Chronic illness, marriage, and sex

In honor of Valentines Day and Hallmark (because they are the ones that created it into what it is now) and commercialism (because we need more holidays where we buy more stuff!) today I’m going there. Chronic illness, marriage, and sex.

Sex is a big issue for anyone in a relationship who has health problems. The divorce rate among the chronically ill is 75% so obviously the struggle is very real in families dealing with illness (in fact I just read an article here about fibromyalgia and how it hurts patients love lives). Sex is not the only reason for that 75% but I have no doubt it takes it’s part. Illness has a lot of demands, illness can not be ignored or brushed past or put in the background and because of it’s demands, sex is often the first thing that goes.

Sex is complicated for the chronically ill. When it comes to sex for the sick person the usual emotions are guilt, frustration, guilt, anger, inadequacy, exhaustion, disappointment, and guilt. Too often we are exhausted and hurting and sex is the absolute last thing on our minds. And then there are the medications that we take that can make us sleepy, make us gain weight, make us nauseous or mess up our hormones. It sometimes feels like we can’t win.

I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty details (because I’m already uncomfortable enough!) but I have a couple main points that I think are important to keep in mind when it comes to relationships and chronic illness:

1) If you cannot have sex  find other ways to show affection to your spouse. Research as shown that the power of touch is important.  Find small ways to be physically affectionate like holding hands, cuddle, or hugging. Make sure your spouse knows how you feel.  So much is going on with our bodies we can become so wrapped up in ourselves and how we are feeling, but a marriage involves two people and we also need to take care of the other person. The trick is that sometimes you have to change the way you “take care” of your significant other.

2) Accept your body as it is, don’t focus on what it used to be. Illness changes our bodies. Whether you’ve lost too much weight because you are too sick to eat or you have gained too much weight because you can’t exercise and your medication is messing you up, we’ve all had to deal with some major body changes. These changes can make sex even more difficult when we feel inadequate.  Be proud of who you are no matter what.

3) Communicate with your spouse. This is probably the most important thing to remember and probably the hardest. Illness and vulnerability can sometimes make us put up barriers, even between ourselves and our spouse. Talk with your spouse about your fears, your hopes, and your worries and be willing to listen to theirs. Do not take their frustrations with your illness personally, they are frustrations with the illness, not frustration with you.

There are no easy answers when it comes to marriage and chronic illness, each couple needs to find what works for them. That is why communication is the most important part. And at the end of the day you and your spouse have to decide whether chronic illness will make or break your relationship.

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