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6 Ways to Create Intimacy When Your Partner Has Chronic Pain

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When my husband and I first started dating, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. We were extremely affectionate, and stereotypically, always ready to jump into bed. A year later, all of that changed. Not because we lost the magic or because the shine had faded. In fact, our love and desire were stronger than ever. What happened was something entirely beyond our control.

My (not yet) husband began experiencing endless headaches. It got worse as time passed, which led to an MRI. A mass was discovered in his brain. Everything moved fast after that. He had surgery and the tumor was removed successfully, and they declared that he would make a full recovery.

Thrilled, we got engaged and moved in together. We were both already parents to various children from previous marriages, and we soon had a loud and active household. We were living the life we had been waiting years to have. Except he was left in excruciating pain. Debilitating migraines dogged him on a daily basis. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed or open his eyes. Some days he shuffled around the house, trying his best to be the “at home” parent and make dinner or do the laundry. The simplest tasks became overwhelmingly exhausting. We tried medication after medication, hoping the next one would be the thing that fixed everything. Until the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years. He could barely function, and intimacy was the last thing on his mind.

For a while, I was plagued by insecurities: was he not attracted to me anymore? Did he not want me? But I learned quickly that his pain was so extreme that physical intimacy was nowhere on his radar. In a way, I went through the stages of grieving. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance (although not entirely in that order). Once I accepted the situation, I was able to create a new normal for us, with new expectations.

So for anyone out there living a life with a spouse or partner who is chronically ill or in pain, here are some tips on creating a different intimacy expectation.

1.It’s not you, it’s them.

It’s a cliche, but in this case, it means something different and very true. Remember that your partner loves you, and probably couldn’t go through this experience without your constant support. If they could jump you, tear off all your clothes, and toss you into bed, they would. In fact, they often do in their minds, their body just won’t cooperate. Sometimes, it’s the thought that counts.

2. Sleep is precious, but so is sex.

As a parent, sleep is a rare commodity. Sometimes we get to sleep the whole night through, sometimes we don’t. There are plenty of evenings when there is a little time after the kids get into bed, and given the choice, I usually choose going to bed earlier over having time to eat something. Occasionally, something will trump sleep. If you’re exhausted and heading to bed, or even already sleeping, let your partner know it’s OK to wake you up. My husband, wonderful man that he is, always tries to let me get as much sleep as I can. However, if the mood strikes at two in the morning, he gives me a nudge, whispers in my ear, and when I open one eye, he gives me that smile. Take the moments you get and treasure them. Sometimes they’re weeks apart, sometimes they’re months. Remember that as lonely as you are, your partner is likely equally lonely. Take advantage of the moments you are lucky enough to have.

3. Rethink foreplay.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love foreplay. I think it’s a super important part of intimacy for so many reasons. In my previous life, I would have been extremely disappointed to entirely miss out on foreplay. But when the stars align, the moment happens, and everything converges, you need to take the bull by the horns and roll with it. When the person who is ill has a surge of energy, a moment that is pain-free (or pain tolerable), when desire can make its way to the surface, don’t hesitate. There may not be time to light candles, set the mood, shave your legs, and slip into something a little more enticing. Sometimes the moment comes when you’re in sweatpants, with messy hair, and you had your kids’ leftover chicken nuggets for dinner. You might be in the middle of doing something like dishes or laundry, or on the phone with the plumber. Stop what you’re doing (as politely as possible), find a private place, whether it’s your room or a closet, and seize the moment. Pretend you’re teenagers and just enjoy the ride. If you’re anything like me, the realization that your partner is ready, able and willing is more than enough foreplay to get you going.

4. Find intimacy in the regular.

When I realized this was my new reality, my perspective changed on other times we spend together. Suddenly every snuggle, every kiss, every “I love you” became even more meaningful. My husband has horrible insomnia when the pain prevents him from sleeping. So he’s not always there when I head to bed, or he’ll get up in the middle of the night to go watch a movie in the other room. He knows how hard it is for me to sleep without him, so despite his pain, he will come snuggle with me for 10 minutes, even if it’s uncomfortable for him. Those moments are important for us, to be held and cared for, even for a few minutes. Occasionally on a weekend, he will have enough energy to come with me to the grocery store or the dog park. We take those slices of normalcy and make it into a date, something special for us to enjoy together.

5. Check in often and use your words.

Keep the conversation going. As frustrating as it may be, blaming is useless. This isn’t anyone’s fault, and arguing will make the situation worse. Tell each other how you feel, that you miss their touch. Tell each other what you would like to be doing with them or for them if everyone felt OK. Remind each other that you are both wanted. Say “I love you” often. I mean, really often. I think my husband and I text that to each other about five or six times a day. As weird as it sounds, it helps to smooth out the inconsistencies in our physical relationship, because it keeps the emotional bond so strong.

6. It’s OK to take matters into your own hands.

Sex is a necessary aspect of a healthy existence: emotional, mental and physical. I know that the more time that passes between our moments of activity, the more stressed and tense I become. When that happens, I think about it from a clinical perspective. My body needs release. Unfortunately, the person I would like to enjoy that with is currently incapable of participating. In that situation, I strongly urge people to use other methods to find release. Masturbation for the simple goal of physical pleasure is a helpful tool. However, remember to keep the conversation going with your partner. Reassure them you are not “replacing” them, or giving up on them. Invite them to participate in whatever capacity they can, whether it’s with a helping hand or just being there to enjoy you enjoying yourself. Do your best to not keep it separate from your partner. Rather, be communicative and expressive about your needs, and explain that you are finding a solution that can help you continue to be supportive during their time of need.

Sometimes we end up living a difficult scenario, whether by choice or by circumstance. If you’re creative and patient enough, accepting a new reality can be just as rewarding as the one you were living before.

Getty image by Henglein and Steets.

Originally published: December 5, 2020
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