10 Tips For Bringing Back Sex After A Chronic Illness

This blog was originally published in Men’s Journal.

Even once a person has been given a clean bill of health after a serious illness, that doesn’t necessarily mean their fully recovered. One aspect of healing that people may not feel comfortable talking about is how their sex life has been affected. Illness can leave both mental and physical scars that can influence a person sexually. These can be extremely difficult to address but communication with partners, support groups, or medical professionals can help. “It’s tough enough to have a life-threatening illness but it’s even tougher if you don’t get some support along the way,” says Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and author of The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples. Here, from Schwartz, is some insight into how severe illness can affect a person’s sex life and what steps they and their partners can take to work through this complicated and sensitive situation.

Own Your Complicated Emotions
Most people feel a lot of very intense emotions when they go through a serious illness. These can have direct effects on their desire or ability to have sex. Some people feel ashamed, which can come from the belief that their sickness is their fault or from bodily changes, such as a mastectomy or removal of a testicle. Others are scared that their body can’t withstand sexual activity. “Even if it didn’t involve any sexual organ or part of the body, there’s a sense of damage that people often carry with them,” says Schwartz. Shock, shame, fear, and vulnerability are all common feelings for people in this situation and they don’t just disappear once a doctor says they’re better.

Focus on What You Know
Because of the feelings, trauma, and intimacy involved, talking about sex after illness can seem an overwhelming challenge. That’s why Schwartz recommends that people start with what they know. It would be nice if everyone could say exactly what they need out of their sex life but that’s not as simple as it sounds. Instead, she suggests that people begin with how they are feeling. From there they can move toward figuring out what they need and want.

Support Matters
This is a fairly obvious tip but it’s an important one. Every person’s feelings and experiences in this kind of situation are unique. For partners who are trying to figure out the best way to rekindle their love life, they should do their best to be good listeners — don’t start thinking of what you’re going to say while the other person is speaking — and they should be openly supportive. Saying I love you, I care about you, and I desire you may feel a little cheesy but these small displays of affection can make a big impact.

It Will Get Easier
People don’t exactly look forward to having these kinds of conversations. Even for the most solid and affectionate partners, serious sex talks can feel downright awkward. “The bad news, of course, is that it’s hard to do,” says Schwartz. “The good news is that people generally feel much closer and much more loved than they did before the conversation.” Not only can a direct and serious talk about sex improve a couple’s sex life, it can improve many other aspects of their lives. This goes for single people too.

Sexuality May Change
In some cases, a serious illness can cause a permanent change in sexual functioning. For men, prostate cancer treatment can alter their ability to have or maintain an erection. Given the close ties between masculinity and erectile function, this can be a devastating outcome. People in this situation may have to explore different ways to have sex and be sexual. “That’s going to take a new way of touching and new way of having sexual relations,” says Schwartz. “Those are very poignant or profound changes.” There are resources out there for people — both those in relationships and singles — who are looking for ways to approach sex after illness, such as sexologists and sex therapists. There are also medications available to address certain problems, like erectile functioning in men or lubrication changes in women.

Start Slowly
There are people out there who jump right back into bed after overcoming a serious illness but many feel the need to proceed with caution. Fortunately, there’s a lot more to intimacy that just sex. People who are still figuring out what they want and need out of sex after an illness can start will romantic dates, kissing, and touching before moving to the more intense stuff. People and their partners should also understand that there might be a time where things are moving along but they suddenly feel the need to slow down again.

But Don’t Rely Too Heavily on Experts
Not only are there various illnesses that can affect people’s sex lives but every person’s feelings about illness and sex are already completely unique. “Nobody’s an expert here, nobody’s asking anyone to be an expert,” says Schwartz. Such an individual experience may require an individualized solution. There are many resources out there for people who are recovering from illness and are looking for some outside assistance or perspective. Pair these with open and honest conversation about your personal feelings and needs and you have a good chance of making quality progress.

Get Help from Medical Professionals
Schwartz says that sometimes doctors can miss the mark when it comes to recovery. It’s common for them to look specifically at the physical effects of illness, using those to give their patients the green light for sexual activity. That’s no doubt a helpful endorsement but many people desire more information than that. If this topic seems outside your doctor’s area of expertise or if you want another opinion, you can ask them if there are people specifically available to talk about sex after illness. Some hospitals have social workers or therapists on hand for just this reason.

Seek Out Group Help
Another excellent resource for people who have gone through a serious illness is support groups. “I think the thing that’s important for people to remember is that they’re not the only people who have ever gone through this experience, there are other people,” says Schwartz. Everyone has a unique perspective on their illness and how they feel afterward but being able to discuss that with others who have been through similar situations can be a big help. These kinds of groups can be found through hospitals, clinics, and state psychological associations.

It Takes Time
Severe illness often affects people and their partners both physically and mentally in very substantial ways. Physical changes from stress, exhaustion, medical procedures, and surgery can change the way people feel about their sexuality and sometimes make it necessary to alter the way they have sex. Psychological affects can have similar outcomes. While some people are ready to go right back to sex after they’re given the go-ahead but for others it can take years. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to this but finding people you can talk to and resources you trust are good ways to get moving in the right direction.’