Reclaiming Your Sex Life Despite Chronic Illness

If you are someone experiencing a chronic illness, you might have come to a point where you wondered if having a healthy sex life was something you would ever get to experience again. This post is all about saying "good question" and most importantly, "yes you can" to your concern. 

Generally when clients pose this question in therapy, it isn't the only question they have.  Feelings of overwhelm and frustration usually arise from thoughts like:

  • How am I supposed to have sex when I'm not feeling well or I'm tired all the time?
  • Post diagnosis, everything hurts, including sex.
  • What if I no longer feel desirable?  
  • I'm not sure if I can please my partner anymore.

In the above scenario, there are two main themes: competence and confidence. The first two questions fall into the "competence" category and often require practical problem solving and sex education.  If our bodies have suddenly changed or are limited in some ways compared to the past, we may be confused about where to begin with sex. This is reasonable.  In fact, for many, it is incredibly helpful to speak with a professional about redefining your sex life post-diagnosis. The second set of questions come from assumptions around confidence in sexual relationships. When we understand our abilities, we can again feel confident with our sexual experiences.

Before jumping into addressing the questions, let's take a look at why it's a good idea to prioritize sex in the first place. 

Dr Staphanie Beuhler of the Beuhler Institute lists several reasons why we should prioritize sex especially with chronic illness. Some of those include: 

  • Sex makes us feel normal and alive. 

One of the major complaints of clients with chronic illness is their wanting desperately to feel normal again. Reclaiming your sex life (even if it looks a bit different than before) can be one of the more pleasurable ways of feeling like you are back to living your life. 

  • Sex provides us with pleasure. 

Chronic illness robs us of many aspects of our lives.  The foods we eat, the places we go, the people we get to spend time with.  If the issue of pleasure is not addressed, our lives can become very small, cold and empty.  It doesn't have to be that way.  Just because you have a chronic illness doesn't mean you don't deserve pleasure.  In fact, I encourage clients to put major emphasis on this post diagnosis. And don't get me started on the subject of intentionally depriving ourselves of pleasure as a form of punishment because of diagnosis. I will save that for another blog. 

  • Sex increases intimacy between partners.

If you have a chronic illness or if you are in a relationship lacking sexual intimacy, you are most likely facing some amount of isolation or loneliness.  Loneliness is a painful state that can literally cause us to be sick.  It wreaks havoc on the immune system. Feelings of isolation are activated in the same regions of the brain as physical pain.  We need physical affection to be happy and healthy.  I say "yes" to boosting the immune system through intimacy.

Now, let's look at some tips for addressing the questions above. 

1. Talk To Your Healthcare Professional. Before you get back into physical intimacy, ask your physician or other healthcare provider if there are any common barriers to sex that may come up with your condition.

2. Plan Time for Intimacy. First, let's start by saying that you absolutely don't have to have intercourse when you aren't feeling well or tired. However, there is value in planning time to be intimate with your partner in some way. For a time, there may be a need to actually plan intimacy for when you and your partner are rested and free of distractions.  And that's ok to start.  All we are looking for here is momentum. 

3. Be Open to Redefining Intimacy. Part of getting back into a healthy sex life includes redefining what sex and intimacy look like to you and your partner. If you aren't intimate at all, consider exploring any ways that you can start to feel pleasure again including gentle, sensual massage, taking time to hold each other or deep breathing exercises. Try to schedule time for intimate moments even if they don't involve intercourse. Oh and one last thing, if intercourse is just plane painful and not in the cards at all, you can always head on over to this link on frottage as an option.  No matter how you decide to be intimate, it is important to remember that you are still a sexual being.  That didn't change just because you got sick. 

4. Be Emotionally Open With Your Partner. Talk to your partner about your apprehensions and fears around intimacy.  This can relieve fears and clarify the needs and wants of both you and your partner. If you feel there is miscommunication or you aren't feeling emotionally supported in this area, it could be useful to speak with a professional. 

5. Seek Safe Forums To Discuss And Learn. Consider joining support groups for your illness or seeking the consultation of a sex therapist or sex educator.  Sex educators are a great resource and can offer suggestions on modifying and adapting sexual positions for those with disabilities as well as helping to normalize your experience post diagnosis. 

Some additional great resources: 

Sex, Disability and Confidence

Sexuality Education Resource Centre

If you are seeking support for your relationship post chronic illness diagnosis, therapy can help. I offer confidential video therapy in the comfort of your home as well as in-person sessions in midtown Manhattan. Call for a free 15 minute consultation: 347.994.9301