Couples in Pain: How to Communicate for Better Intimacy

Couples in Pain

Relationships are stressful enough these days, but when you add chronic pain and depression to the mix, couples often feel even more overwhelmed with everyday stressors such as work schedules, raising children and other family responsibilities.

Researchers have found that “marital dissatisfaction, negative spouse responses, and poor family functioning” are indeed associated with “elevated depressive symptoms in pain clinic samples.” (Cano et al., 2000). The emotional toll that comes from living with chronic pain impacts how we interact with others, and when depression and it’s associated symptoms arise, and communication between partners often suffers.

According to Beach et al., 1990, this finding may lead to “decreased intimacy and spousal support,” whereas “negative spouse responses” may act to punish social interaction with the spouse. Further, dissatisfaction in the marriage and negative comments/behaviors from the spouse who doesn’t experience pain, may be linked to feelings of hopelessness and depression, or even anxiety and social withdrawal, in some chronic pain clients.

If you or your partner suffers from chronic pain, finding ways to communicate and cope up with the fallout from these disorders can be overwhelming. The goal is to discover how chronic pain and depression/anxiety are impacting your relationship in the following areas: stress, communication, sex/mobility changes as a result of chronic pain, and how we can learn to understand each partner’s needs and expectations in the relationship in light of chronic pain and depression/anxiety.

Communication is key to marital satisfaction when faced with depression & chronic pain.

Being able to communicate with your partner in an honest way about how you feel both physically and emotionally will assist them in understanding why you may or may not be feeling like going out or having sex tonight. Using I-Statements, giving your partner your full attention through active listening, direct eye contact and reflecting back what you heard your spouse say, are just some of the ways to improve the way you listen and respond to your partner’s needs. Also, being proactive with possible solutions to some of these issues will also help and will make your partner feel listened to and supported.

Sex is another important way we communicate with our loved ones, but when disability or chronic pain enter the equation, we may take a rain check in the bedroom. Couples who have one or both partners who suffer from mobility problems, sexual relations often take a back seat in the intimacy department.

So how do couples meet each other’s sexual needs? Using the communication skills discussed above, couples can find other ways to please one another. Be sensitive to your loved one’s emotional well being when it comes to discussing sex. Sometimes people have certain fears of exacerbating their pain during sexual intercourse or other emotional attachments related to their bodies. Also, you may have to get creative in the bedroom. Like that saying, “There are more ways to skin a cat,” there are more ways to have sex that don’t involve intercourse, so lets go and have fun.

Finally, reducing stress will also do wonders for your relationship—and your chronic pain. Researchers say that stress is our body’s way of reacting to a physical threat or traumatic event.

There are several ways to cope with stress:

  1. Avoid situations that increase your stress level (traffic jams, crowded stores, etc.). If you must go somewhere stressful, think of ways to stay away from chaos. Plan ahead before you leave, and always have a “safety plan” just in case you need to leave a stressful situation.
  2. Stay Positive: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tells us to reframe negative thoughts with positive ones. So instead of always focusing on the negative aspects of chronic pain and your relationship, find ways to increase positive thoughts by doing something that brings you joy like listening to your favorite music or going out on a date with your partner.
  3. Set limits with others so that you can get your needs met. Reduce your workload and other demands, and don’t be afraid to say no. Being mindful of your limitations, asserting your needs and asking for help when you need it, will reduce your stress and pain levels, as well as increase positive interactions with others, especially with your spouse.
  4. Don’t forget to breathe! Deep, diaphragmatic breaths help ease tension in your body and your mind. Plus, deep breathing and meditation is another way to increase intimacy with your partner, as you can learn to breathe together as a couple and connect on a deeper, more meaningful level.

Annette Campo, LMFT, assists individuals and couples in finding mindful solutions to Chronic Pain, Depression, and Anxiety. Annette is also a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200) and uses CBT, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Yogic principles in her private practice in Modesto, CA.