Remember when you first started dating your partner? When leg irons could not keep you off each other? But now time, and responsibilities, and chronic pain has cooled the flames and some days you feel like he or she would rather put that part of your relationship on hold. You are still friends. You still have days when, like any normal couple, you do not like each other very much. You do not have marital problems; you just can not be physical like you want to be.
My husband and I started to employ these hacks when it became evident that even a loving hug was uncomfortable for him. Some people with fibromyalgia experience chest pain called costochondritis and this makes his ribs unbearably painful even to lie down. During these flares, I learned ways to be gentle. But it can be a blow to your self esteem when your partner flinches even when you touch them gently. To help with this, we started to come together to talk about ways to let each other know that we not only loved our friendship, our communication, and our life, but that we still thought the other person was hot stuff without making the other person think that sex was about to happen. Kind of like a massage that is really just a massage. This made our intimate life easier on both of us because it let him know there were no expectations during times when pain made sex impossible and kept me secure that I was not being shot down because I was not wanted.
1. Talk Dirty to Me
Sometimes talking is all your partner can do and even though it sounds fruitless, it can bring you closer together when you talk about the good times. Men generally enjoy talking about actual sex while women tend to like it when you reminisce about the music, the setting, what they were wearing, smells, food, or any other detail that shows her the moment of bonding is fixed in your memory. Beyond reminiscing about your wilder youth, we have always enjoyed telling each other about fantasies. I am the storyteller of our partnership so sometimes my job is simply fleshing out (so to speak), the ideas he gives me. With these, we can employ all sorts of ideas that we might not normally dabble in and it allows both partners to visualize themselves in a scenario. These fantasies do not have to be sex although it is always fun when they have some element. Sometimes they are talking about vacation spots we want to visit and the plans we have for our future.
The way you talk can be as simple as dropping little hints during everyday conversation that you remember the good times. Like catching a reference in a movie, these Easter eggs are a path to find your way back to the core of your relationship. Remembering our wild nights when we got married in Vegas always makes him feel like a rock star.
2. Laugh Out Loud
It is easy when we are in pain to stop seeing the humour in the everyday. Although we have yet to find the laugh-a-minute fodder we would like to in chronic pain syndromes, we do take a moment to giggle at such things as:
- The pharmacist butchering the pronunciation of our last name
- The Dr. who thought I was the fibro patient because I was the woman and kept calling me Darren
- Fibro-fog and the hilarious bouts of miscommunication it brings
To keep it light, we also enjoy doing impressions of people, referencing bad horror movies in casual conversation, fart jokes, and my personal favourite, sending memes of questionable taste to each other while we are at work. Our daughter is 5 now and provides us with hilarious content as she attempts to master what is shaping up to be a massive vocabulary. She looked at me in the bathroom and proclaimed that she was “brushing her teeth, ominously!” which has translated into almost every boring duty becoming “ominous”. Our cat, who is our fur baby, is also a grumpy, obstinate jerk to everyone but us and enriches our life in so many funny ways.
3. Find Painless Ways to Touch
Years before the first chronic pain diagnosis, my husband and I lived in a tiny, hot apartment that easily reached 40 degrees Celsius for a few summer weeks each year. We invented the “touchless” hug that 15 years later, still brings a smile to our faces. We stand, red-faced and sweaty in front of each other and place our pointer fingers on each other’s upper arms. This “hug” allows us to laugh at the memory of our uncomfortable apartment and acknowledge that despite our lovely air conditioning, it is still too hot to hug.
We returned to hand holding and nothing makes me happier than a pat on the butt when he walks by. We sit next to each other, we sing in the truck, and when we speak about important things, we touch to connect.
4. Self Care
Taking care of someone like your partner long term can make you feel more frumpy nurse than sexy spouse. There is nothing titillating about checking sore spots and recalling drug side effect histories.
Something you can do for yourself to continue to feel normal is self-care. Everyone has different ideas and quite honestly even mine differ throughout the month but some of these include yoga, walking, massages, pedicures, manicures, going to the pub and watching hockey, buying a beautiful bra, indulging in special coffee occasionally, wearing perfume, meditating (or at least trying), or writing. Sometimes just taking a walk around the block and listening to music you love is enough. Sometimes you need to drive on the freeway and blast Panterra to feel free.
Self-care is also knowing what your limits are. As the “healthy” spouse, I have continuously thought it was my job to pick up everything and put them on my shoulders including my husband. The thing is, he never asked me to do that and it is unreasonable of me to think that I can or, to be mad at him when I do. For me, self-care has become a case of listening to my inner voice that says I need to get help. Help with my anxiety, help with cleaning the house, advice from other doctors, or help from him. Sometimes I just need to sleep, and this is self-care at its best.
I have attempted three times to begin dedicated gratitude journals in my life because I do really believe that gratitude is an essential part of everyday happiness. But the demands of life and the keeping up of my personal journal always morphs away from gratitude and into the recording of everyday ups and downs.
What we have found easier is to make marriage gratitude a habit. This habit runs both ways. We are keenly aware that it cannot just be the spouse with chronic pain that is grateful but also the caregiver. Every day we say thank you to each other for the little and the big things. This includes thanking each other for washing clothes, changing sheets, and allowing for a little nap time on the weekend when possible. When one of us is down, we lift each other up with reminders about why our partner is amazing. An excerpt from a card I gave my husband when we got married still rings true for us. He is not my knight on a white horse, he is just a guy who fell in love with a girl and she said yes. Chronic pain does not change our vows, it does not change our feelings. I would not want to be on this journey with anyone but him and I chose to have a child with him because I thought being a parent with him would be an amazing adventure. And it is. I am so very grateful for the joy he brings to my life.
Increasing intimacy in a relationship when sex is off the table is about making sure everyone is heard and their needs are being met. Intimacy is about connection and connection requires physical, verbal, and spiritual expressions. While the spouse who has health issues may feel their needs are being met by the spouse that is the caretaker, you must be very careful to ensure that the caregiver’s needs are met as well to avoid resentment. Hopefully a dose of gratitude, laughter, and a passing pinch on the derriere will help everyone to survive until the fun begins again.