Relationships and sex life with chronic pain
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.
Realised that all the quality time she spent with her husband she was moaning about pain and now...
And I have got to a point now when I say 'Yes, I am. The pain is making me grumpy' whereas before I go 'Don't call me grumpy and I'm not grumpy' and try to make excuses whereas having gone through counselling, it's sort of very easy for me to say 'Yes, I'm sorry I'm grumpy. I shouldn't have snapped at you. I am grumpy'.
And my husband said something to me the other day, I was in quite a lot of pain from my whiplash and he took me out and on our way out. It was actually on the way to work we went on the train and we spent the time together on the train and he looked at me, he didn't say anything to me for quite a while because I had been really grumpy that morning and then when we got to the station where we part ways.
He said 'Goodness but you've', he said that he must be Snow White because I had been every one of the Seven Dwarfs that morning because I had been happy, I had said something funny, then I had said something sensible and the next minute I was snapping, and then I was tired and saying just...
And that kind of put everything into perspective that pain is like I was being all the Seven Dwarfs at one time. It is just something that you have to learn control. And the tendency to express all of those things to the person that you live with and rely on and talk to and trust is, they are there, they want to support you.
So... but then I feel that I'm, that's the only person whose there for me to talk to. So whenever I do see him, and he works long hours, then I want to tell him about all the pain issues I had that day and what was horrible and. And then I sort of look back and think well the only quality time we had together I was telling him about the bad part of my week, or the bad part of my day and the pain I am in, because you don't just go up to any acquaintance and friend and say 'I am in so much pain and this and that'.
So the counselling again comes in because I go once a week and it's another place for me just to go and rant and rave about being in pain and the frustration and everything which makes my quality time with my husband a lot more sort of positive. Not just positive, just worthwhile because then I can try and focus on other things because I have had my chance to let off steam, because letting off steam is very important.
But when you think about it if you are letting off steam with the same person day in and day out, they are going to get tired of it. I think I would get tired of it. So it's trying to strike a balance is also very difficult. Sometimes I have to just shut my mouth when I am in pain. I wake up and I just want to groan as I roll over and I think 'Ooh he doesn't want me to hear me groan again' and I have to just keep quiet.
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.
Her husband sometimes tells her she is being ratty and now she apologises and explains that she...
I will apologise rather than saying 'No I'm not, I'm fine'. There's no point in that. I accept that and I'll say and I trust my husband and 'I'm sorry' obviously and I'll go and rest and I've warned some people at college that if I start getting ratty it means I'm in pain, because, I don't know. Which is very strange, isn't it?
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.
Feels that becoming a househusband and his wife going out to work has created stresses in their...
She needs rest, you know, and then I'm not a very good cook and I'm not a very good housekeeper but she's the one doing all the work and yet she, and she naturally expects that the house is going to be tidy when she comes back. Well housework is physically painful and I don't enjoy it anyway. Stooping over a stove is physically painful and I don't enjoy it anyway. I'm not a cook, you know, and so being, both of us have been forced into situation that we didn't want. She didn't want to be the breadwinner and I don't want to be a househusband.
And this has all come about through this wretched bloody condition. And so it creates enormous stresses for her and enormous stresses for me in both things and you get into situations where I frankly don't want to feel, I don't feel like moving but then I feel guilty because I know she's been working ten times harder than I have all day long and she needs a meal set in front of her when she comes home and I just, you know, I don't want to lift a finger and so it's problematic.
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.
Finds it difficult to form relationships because it is hard to find someone who will accept her...
You know I went out with one person and he just found it really hard. He kept saying to me 'Be positive' and I know people are trying to be really upbeat about it, but there's a difference between being positive and being realistic. People see me as being realistic as being negative and it's not. It's just that I now know my limitations. You know, when you don't go out to places where people normally meet partners. You know it gets very, very difficult.
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.
Feels that communication is vital in relationships where one person has pain and that having...
In the end that relationship had to dissolve because we were just destroying each other through wanting to get back to where we were. Whereas relationships I've had since I've been ill, the guys have only ever known me in this situation, so again its that they accept you the way you are and you've got nothing to compare it with, and yes there can be difficulties, there can be a lot of frustration.
And the fact that one time I booked holiday, we booked a holiday to Spain, and I really flared up a week before and we couldn't go, so we had to just cancel it, and that makes me feel guilty because like he had taken time off work and it was all planned and some people react to that better than others, I mean he was absolutely fine, it was we'll just book it for another time, we can get the money back its not a problem.
But that can put strain on a relationship, the fact that you can't really make many plans when you're in chronic pain, because you don't know how you're going to feel the next day, you can book to go to the theatre in 3 months time, and then when 3 months comes you might not be able to go, so you've got to be incredibly flexible.
