Romantic relationships after a burn

This section covers:

  • Feeling attractive, physical intimacy, and sex
  • Being single and dating
  • Long-term relationships

Romantic relationships were an important topic for the people we talked to who had burn injuries. Some were single when their burn happened, others were in relationships when they were injured. Some had been burnt before they were in their current relationship.

Others were single, dating, or in newer relationships at the time of the interview. Some of those who were single felt optimistic about the prospect of romance, whereas others felt apprehensive. This could sometimes depend on how far along in their recovery journey a person was, or how much the burn impacted other areas of their life.

Feeling attractive, physical intimacy, and sex

Having burn scarring can impact on people’s sense of physical appearance and attractiveness. Some of the people we spoke to told us that they initially had fears that a partner (or potential partner) would find their burns unattractive. This was often a concern for those in new romantic relationships and for those in established relationships at the time of a burn, and when we spoke to them.

Raffaella had a burn injury 18 months ago and doesn’t feel comfortable dating currently. She feels she has lost her “femininity” and “sexuality” but hopes the way she feels about relationships will change with time.

Some of those who were burnt when they were children told us that their feelings about their burns changed as they got older and started thinking more about romantic relationships. For Natasha, leaving school, where she wore a uniform that covered her burn scars, and starting college, where she could choose her clothes, was a turning point where “I started feeling more self-conscious”. Kate also remembered worrying as a teenager about the appearance of her burn and what potential partners might think.

Feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable about other people seeing burn injuries or scarring could have an impact on intimacy. Some people we talked to explained how they preferred to cover their scars in some situations, for example by keeping a top on during sex. Justyn shared that he had always been “very self-conscious” of showing his scars, even though it had never been an issue for a romantic partner, which was “kind of a relief”.

After Helen Y was burnt, she felt uncomfortable with her long-term partner seeing her body. She says this has gradually improved with time.

Fears about partners finding the appearance of burns off-putting, however, were often unfounded. Rhian’s partner said he thought her burns made her “unique”. Natasha’s partner said about her burn “it makes you a lot different to everyone else and that’s cool”. Rhian highlighted that romantic attraction is not just about “looks” and appearances, and Gary agreed that “beauty is so much more than skin deep”.

Kate was initially worried about what her then-boyfriend would think of her burn. She was relieved that it wasn’t a big deal to him.

Being single and dating

Because it could be difficult for some people to believe that they were attractive to others, this could lead them to worrying about loneliness or “growing old on my own”. Raffaella, who burnt her hands and arms, shared with us how she would immediately “friend-zone” anyone who showed a romantic interest in her. She said this was because she struggled to accept that someone would choose her over “someone that’s got beautiful hands”. Raiche shared a similar view and would struggle to recognise when someone was flirting with her. She explained that “when people did show interest in me I kind of didn’t really see it being a relationship or anything further because they could always do better”.

India initially found it difficult to date people as it uncovered some insecurities she had about her scars.

India told us that for her to be able to date “like any other twenty-something does” she had needed to overcome her “own conceptions about how other people view scarring”. She explained how “going to university as well really helped, like making a brand-new group of friends and realising how easy it was. Barely anyone even spoke about my scars… [and] any insecurities kind of dissipated”. Justyn explained that dating allows him to “test the waters” with a potential partner and see if he feels “safe” with them.

Deciding whether, how and when to mention a burn, when dating, was a big topic. Rhian remembers having concerns when she was burnt: “at the time, I was single, so I was like ‘Oh gosh, how am I going to date? Will I just cover it up? Will I explain it to someone straightaway?’” Over time, her approach changed and she thought that how someone reacted to her burn was a good indicator of whether they were a good match for her. Tara explained that she would feel “apprehensive” going on a date with someone if she was unsure whether they knew about or had seen that she has burns.

Justyn says he is “delicate” about opening up to someone about his burns. He says this is because he doesn’t want to create an “atmosphere” where the person doesn’t know how to respond.

Online dating apps were popular with some of the people we spoke to. Rhian didn’t mention her burn in her online dating profile, opting instead to take a more relaxed approach to uploading photos, regardless of whether or not her burn was on show. Tara said she liked using dating apps because she could “show her scars naturally”, for example in photos where she is wearing “off-shoulder tops, and so you can see it here, and actually that’s just what I wear and feel nice and beautiful in”.

Long-term relationships

Some of the people we spoke to had been in long-term relationships for a number of years. For some, like Helen X, the relationship had begun many years before she was burnt. Other people, like Claire, entered into their relationship decades after they were burnt.

Once in a relationship, Raiche said there was a “process that I had to learn to do” in terms of being more emotional and affectionate.

For those who were burnt as an adult and were already in a long-term relationship, there was often a “change in the dynamic”. At the same time as being appreciative of support, it could also be a difficult adjustment.

Sometimes partners took on different or additional practical tasks. There could also be a change in the emotional dynamics. Hadyn felt that he had been a bit more irritable with his wife than usual: “I may have snapped at her once or twice… where I was worrying about it a little bit”.

Sarah found it difficult to accept help from her husband whilst she was recovering from her burn.

Receiving support from a partner during recovery from a burn was appreciated amongst the people we spoke to. Helen Y told us her partner would help her to rub moisturiser into her burns to relieve itching. Sarah referred to her partner as being “nothing but supportive all the way through”, and recognised it was a “huge ask of somebody” to look after her during her recovery.

You can also read here about the impacts of having a burn on relationships with wider family and friends.

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