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How Endometriosis Can Affect Intimacy and Relationships

Every time I see a new therapist, I learn a new way in which pain and ill health have impacted my mental health, defense mechanisms and, to an extent, personality. This is why it is so important that conditions like endometriosis are treated as both physical and mental conditions. Your body and mind are indistinguishable from each other, and what affects one often affects the other.

This may sound mega obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised by how many people (medical professionals included) overlook that. The NHS (to my knowledge and in my experience) treats physical illness and mental illness separately and distinctly, with no specific service or further support when the two are painfully interconnected. I’ve accessed just about every therapeutic service available to me and whether it’s pain management or talking therapy, neither can quite get a grip on the combination of the two and how they affect each other. It’s disheartening. I know no amount of talk therapy will make my physical pain go away and no amount of medical treatment can really treat the trauma of almost 20 years of episodes of pain.

So. I’ve recently been undergoing IPT (interpersonal therapy) which is pretty unlike any talking therapy I’d done before. Honestly, I was scared because it focuses on conflict in relationships in relation to depression, which I knew would bring up some painful feelings. It has been useful to an extent and I genuinely would recommend it to anyone who feels their intimate relationships are affected by chronic illness and the chronic low mood/anxiety that can often come with it. However, it is very focused on mental health and we don’t go too deep into the pain issues, which is difficult, as the more I talk about it, the more I realize how the pain and trauma of illness has shaped who I am in an intimate relationship.

That’s kind of a bold claim, and I have no doubt there are many more factors that go into who you are in the context of romantic relationships. But I think anyone with endometriosis will understand the very particular set of insecurities that accompany years of attempting to accept the loss of control over your body. They will also probably understand the tendency to be overly forgiving towards your partner, due to that niggling feeling of inadequacy and the fear that they might just go and find someone better, someone who doesn’t roll around screaming at their own reproductive organs (just me?). I do have the self-esteem to know I should be loved regardless of the problems I have, but it does go missing from time to time and I think a lot of people will relate to that.

I haven’t got a handle on how my illnesses affect me, or when they will, or how to control my reactions to the pain, fatigue and depression I experience on a regular basis. When in a relationship I swing wildly between wanting to communicate those feelings accurately and wanting to be listened to and understood desperately, to wanting time to shut off, shut down, feel those feelings on my own and come back when I’m “fun” again. Neither is working for me so far. When you don’t understand your own needs and moods, it is impossible to communicate that to a partner. Trying can result in arguments, misunderstandings – in my case, I am incredibly defensive of my behavior even if I know it wasn’t the best because it’s so much less painful than letting someone in and attempting to actually pinpoint that feeling (or accepting you need to examine your own behavior).

Being single, although I don’t necessarily want to be, is comfortable for me. Alone I’m dealing with my pain without having to explain to anyone what I’m feeling or examine the ways in which I deal with it. But it’s also really, really isolating.

The ways people have dealt with pain/mental health problems in the past have stuck with me, and as anyone who’s been in unsupportive relationships will know, that shit is hard to unlearn.

Some have fundamentally been insensitive and thoughtless and other times they simply haven’t known how to support me, and here’s the thing: I don’t even know how they can. Although I am super sensitive, I am excellent at building walls and flouncing off in a rage rather than patiently working through bad feelings.

It’s important to say that this all entirely my own experience, and in fact, I’m not sure what the aim of this post was, whether it was meant to be encouraging or advisory or just a big ol’ rant, but what I do know is I find it endlessly helpful reading and learning about how people with chronic health problems communicate them and nurture healthy, long-term relationships. Because I simply don’t know and it scares me.

What I have tried to do since unpacking this all is think of the traits of my friends, who are perfect when it comes support (and know of my silly defensiveness). They don’t question, they don’t name-call and they don’t do the pity thing. They hang around, they ask if I need anything, they allow me to talk when I need to and distract me (nicely) when it is obvious I’ve gotten into a negative spiral. They don’t say things like “but you were fine a minute ago/yesterday/your last period.” They don’t insinuate that I’m exaggerating (these are all red flags in any relationship no matter how they dress it up). They feel my frustration with me and give me practical and emotional support (as I always do them – reciprocity is important).

Ultimately – you deserve someone supporting and loving who actively tries to understand you. Examining your own behavior through therapy, or even writing your feelings down is very different from blaming yourself for the failure of your relationships, so I don’t want anyone to think that that is what I’m saying here. You examine your behavior for you, as the circumstances you’ve been put in can lead you to negative behavior that impacts you and your loved ones. To go off on my idealistic tangent – human connection is why we’re here and the better you can be at that, the more whole you will feel.

People are complicated, illness or no illness, and if I’ve learned anything from being made to examine my past, it’s that anger and defense mechanisms, as comfy as they feel, won’t help you or your relationship grow. It’s important to wait until you feel that someone deserves you at your most vulnerable, raw self. Equally important is knowing when to walk away when someone isn’t fulfilling your needs.

Both are hard but I truly believe that if you think your relationships are being shaped by your illness, you need to try and take back control, find your boundaries and work on vulnerability.

This post originally appeared on So Ovary It.

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Photo via domoyega on Getty Images.