Keeping the Romance Alive After a Spinal Cord Injury
In the weeks following a spinal cord injury, sex and romance may be the last things on your mind. You might also find yourself endlessly worrying that these sources of intimacy and pleasure will forever be out of reach. Spinal cord injury survivors manage their romantic relationships in ways as unique as they are as people, and there is no single approach that works for everyone. The good news is that most spinal cord injury survivors are able to regain some sexual function. Many even find that their romantic relationships improve.
Kristen Sachs, whose husband Jeff suffered a spinal cord injury in a beach diving accident, blogs about her family's experiences at New Dawn for Us. She says that spinal cord injuries do not have to end romance or intimacy. “We know each other on a different level because of this. We work really well together. We are a really good team together. Before all this, we were both working full time separately. We spend a lot more time together now. I’m glad that we have such a strong relationship. I don’t just love him. I like being around him,” she said in an interview with SpinalCord.com.
Like Sachs, many couples are able to go on to have happy, functioning relationships filled with romance after a spinal cord injury, even in the face of mounting stress. Single spinal cord injury survivors should also take heart, since many find caring partners who find them attractive and appealing.
So what's the key to keeping the romance alive—or to sparking some new romance? Good communication, lots of awareness, and a willingness to learn new skills.
First Things First: Sexual Function After Spinal Cord Injury
Talking about sex can be difficult, especially if you've never been comfortable doing so before. When you're discussing issues such as your long-term survival and whether you'll walk again, sex can be even more challenging to discuss. You might think it's a trivial issue, but sex is a real and important part of life. Ask your doctor what you can expect, and keep asking until you get an answer. Know that you may need to get the assistance of a sex therapist, sexuality educator, or sex-positive spinal cord injury specialist.
In many cases, spinal cord injury survivors regain sexual function. Oftentimes, though, things feel a little different. Some recurring themes include:
- Less control over your sexual response; men may find themselves more readily ejaculating, while women may struggle to orgasm. In many cases, this can be overcome with diligent practice and training.
- More difficulty getting aroused. Depending upon the location of your injury, it may be more difficult for your brain to send arousal signals to your genitals.
- More difficulty with physical arousal signs. For women in particular, lubrication often becomes an issue. Men may also struggle to get or maintain an erection. A variety of sexual lubricants and aids can help you circumvent this issue.
Remember, intercourse is not the only type of sex. Indeed, many people find so-called outercourse—or other forms of intimacy—more pleasurable. For women in particular, a male partner who is less adept at (or no longer capable of) intercourse, and therefore has to get more creative, might even be a sexual benefit! Research consistently shows that most women cannot orgasm from intercourse alone, so for men, your SCI just might open the door to new opportunities.
Romance When You're Paralyzed
So much of what we learn about romance from movies and television is premised on being in control by buying presents, chauffeuring your partner, or planning elaborate outings. When you're injured, it can be difficult to feel in control, particularly if your partner is your caregiver.
The key is to expand your definition of romance, get creative, and focus on showing love to your partner. After all, showing love is what's really at the heart of romance. Consider some of the following options:
- Make a point of showing gratitude, love, and affection to your partner every day. Tell him or her how attractive you find them. Thank your partner for helping you or performing household duties. Remember that being injured does not rob you of the obligation to show love.
- Surprise your partner. Surprises are always romantic. Whether it's a vacation abroad or a list of the reasons you love your partner, an unexpected gift can warm even the most stressed and frustrated hearts.
- Plan a romantic evening with your partner. Maybe you can't do all the things you once did, but that shouldn't stop you from having someone cook a meal—or doing it yourself—while watching a romantic movie and giving your partner your full attention.
Romance When You're the Partner of an SCI Survivor
One of the dirty little secrets of life as the partner of a spinal cord injury survivor is that resentment is almost inevitable, particularly in the early days. Sure, you know the injury is not your partner's fault and that he or she needs your love. But a radical departure from the life you expected can be a hard thing to accept. Don't judge or blame yourself for your resentment. Simply acknowledge your emotions, seek mental health counseling if you are struggling, and then move on.
Just remember that a change in your lifestyle, or even a full-time commitment to care giving, does not rob you of your obligation to show your partner love. Don't make them feel like only a patient. Some simple ways to spark some romance include:
- Taking your partner on a special outing.
- Complimenting him or her every day—but not for achievements related to the SCI.
- Telling your partner how attractive you find them.
- Surprising your partner with a gift or outing.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Communication is the key to long-term relationships and romance after a spinal cord injury. Yet many of us learn that communication-- “This is what I need from you ...” “Here's what I like ...” --somehow takes the thrill and mystery out of romance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You and your partner are embarking on a new adventure together. You have a powerful opportunity to learn about one another, grow, and find new ways to meet one another's needs. Talk openly and honestly about those needs, and do not judge one another. You may need to get creative, try things you never considered, and adjust your expectations. But the reward of a lasting, loving relationship that helps you both move beyond the injury is well worth the effort of a few extra discussions. It may be difficult at first, but stick with it; it gets better.
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