Having rheumatoid arthritis is not good for ones sex life: Single or in a relationship, sex and RA are not a good mix. It’s too bad, because the sex act causes the release of endorphins, our natural painkillers, and improves pain tolerance. Regular sex is good for lots of things: self-confidence, your immune system, your skin, and your waistline (it burns calories the way aerobic exercise does.)
So why aren’t people with RA having more sex?
Like many things RA, the answer isn’t a simple one. There are the obvious answers, chronic pain lowers the libido, increases fatigue, can wreak havoc with self-confidence, and these things seem fixable enough (try having sex during times of the day when you have more energy and less pain.) The reality is much more complicated. First, you have to find a partner that you feel comfortable enough with to communicate openly with about sex and the difficulties you experience with it. If you were diagnosed with RA after you entered a committed relationship you now have to find new ways to connect sexually. This is easier said than done, so much so that many people shut down, avoid dating, or suck it up and have painful sex in order not to hurt their partners’ feelings. Believe me, I know-It took me 45 years to find a partner I was comfortable enough with to enjoy a healthy sex life and I made sure I married him!
Establishing a comfort-level with your partner
When I met Todd my JRA was very active, and very obvious. This actually was a good thing because I couldn’t revert to my well-used MO- spending all my energy when I was with my boyfriend and using my time alone to recover. I couldn’t suck it up and pretend I was enjoying uncomfortable positions during sex; if we were having sex when I was tired I would just fall asleep, and I certainly wasn’t feeling very sexy. Todd is a very observant man, this is one of the things I admire most about him, and from the beginning of our relationship, we vowed that complete honesty was the only way to be together. Telling Todd something didn’t hurt when it did felt utterly wrong, especially since I knew that he could see right through my lie. Todd tells me daily how much he loves my looks, and regularly calls me sexy. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard that from previous boyfriends.
So, my comfort level with Todd is on a whole other level, which for me is exactly what I need to be able to speak up about my needs sexually. I feel very lucky to have found Todd and grateful for the sex life we enjoy. It seems natural with Todd to tell him I need to cuddle, or that being on top just isn’t something I can do, because I know he will react with compassion, not frustration. He’s never made me feel less than, and in turn, he has enabled me to awaken something I always knew was inside, a sexual being. Now that I’ve owned this part of myself, I feel emboldened to tell Todd how sexy I think he is, and we often banter about sex, even when we both know that sex isn’t on the table that day because of my pain or fatigue level. Because he makes me feel so worthy, and wanted, I make a point of doing this for him. It’s also something we talk about; we both know that this relationship is special and something neither of us has experienced before, so we make sure not to take each other for granted.
It hasn’t always been this way. I’ve had many, many, first dates that never went further after my date saw the way I look, and move. I’ve had a boyfriend stop having sex with me and leave the room with an irritated grunt after I told him I was hurting. I’ve spent years of my life avoiding dating altogether because I was too ashamed of how I looked and afraid of how I would be treated by men. I’ve had sex in pain without speaking up too many times to count- in fact, I used to lie to myself by telling myself that all the endorphins I was releasing would counteract the pain (but failed to acknowledge that on those nights it took me hours to get to sleep because of lingering pain.) For most of my life the idea of sex, and being sexy, made me feel completely unworthy. I used to lie in bed at night wondering if I’d be alone my entire life, and feeling so, so sad. Luckily, my fate held something different, and I did have something to do with it because I never stopped trying to find my partner.
Are you comfortable talking with your partner about sex?
I’ll never forget two things I heard that have helped me with my sex life over the years. One was uttered by a co-worker when I was working at a hospital in California. He was the epitome of the California surfer cool; many mornings he surfed before work. He was talking to another co-worker and joked, “Sex is the best; it’s fun, free, and good for you.” It was a random comment said in jest but it hit home because at the time sex was so loaded for me- it wasn’t fun, it was scary. His comment helped me to gauge my partners from then on- if I wasn’t having any fun then what was I doing? If I was worried about what the other person was thinking about my looks or performance I had to do something about it. I began to be a bit more open and paid attention to how my partner responded. The bottom line is; if you aren’t comfortable enough to talk about sex with your partner, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
Feeling attractive, not only your partner, but more importantly, for yourself!
The second comment was made by my friend Mark. He was talking about a relationship he admired. He said his friend, a woman who had been married for awhile, still made an effort to look attractive for her husband. Instead of getting married and bringing out the old sweats, she would take time to wear things he liked on her when they would go out, consciously making an effort every day to dress nicely for her spouse. This made me think, and although I can’t say the old sweats aren’t a regular clothing item for me, I do think of her when Todd and I go out for a meal, putting forth an effort to look attractive to my husband. Not only does this make him feel special and wanted, it makes me feel more attractive as well.
Be patient with the process
If I could go back in time and give my single-self advice I would say: be patient with the process, pay close attention to how your potential partner makes you feel about yourself and the RA, and don’t apologize in any way for the difficulties that RA brings into the bedroom. As a married woman, I remind myself that I’m not the only one in the relationship who may be feeling confused about how to approach sex; I’m not the only one who needs to feel sexy and wanted. I remind myself that even when I’m too tired or in too much pain to have sex, I can still tell Todd how attractive he is to me, and I can still touch him in a loving way.
There are numerous ways you can make sex more comfortable- using pillows, taking a bath or shower beforehand, trying different positions, or changing positions when one gets uncomfortable. The key is to relax, have fun, pay attention to how your body responds to sex, and to have the confidence to talk about it with your mate.
RA makes a person stronger in so many ways. Having the strength to talk about sex, the confidence to value yourself and your needs enough to create what you and your partner need to feel satisfied, and the patience to wait for the person who will fit into your life, warts and all, will make you stronger and more content in your sexuality than you ever were before.