Should My Partner Have Sex with Someone Else Because I Have a Chronic Illness?

When you live with chronic illness and disability, pain and mobility limitations can make sex difficult. But does that mean your partner should find someone else with whom to have sex?

I see this fairly often, mostly late at night on private Facebook groups where it’s safe to bare what’s deep inside. I’ve been there myself, as well, right when The Boy and I first started dating. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I don’t know what I can do. Maybe we should talk about you having an outlet somewhere else.

The Boy: not a chance. We’ll figure it out.

I had thought it only fair, had been very focused on my limitations and worrying about whether I'd be able to participate fully in all aspects of our relationship. When I heard his reply, I was deeply relieved. I am at heart monogamous.

Internalized stigma with general decrepitude
So many of us who live with chronic illness struggle with self-esteem issues, with feeling like we are damaged goods. That message is communicated to us through media, through the stigma of chronic illness and disability, through so many parts of our culture. It’s no wonder that we internalize it.
And then there’s the reality of chronic illness. If we barely have enough energy to make it through the day, sex is often the last thing we want to do. And we are aware that sex is part of the deal (if you will) of a relationship, and might start worrying that if we don’t put out, our partners will get itchy. And that contributes to further erosion of our self-esteem.

It can get to be a bit of a mess. And when it does, we might start wondering whether we should give the okay for them to look elsewhere.

This isn’t just internalized stigma. This is internalized ableism. This is us buying that message that we aren’t good enough and don’t deserve the same dignity and consideration as an able-bodied person.

The cheating line
And then things can get even messier. Because sometimes our partner suggests that they find an outlet elsewhere. Y’know, to make it easier for us. So we don’t feel bad about not being able to put out. So let’s have an open relationship.

And this is where I start getting somewhat ranty. Because this is utter bullshit. This is about that person wanting to cheat with permission.

Here’s the thing. A relationship that is other than monogamous — e.g. open, polyamorous, and so on — relies on both partners being okay with it, giving permission and endorsement and by the way it being mutual. And if you’re not okay with this, but feel pressured because you can’t provide nookie at the frequency your partner says they want, then it isn’t an open relationship. It’s cheating with permission.

And if, just for fun, you suggested that you might start taking a look elsewhere for someone who can meet your needs in a way that includes adaptation and your partner has issues with this, you’ll know s/he is a flaming hypocrite. And that you have bigger problems in the relationship.

Love and the horizontal tango
Sex isn’t everything in a relationship. Dry spells happen. Sometimes it’s after you’ve had a baby, other times it’s related to stress at work, because of caring for elderly parents, conflicting schedules, fatigue, or perhaps you’re going through a period of not liking each other very much. When you live with chronic illness, dry spells happen when your disease flares, when you have a lot of pain, when you’re getting used to a new medication. And so on.

But intimacy isn’t just about that physical act. Just because you’re not swinging from the chandeliers having passionate and frequent sex doesn’t mean that you can’t do other things. Cuddling, caressing each other, talking dirty, being there while the other person masturbates. Having vigourous debates about ideas, thoughts, or simply just talking about your lives is also intimacy. Watching a movie, reading quietly in the same room, playing a board or video game with your kids (or each other) is also intimacy. All of this nurtures your relationship during the times when one of you has less desire or ability. Because guess what, it’s not just you who might be going through this.

And then there’s the other thing. Which is that sex isn’t just swinging from the chandelier or intercourse. It can be so many other things. The things I mentioned above — cuddling, caressing each other, etc. — stoke the embers and are reminders that you find the other person delightfully sexy. And then there are all sorts of interesting ways of having sex if you want to give it a try. The only thing it requires is that both of you are flexible and willing to try new things, such as toys, mutual masturbation, watching porn, and the list goes on. And for some, that new thing might be an open relationship, polyamory, or any other variation.  But only do it if you feel is right for you and your relationship. 


Rick Phillips said…
I think we should understand that sex stops for a variety of reasons, not just chronic issues. So let's take long-term vegetative state. I want my wife to find a partner. I have told her that many times. But let's consider a cold, well not so much. But those things in between? Well, that is open to discussion and that is the consideration.

As a male with issues other than RA, I long ago turned this over to Sheryl. She can decide. I have to be ok with the outcome. I personally trust her judgement and that is the essence of it. In 39 years she has never let me down. I know she will do what is best for her, my sons and our marriage. Ultimately that is all I can ask.
patrick said…
What about the frustrations os the person who has a chronic illness becomes sexually dysfunctional, incidentally that's me and I have SPMS.

THe OH has lost interest in sex is it to be sympathetic with me? I just get dead frustrated, I want to have sex and itimate moments but nothing stirs.

Not too sure if it is relevant to your post but it is something to be thought about as well.

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