Let’s talk about sex (& chronic pain), baby

Olivia Carla Smith explores the impact of chronic pain on the relationships of young adults

“Not tonight, I’m sore” is a phrase all too familiar for people living with chronic pain. Anyone living with one of the many conditions that cause chronic pain knows how much it can impact on daily life, but the effect it has on romantic relationships is rarely discussed.

Having been diagnosed with palindromic Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of 18, just months before sitting my Leaving Cert, chronic pain has played an enormous part in my young adult life. Rheumatoid Arthritis (commonly referred to as RA) is a lifelong autoimmune condition which affects the joints, causing them to become sore and inflamed; so, waking up in pain, and being unable to do basic tasks like walking or writing, became normality for me. It impacted every facet of my life, and my relationships were no exception. I was three months into a new relationship when I was diagnosed and, undoubtedly, it put a strain on both the emotional and physical aspects of dating. The journey of managing chronic pain is rarely linear and it took me over two years of trialing different medications to find some form of relief and, thankfully, I am now in remission. However, it was a long road to get to this point, and, at the time, I did not want to put my life on hold whilst waiting to get back to a seemingly unattainable “normal”. So, I experienced first-hand the trials and tribulations that come with the modern dating world whilst simultaneously tackling my health condition.

“Young adults are generally perceived as fit and healthy, but that’s not always the case.”

Young adults are generally perceived as fit and healthy, but that’s not always the case and this is often overlooked. A study published in the Oxford University Press revealed that nearly 1 in 4 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 live with chronic pain. To be faced with this at a young age is daunting and, for some, it can be difficult to come to terms with this debilitating aspect of their life with many reluctant to seek help due to the stigma that still surrounds disability. Admitting that you’re in pain and in need of help whilst being in the supposed “prime of your life” can be defeating and, almost, embarrassing, but the sooner you talk about it, the sooner it gets better. So why isn’t it talked about more?

“Disability and sexy aren’t often used in the same sentence and I think it’s about time that we end the stigma around chronic pain and sex.”

I think an enormous factor is representation (or lack thereof) of chronic pain in the media. The non-profit organisation, Versus Arthritis, started a campaign called #ThePainfulTruth, highlighting how chronic pain is grossly underrepresented in TV and film storylines. This results in sufferers feeling isolated and misunderstood, and a lack of awareness and understanding from the general public. My first encounter of chronic pain in popular media was in Trinity graduate, Sally Rooney’s novel, Conversations with Friends. Through the character of Frances, Rooney explores the symptoms and diagnostic processes of endometriosis, highlighting the realities of living with chronic pain. For me, reading about someone who was also navigating college life whilst simultaneously battling the minefield that is physical pain was empowering. It was the first time that I had felt heard. This, also, notably influenced my view of the connection between my condition and my relationships; disability and ‘sexy’ aren’t often used in the same sentence and I think it’s about time that we end the stigma around chronic pain and sex.

Starting college, I felt the societal pressures that my sex life had to match that of my peers, especially at a time when relationships, particularly physical ones, were so consequential. I was reluctant to put myself out there into the dating world as I dreaded having to open up about my condition for fear that potential partners would view me differently and/or leave entirely. In the bedroom, chronic pain, undoubtedly, can be a bit of a mood-killer. Speaking from personal experience, it can be challenging. Realistically, if you’re sore, the last thing you’re going to feel like doing is having sex. Additionally, if the pain itself wasn’t bad enough, you often have chronic fatigue and the menagerie of medication-induced side-effects to contend with, also. All these factors can mound added pressures onto your ability to be intimate.

“Sex is a healthy part of any relationship, so when chronic pain gets in the way, it can affect emotional connections as well as physical ones.”

Sex is a healthy part of any relationship, so when chronic pain gets in the way, it can affect emotional connections as well as physical ones, causing a sense of disconnect with your partner misinterpreting your lack of enthusiasm for a lack of attraction. That’s why it is so important to communicate with one another. The reality is that sex is rarely perfect and chronic pain is just another factor, but you can adapt and find what works for you.

“There are other ways of being intimate.”

So, how can you show support if your partner suffers from chronic pain? At the risk of sounding clichéd, patience is key. From previous experience, the best thing you can do is to be understanding of your partner’s situation and try to avoid putting pressure on them; they will likely be feeling guilty about the situation anyway and don’t need any added shame. Rather than ignoring the elephant in the room, it is vitally important to create a safe space where you can both talk and address the situation. It’s best to communicate openly and honestly about how you’re both feeling in order to work out how to adapt and manage your intimacy together. Sex itself can actually be beneficial as it releases endorphins that act as natural painkillers and there are a host of positions that you can experiment with to find what works best for you both. Additionally, there are other ways of being intimate, for example: having a shower or bath together can be sensual and the hot water has the added benefit of easing pain. With a few adjustments and a supportive environment, anyone living with chronic pain can have a full sex life and happy relationships.

For any young adults living with chronic pain, it’s important to know that you are not alone – just because it isn’t talked about, does not mean that it doesn’t exist. In terms of relationships, do not let your pain make you feel like you’re any less desirable as you are just as entitled to a fulfilling love life as everyone else. I’m lucky enough to be in a place now where chronic pain doesn’t rule my life anymore and I hope that I’m proof for others that things can get better. We need to get people talking in order to break the stigma around chronic pain in young people, and to show that disability can be sexy.