When someone says the word intimacy, it’s often a code word for sex. But thinking like that leaves out the ways you can be intimate with your partner without “going all the way.” Sadly, dwindling intimacy in relationships is particularly common for people living with chronic illnesses. And trust me, as a self-described “physical person” who lives with several chronic illnesses, I know how frustrating this can be.
In my work exploring sex and relationships for people living with chronic illness, I’ve found there’s potential for a lot of internal frustration within relationships over intimacy and sex. But really, I could just look at my own relationship for proof.
When I first met my spouse, for example, we were sexual AKA intimate often. We were completely enamored with each other in a way that only college students could be. As we grew older, my chronic illnesses progressed and grew in number. I grew up with asthma and systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis, but eventually was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The level of physical activity we once had wasn’t something we could achieve on the same regular basis, even when we wanted to. There were times I literally could not hold my husband’s hand because of the pain, because something that wasn’t supposed to hurt, sadly did.
We had to learn how to communicate all over again because of it. It’s still something that we’re working on together, day in and day out. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. These are a few of our favorite tricks to keep things intimate when sex isn’t available:
1. A kind gesture goes a long way
As a person living with chronic illness, I work at home and for myself. I also don’t always get out to do the things I’d like to. Sometimes I simply just can’t leave our home. One of the nicest things my husband does from time to time is stop and pick up one of my favorite candy bars or sodas for me on his way home. It’s a reminder that he’s thinking of me and knows that a little something can make me feel a little better.
2. Make ‘em laugh
Finding ways to laugh and find humor in life is integral to coping with illness and pain, and helps bring you closer to your partner.
One of my favorite times is when we are in bed and can’t quite sleep but we’re both a bit punch-drunk because we laugh so hard. Intimacy like that is so very helpful for a person living with chronic illness. My husband is the king of puns, so that helps, too.
3. Talk it out
Communicating isn’t always easy, and that’s especially true when illness, pain, or disability are involved. Still, honest communication is incredibly important to maintain intimacy and to make sure you can find a way to understand each other’s pain, energy levels, desires, and more.
My husband and I really had to work on our communication skills to stay together as long as we have. It’s important for everyone, but especially for those of us dealing with illness or pain.
4. Smile at each other
No, seriously. Smile at your partner. Research has shown that when you smile, your heart rate lowers, your breathing slows down, and your body relaxes. These things together can help to lower you overall level of stress. If your partner is having a flare-up from chronic illness, just imagine what a quick smile session can do for them.
5. Emotional intimacy
Emotional intimacy is, in my mind, the height of intimacy. We can be physically intimate with people, but not emotionally attached. When emotional connections are involved, though, it takes relationships to a higher level. It can create closer bonds and help improve communication skills. Games like 21 Questions, Would You Rather?, and Never Have I Ever are great ways to learn even more about each other and connect on a deeper, emotional level.
6. Netflix and snuggles
“Netflix and chill” isn’t quite what we always need. Still, snuggling up with some blankets, pillows, and your favorite snack and watching a movie together can be incredibly comforting, even when your partner is battling a flare-up.
7. Go adventuring
Adventures and trips have this great way of infusing intimacy, no matter who you’re with. I love to travel and often do so by myself for work. Still, one of my absolute favorite things is traveling with my husband. It allows us both to explore new places, explore ourselves, and support each other in that exploration.
8. Explore each other
Physical intimacy isn’t always just about sex. Sometimes some of the most intimate moments involve things like snuggling, massages, playing with hair, kissing, and more.
Our society believes that sexual contact of any kind must end in orgasm. However, this just isn’t true. Sexual contact can be and is so much more. Exploring erogenous zones or places that can excite you together can be really fun and fulfilling!
Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. Kirsten recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex! You can learn more about Kirsten and Chronic Sex at chronicsex.org.