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Time to Talk About Sex and Chronic Illness

Couple lying in bed touching noses [1]Awkward topic, isn’t it? It’s not an area we usually delve into with great confidence or pride.  For those of us with chronic illness, the topic of sex can bring up a whole host of emotions: fear, hurt, guilt, sadness, feelings of inadequacy and disappointment. Sure, there are moments of great passion and pleasure but those seem few and far between when our illnesses flare or we’re too exhausted from the events of the day. Adding to the complexities of sex for the chronically ill are the myriad of side effects from the many medications out there intended to ease our pain and discomfort.  Many stunt our desire for sex or leave us way too tired to even think about a night of romance.

So just how crucial is satisfying sex to a healthy marriage? It turns out that good sex is important but not central to happy relationships. According to sex educators and researchers Barry and Emily McCarthy of American University in Washington, D.C.happy spouses attribute only 15 to 20 percent of their happiness to a gratifying sex life, while unhappy partners claim 50 to 70 percent of their marriage woes are due to sexual problems.  Satisfied partners see sex as one of many sources of pleasure and intimacy, while unhappy partners focus on sex and often view it as the primary cause of trouble.

Why is sex such a big issue for dissatisfied spouses? Because sex is usually the first thing affected when a relationship breaks down.  It’s not the real problem though.  According to psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson, what’s really happening is that a couple is losing connection; they don’t feel emotionally safe with each other.  That in turn leads to decreased desire and less satisfying sex, which leads to less sex and more hurt feelings, which leads to even weaker emotional bonds and around it goes.  To put it simply: no safe bond, no sex; no sex, no bond.

What’s a chronic couple to do? First, understand that a strong emotional connection and satisfying sex go hand in hand; they feed off of each other so to speak.  Emotional connection creates fulfilling sex (whatever that means to you) and fulfilling sex creates deeper emotional connection. When spouses are emotionally available and engaged, sex becomes a deeply enjoyable adventure.  They feel free and confident to explore and fulfill their sexual needs as well as share their longings and vulnerabilities.

Second, many chronic couples place too much emphasis on performance as if it were the only measure of intimacy.  In actuality, touch is the “royal route into love relationships.”  Our almost eighteen square feet of skin is the largest sense organ we have.  Touch brings together two fundamental drives: sex; and our need to be held and recognized as special by our significant other.

If your sex life is fraught with conflict and performance issues, why not abstain from sex for a while?  For some of you, this could mean weeks or months. With sex forbidden, anxiety and disappointment wane and you can both concentrate instead on exploring all the sensations of touching.  According to Dr. Johnson, getting used to asking for tender touch deepens a couple’s bond, and knowing one another’s bodies more intimately, what moves and pleases each other, becomes a precious part of a couple’s “only for you, only with you” connection.

Connecting and reconnecting, falling in love again and again, and the resulting passion is essentially play and the ability to “let go” and surrender to sensation.  For both of these, we need emotional safety.  In fact, a recent survey on sex in America by Edward Laumann of the University of Chicago shows that married partners who have spent years together and built up emotional security have more frequent and more satisfying sex than non-married folks.

Most of us married long enough know that passion is not a constant.  Desire naturally waxes and wanes with events in our lives and most especially with our health.  These fluctuations, however, hit a nerve in most of us, and unless we can talk about them openly, can easily spark or heighten relationship problems.

Many partners can tolerate infrequent sex, but they cannot tolerate feeling like their spouses do not desire them.

We used to think that thrilling and passionate sex and a safe, secure relationship were mutually exclusive.  Now we know that secure relationships are the foundation of a healthy and satisfying sex life.  Keeping your physical relationship responsive and engaged helps keep your emotional connection and desire strong. Do you feel that you do enough touching and holding in your relationship?  A single stroke can express connection, comfort and desire.  When would you like to be touched and held more?

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Content for this post has been adapted from the book Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy.