Chronic Pain

Relationships and sex life

Support from partners keeps many people going. However, chronic pain can place huge pressures on both the emotional and physical sides of a relationship.

Pain can sometimes take over to the point where a person can't think about anything else. Some people, often those whose partners were at work all day, told us that when they did spend time together they found themselves moaning about their pain.

Others had made a conscious decision to try not to burden their partners and instead kept the pain to themselves or shared problems with a healthcare professional or another person with pain.

People with chronic pain often find that the pain makes them bad tempered and intolerant with their partners. Some had realised that it was better to admit that they were being grumpy than to argue or try to blame something else. Sometimes people were less able to cope with the normal relationship stresses, or found that arguments made their pain worse.

Often people had experienced changes in what they did in life, which could cause tension in their relationship. Several men could no longer work and told us that they found it frustrating when their partners had to get a job, especially if they didn't enjoy becoming a househusband.

Other people, often women, were worried that their partner had to do housework on top of their jobs. Some said they missed their independence and disliked having to rely on their partner for things like transport. Occasionally partners gave up their jobs to become carers which placed additional financial pressures on their relationship.

Couples often meet because of shared interests, such as sports, which often became difficult. One woman couldn't go out on a motorbike with her husband and felt that they had lost a big part of their life together.

Sometimes the pain and the stresses it brought with it had contributed to the break-up of a relationship, while others felt that pain had pushed their relationships almost to breaking point. It is easy to become preoccupied with coping with pain and shut the other person out, which could lead to them feeling rejected.

Others got so down about their pain that they started to doubt whether their partner wanted to be with them. Whilst some couples were able to resolve these issues by talking, others found they needed relationship counselling from organisations like Relate.

A few people we talked to had formed new relationships since their pain started. Sometimes it was difficult to find someone who would accept the limits the pain placed on what they could do and they felt bad when they had to cancel plans because of the pain.

Good communication, flexibility and understanding are particularly important in relationships where one person has chronic pain. One woman recommended that both people have someone they can talk to outside of the relationship.

Sexual relationships had often suffered - men and women alike said that sex was simply the 'last thing on my mind' when they were in pain. Pain could affect libido (sex drive), although some thought that the medication contributed to this (see also 'Introduction: Medication and side effects').

For many, intimacy and even physical touch was painful. One woman who'd had several back operations was scared that she might injure herself, but when she made love with her husband she had been fine.

Women with pelvic pain, fibromyalgia and back pain said they found full intercourse and orgasm particularly painful. One woman recalled several times when she had passed out, which had been very distressing. One man who was unable to have sex because of an accident which left him with back and neck pain. He was prescribed Viagra but didn't like the idea of taking it a couple of hours before sex, which he found 'a bit like making an appointment at the dentist'.

Men and women who couldn't face having sex worried that this wasn't fair on their partners. Those people who were in longer-term, mature relationships thought this was less of a problem and in some cases they had agreed to not have sex. A woman whose pain started early in a relationship said that her sex life was the first thing to be affected and made a dramatic change to their lives.

Physical intimacy remained an important part of relationships, even if it was cuddling and holding hands rather than 'full sex'. Those who continued their sex lives said they were not as adventurous as before, but it was still fulfilling.

Most had become less spontaneous about sex and now tended to plan and prepare - they advised waiting for a “good day”, choosing the best time of day and setting aside time. It was important to have good communication and work out the most comfortable positions and times. One woman commented that sex could be one of the best painkillers.


Last reviewed May 2015.

Last updated November 2012.

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