Most people would like a healthy, satisfying love life. Physical and emotional intimacy is crucial to the long-term survival of couple relationships. But levels of desire will change as the relationship develops and sex in a committed relationship will ebb and flow - just like other aspects of the relationship.
This applies even more to relationships where one or both partners have MS. A diagnosis and the symptoms of the condition will undoubtedly affect how you feel about yourself, how you relate to your partner and how you feel about sex and intimacy. If you are able to focus on and explore these emotions, it can lead to deeper understanding and hopefully ways of maintaining a fulfilling intimacy within the relationship.
Development of sexuality
A person's sexuality is shaped by life experience. From early years through to teenage crushes, attitudes to sex are unconsciously influenced. If a person is taught that nakedness is not acceptable and that bodies should be covered up, then they are likely to carry this notion through to adulthood. Similarly if an early sexual experience is unhelpful and reinforces disappointment it is likely to make sex more difficult. When establishing a comfortable sex life with a partner it is helpful to talk about these past experiences so that you can either accept the way you are and share that with your partner, or recognise why you feel how you feel and take steps towards building a better sex life.
For the many individuals who are single, the way you feel about yourself, your body and your sexuality is extremely important. As you adjust to living with MS you may find yourself asking questions about your future sex life, meeting new partners and sustaining loving relationships. Talking things through with trusted friends and support networks will help you to face any fears you may have. Accessing information from relevant health care professionals can help you to gain a clearer picture of your long-term health. One of the hardest parts is the unpredictability of the condition, so the way you feel about yourself sexually may fluctuate considerably depending on how your MS is affecting you. It is really important to recognise when your feelings about your body are affected by MS and to find ways of managing your self-esteem.
Finding and maintaining personal relationships with a temporary or long-term physical impairment can be made problematic by prevailing social attitudes. In a survey by the magazine Disability Now, 1,100 respondents reported a lack of information and distress around their personal and sexual relationships. Sexual self-esteem and body image improved when respondents had someone to talk to about their difficulties, reinforcing the importance of communication and accessing emotional support. Relate, the relationship support organisation, works with individuals as well as with couples on these issues - see the contact details at the foot of the article for more information.
Relationships can be profoundly affected by MS, particularly the relationship with a long-term partner, husband or wife. Coping with the physical symptoms, managing pain and fatigue can put pressure on the individual and those closest to them. Some couples fear that when a condition like MS is diagnosed it means completely giving up their sex life for good, but this needn't be the case. However, difficulties can arise and it helps if these can be identified and discussed openly between the two of you. As you come to terms with having MS you may start to feel differently about yourself, causing you to withdraw from your partner. Not wanting sex is natural; identifying the reason and communicating to your partner is crucial so that they can understand the changes and give you space.
Many couples enjoy finding new ways of being intimate together. If the symptoms of MS mean that you cannot do all of the things you used to in your love-making, adapting your routine and finding other ways of being sensual together are really worth investing in. Changing the times of your love-making to accommodate changing energy levels can work for some couples, or adapting your sexual positions can also mean discovering more about each other and about what you like. Keep talking to each other throughout and give each other time if you feel exasperated by any limitations.
Sometimes you may have to find ways to be close to each other that don't involve sexual activity. Incorporating cuddles, hugs, strokes and kissing will mean that you maintain an intimate connection. Even if your sex life becomes less active, maintaining your sensual life together can be achieved by sharing new foods, using aromatherapy oils to open up the senses, bathing together and finding ways of laughing together.
Relationships naturally change over time and always require lots of maintenance to survive. Dealing with MS gives the couple the opportunity to become creative in ways that they may never have thought of, but sometimes either one of the couple may need other forms of support and intervention.
Knowing where to look when you need further support is really important. Health professionals can offer help and advice, and for sex and relationship problems organisations like Relate can provide affordable sex therapy.
Written by Catherine Allen, Relate, for Open Door - May 2007