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It hurts: How chronic pain affects relationships

From avoiding sex to difficulty playing with the kids, chronic pain impacts life in unseen ways. We speak to three women about the realities of living with pain, and share insights and advice from the experts.

Through her work as a pain psychologist, Dr Jacqui Stanford has seen how chronic pain affects relationships.

The expert says first and foremost, chronic pain affects the relationship you have with yourself, including your identity, confidence and independence.

This can “ripple out into every relationship”, she says, adding there’s often a silent loss that comes with having chronic pain. “It’s grief that’s not acknowledged. So you look healthy and well – no one’s died – but there’s so much loss that happens for the person in pain.”

For some women, their pain can be so draining that it stops them from socialising and forming new romantic connections. “There’s nothing more of a libido killer than being in pain,” says pain specialist Dr Megan Eddy. It “impacts every facet of your life”.

Here, three women share how they navigate relationships alongside their pain.

Lucy, 31

At age seven, Lucy Green was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic condition that causes pain and swelling in the joints. As a teenager, she hid the condition from friends and dating interests. “I felt like I was a burden if I told them how I was really feeling.”

Frequent medical appointments also took an emotional and financial toll on her parents, she says.

As a now 31-year-old, Lucy says pain continues to affect family life, from the division of chores with her husband to postponing plans to have a baby.

But Lucy has strategies.

“Taking responsibility for my health as much as possible has helped my relationships. When my loved ones see that I am proactively looking after myself, they understand when I need extra support.”

Trudy, 47

Before surgery, Trudy Vains lived with pelvic pain caused by gynaecological issues.

“It’s hard to explain just how much it affects you,” says the yoga teacher.

“With intimacy, if I was in pain, there was no question sex was a ‘no’ from me. So my husband would get me a hot water bottle and lay down with me to hug.”

Trudy says the hugging was “soothing” and “common” for them. “We still stayed connected.”

As for her physical job bending and reaching, she says “you need an understanding supervisor who can assist in any way they can”.

For now, Trudy says she lives pain-free, thanks to surgery.

Susanne, 60s

Susanne Gervay prefers to keep her rheumatoid arthritis hidden, where possible. “I don’t want sympathy,” says the award-winning children’s author. “My colleagues and friends only know on a need-to-know basis.”

When Susanne was diagnosed at age 19, she says it was frightening. “The pain came in waves and many times I could not walk.”

The condition would go on to impact her family life. “My former partner could not cope at times with my lack of energy. We had two children and he left when they were young.”

Sometimes, Susanne says, she would “sit on the floor and mind them without getting up”.

Now in her 60s, Susanne says medication has been a “great saviour”. “My kids have been so supportive too.”

Working through it

Dr Stanford says: “No one wants to feel like a patient in their own relationships. They want to feel like a person.” If you live with chronic pain, these tips from Drs Eddy and Stanford may help you and those in your social circle.

  • Understand your condition (if possible) – This includes learning how pain works and why persistent pain is more complex than short-lived pain.
  • Involve your partner – If you have a partner, ask them to attend at least one appointment with you so they can hear from your doctor and provide extra support.
  • See yourself as more than your pain – Pain conditions can take over your identity. It’s important to see yourself (and be seen) as an individual first.
  • Find a balance between support and independence – This means feeling useful and capable, but not overwhelmed. Talk to your loved ones about how to share tasks.
  • Get your healthcare team to communicate – Having everyone, from your GP to your physiotherapist, on the same page keeps stress down.
  • Expand your view of sex – Penetrative sex is one of many forms of intimacy. There’s foreplay, sex aids, massage and more. If you have pelvic pain, consider talking to your partner about each other’s intimacy goals and involving your healthcare team if needed.

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Last updated: 
15 January 2024
Last reviewed: 
15 April 2024