Documents/Fact%20Sheets/en/tb1606.ashx

Sexuality- Suggestions for People with Chronic Illness LINK: http://www.serc.mb.ca/sexuality-relationships/sexuality-and-disabilities/suggestions-people-chronic-illness

How Chronic Illness Can Affect Sexual Function http://www.aasect.org/how-chronic-illness-can-affect-sexual-function

Sex and Chronic Illness- AARP http://www.aarp.org/relationships/love-sex/info-03-2011/sex-help-chronic-illness.html

Walker Thornton is a writer, sex educator and public speaker, with a Masters in Educational Psychology and over 10 years experience in the field of sexual violence against women. She is a strong advocate for midlife women’s sexuality, encouraging women to ‘step into their desire’. Kinkly.com ranked her blog, WalkerThornton.com, #17 in their top 100 Sex Blogging Superheroes of 2013. Walker is the Sexual Health columnist for Midlife Boulevard and writes about sex and the older adult for Kinkly.com. You can connect with her on her website (www.walkerthornton.com ), Facebook (https://facebook.com/AWomansPage )  Twitter  (http://twitter.com/WalkerThornton)  and Google+ (https://plus.google.com/u/0/+WalkerThornton/posts ).