So you need to be with someone who is flexible and understands how your condition works, its very important to be very open, very honest, to communicate all the time, to say 'Look I can't do that can you help?' , but also not to abuse somebody by sort of letting them run round after you all the time, because obviously you mustn't let any resentment build up what so ever between you because that can block communication.
And one really good bit of advice I was always given is to make sure that both of you have someone outside the relationship to talk to, because its so unrealistic to think that you can handle it completely on your own, its going to get to one of you at sometime and its very important that the person who's healthy in the relationship has got someone they can go to scream to say 'I can't cope with this at the moment, you know she needs so much help, you know she's really depressed' or you know just to take it out on somebody else and then you're not taking it out on each other, because that's when all the guilt comes in and one of you might shut down, that is really, really important, that would be the best bit of advice I've ever been given. And if you put that into practice it works very well.
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.
Was frightened that sex might hurt her back but realised it was okay and that there are ways to...
Of course it does affect your sex life, you can, there's... I don't want to go into a lot of detail there, of course there are lots of positions that you can use where, you know, it doesn't put extra strain on your back or just refrain and cuddle. I mean, you know, full sex life, yeah of course it's important but it's just as important to have the company of somebody, you know, cuddling and things like that are often more important and you know when you feel ready for it, you know, I suppose I liken it to when you've had a baby.
You know, you've had a baby and the last thing on your mind is sex. It doesn't mean to say you don't love your husband because you do and you know but you've got this little baby and the thought of having sex after just having a baby is the last thing on your mind. And it's the same thing, you know, with, in fact I can remember as it happens going back a long, long time ago, and I'd had an operation and after one operation I was feeling quite sorry for myself and then all of a sudden you know I snapped out of it and I thought 'I've had enough of this feeling sorry for myself' and I snapped out of it.
And we were actually just sort of lying, you know, on the floor and it was just quite funny and all of a sudden it just becomes quite natural again because I think, you know, I was frightened that I was going to break my back and things like that, but I must admit at the time I didn't read any books at all. It just, it's like anything you know once you've, once you do it again and it doesn't hurt, you think 'Oh it's okay to pursue it'.
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.
Explains that making love takes planning and that good communication is important.
But it's like anything, if you do some stretching, seems a bit unromantic, but you've got to think it through. We just have to do things a little bit different than I suppose the normal bods. Where normal bods, they're just sort of thinking, get a bit hot and sweaty and think 'Hey come on baby, lets go', you know. Whereas we have to say, we have to think about, think it through first, well, you know do a bit of stretching, you know before you get into that sort of stuff and I think it might seem a bit unromantic, we'll do some stretching afterwards as well.
It's part of self-management, you know, it's, you know it's like getting into the bath really. You take your clothes off, you get in the bath, you get out, you dry yourself and you put, it's the same thing, you know, you're preparing yourself to get into a bath. If you're going to have some sex, not some sex, you're going to do, making love things like that, you've got to prepare yourself before and after. But you just work out different positions on how you're going to do it and I think the best thing really is to, is to talk it through with your partner and it's no good saying 'Look, this is what I can do, these are the things I find difficult' but say 'Look, you know, can we try things a different way'.
I don't swing from the chandeliers like I used to, I don't jump off the wardrobe like I used to. But you just find, I don't know make it a little bit humorous, never did swing from the chandeliers either. But you just find, you just talk it through with your partner I think, if you've got a good relationship with your partner, you just talk it through, say look 'If we do this, then how's that?' And then talk and you know, sounds really unromantic, bit clinical, but have a bit of a debrief afterwards and say 'Look, was that okay?' It's no good doing something with your partner if they don't find it, it pleasing.
At the end of the day, you know, say am I having sex or am I making love? I like to think that we're making love, you know, and making love is thinking of your partner, you know, in my case my partner has pain as well, so we have to be, we just talk it through and are very honest with each other like, you know.
Feels that communication is important in planning the best time of day for sexual relationships.
You're going to get tired, you're going to be in pain, you need to choose the best part of the day to be intimate, where I'm most awake my pain killers are working properly and I'm in the mood basically, where obviously if you're very tired, in lots of pain, nobody particularly wants to make love in those sort of circumstances.
So again its this honest open communication, it does reduce your spontaneity you can't necessarily always think right lets go off into a wood and make passionate love, because you're not going to be in a situation to be able to, so you might have to plan a bit more, say like we'll have this evening together and make it really romantic and we'll make sure that I've rested in the afternoon and I've got all my energy to give to you then, so it comes down to pacing, it comes down to being organised.
Obviously you can be impulsive from time to time, but you've got to take it the way it comes, and the person you're with has to understand what situation you are in, has to understand the reality of it, but if they love you, they just accept it and its absolutely fine, so that is how I deal with that.
Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated November 2012.