More MS news articles for Dec 2001

Chronic illness and sexual relationships

Published on: November 30, 2001
Author: Tom Cunliffe

This article is aimed at people who are in a "partner" relationship while either suffering from chronic illness themselves or else being the partner of a chronically ill person.

The taboo subject

The more I talk with and read about chronically sick people and people who live with them, the more I feel that the physical side of sexual relationships has become a taboo subject. Responses vary from the uncomfortable feeling you get when opening up a subject that nobody talks about any more, to the cynical laughter of an abandoned sick person or a frustrated well partner. However, having said that, I think its vitally important to remember that chronically ill people and their partners are not the only ones who have problems with sex. In fact many people have problems in this area, especially:

- Those with young children - Those who's love lives have cooled off - Those who are apart from reasons of differing working patterns or locations, - Single people - The elderly.

We can see that chronically-ill people and their partners are just one among many categories of people who have to pay special attention to their sex lives if they are to find fulfilment in a physical relationship. Some people in this situation actually end up using "the illness" as an excuse or a cover for other underlying sexual problems. It's a terrible thing to blame a sick person for failure to work out a fulfilling sexual relationship when the real reason may be something quite different and secretly, the well person is quite pleased not to have to bother any more.

A nurturing relationship

Fundamental to all people is the importance of nurturing the relationship. In fact a relationship which is not nurturing and mutually supportive can be frustrating and de-motivating. We all want someone who loves us for ourselves and who is always "on our side" whatever the world around us throws at us. While sex will usually be one expression of such a relationship, its important to remember that a nurturing relationship can carry on while sex has become difficult or even ceased to feature at all.

The false truce

However, when sex become difficult, its all too easy for the couple to fall into what I call a "false truce" on sex. By this I mean, when sex has become difficult for a variety of different reasons, its quite common for the couple to agree that "it doesn't really matter any more", and to leave each other alone. I feel that this is dangerous position to adopt in a relationship. It might be easier to "give up" in this way, but too often it leads to denial of quite legitimate feelings, and it can open the door to other relationships, particularly on the part of the well-partner, who can all too easily class the "false truce" as permission to find sexual gratification elsewhere.

Not giving up

Its vitally important that the chronically ill person does not entirely give up on their sexual identity if that is at all possible. They should still try to do the little they can, even in small things like grooming and clothing, a small amount of effort can often show your partner that you are still a sexual being who has needs which are to be met. I am well aware that someone who's feeling sick, pained and tired this can all be too much, but I would like to point out that to give up entirely on this aspect of your life is to give up on something quite important both to your partner and to yourself. There is probably something you can do to act as a sexual partner and you need to make at least some effort to maintain this side of your relationship. Its not possible in this article to discuss the various ways in which people can have a sexual relationship despite mobility problems, pain and fatigue, but there are many sources of help, particularly for the more disabled people.

Sticking with it

The well partner also needs to remember that the sick person is still their lover and sexual partner. OK, they might be "out of action" most of the time, but the well person needs to remember that they still have a wife, husband or lover, and that this is a matter for pride and self-respect. Even though the other person may not be what they used to be, they're still yours and can give you much in the way of positive feed-back and self-esteem. Apart from anything else, did you not at some point in the relationship vow to stay with them whatever happened? It will do you no good to abandon ship when things get rough, but on the other hand, to be the kind of person who is faithful throughout these tough times will give you invisible and unexpected rewards over your years together. It may be trite so say this, but people are watching you to see how you react to this time of trial, particularly other family members, children and friends, all of whom will respect you if you manage to be faithful during the period of illness.

Let's face it though, there will be times when a sexual relationship is just downright impossible. This presents a new situation and its not my job to offer trite answers to this problem. Ultimately each person has to work out for themselves what they have to do, but I would just point out again that its essential to have a philosophical approach to life which will allow you to carry on through good times and bad with a similar attitude to both. Nothing carries on forever in this life and I believe that sooner or later change occurs, often in unexpected ways. By bailing out too soon you may miss out on some circumstance which will more than compensate you for the difficult times.

The strength of family

I think its easy to forget the strength of family in these days, but I believe that when you make a family (of even just two people), you undertake to stick with it whatever the cost. This is often not an easy thing to do, but when trouble of any kind comes on a family they need to pull together and stay around to help their partners.

If anyone reading this article would like to discuss these matters further with me, please feel free to email me, or else to click the "discuss this article" link at the bottom of this page.

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