11 Ways to Be Intimate When You Have Chronic Illness and Sex Is Difficult

February is the month of love. Chocolate-covered strawberries, roses, sensual massage oils, lingerie, and champagne — we see reminders of romance and, yes, sex everywhere. When you are dealing with the effects of chronic illness — pain, physical limitations, and fatigue which are not in your control — they can impair your sex-life. Unfortunately, during the Valentine’s season, for people whose ability to have sex has become difficult, the simple objects associated with romance can produce guilt, shame, and sadness. People who struggle with their health may report feelings of inadequacy, fear of their partners leaving them, and feelings that their lives have become all about their illness. Even in the absence of sex, partners spending a little bit of extra time paying mutual attention to their relationship can be very rewarding.

It’s important to remember that sex isn’t the only avenue to intimacy with your partner. You can work together to find other ways to be close. There are the obvious alternative modes of sexual expression; I’ll leave those to your imagination and ability. Let’s discuss the non-sexual, intimate expressions you can share. It might be important to have an up-front conversation, before embarking on this intimacy experience, though, setting expectations and understandings for outcomes. Some people find that as they increase intimacy their desire for actual sexual intercourse also increases, so being frank ahead of time that these interactions are being shared for the joy of the interactions themselves, not to lead to sex, so there aren’t hurt feelings or disappointment on either party’s side later will be helpful.

Here are some intimacy-provoking activities you might want to try with your partner:

• Leave love notes for each other in unexpected places, like taped to the bathroom mirror, in your lover’s lunch, folded up and left on his pillow, tucked away in a clothing drawer you know she will open the next morning, or on the dashboard of your partner’s car.

• Go for evening strolls together (if you are able). Or sit outside and look up at the night sky holding hands.

• Engage in active eye contact. When people are first dating, they can’t stop looking at each other, but after being together for a while, it seems that eye contact fades. Set aside time each evening to sit and truly look at each other.

• Make a point to kiss each other upon entering and leaving a room… every time.

• Commit to constant, consistent, touch for an hour per day. Sit together, holding hands, massaging/stroking each other, and staying physically connected for an hour while you talk to each other.

• Share a glass of wine, cup of tea, piece of pie, piece of cake, bowl of hummus and veggies – whatever you both enjoy. While you do so, share stories about your day with each other.

• Laughter is a wonderful bonding experience. Have a joke telling contest; each of you can research jokes, or make up jokes and tell them to each other. No matter how cheesy they are, collapsing into fits of shared laughter will be intimate and loving.

• Cook a meal together. There is something about the close quarters of a kitchen, the shared work of cooking together, and warm smells of wonderful food that induces feelings of intimacy and bonding.

• Be playful with each other. Tickle each other, be silly, and be lighthearted.

• Cuddle in bed while reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie.

• Sit together and talk… about your day, not about bills, the kids, or your health. Talk about your dreams, your desires, things you like and dislike about the world, places you would like to visit, etc. Make a shared dream.

The heat and passion of a new relationship fades. I think long-term happiness is truly about choosing to be with your partner every day and finding new ways to express your love and commitment to each other, through every vicissitude of life. Finding ways to be emotionally and spiritually passionate about your partner, through steps like outlined above can be far more fulfilling, and less likely to fade, than physical attraction. In my book, “The Marvelous Transformation: Living Well with Autoimmune Disease,” I share my relationship with my husband, and how we manage to support each other emotionally, physically, and spiritually, despite my disease.

I believe one of our greatest strengths is that our love for each other can transcend how often we have sexual intercourse. The power of our union is achieved, instead, in how we wake up every morning committed to making sure each other feels loved, happy, fulfilled, cherished, and appreciated. I hope, through these tips, you and your partner can approach the month of love with renewed vigor, without fear, and perhaps even take a new approach to your relationship throughout the year, rather than just at Valentine’s Day.

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