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Dear Mary: My boyfriend is avoiding sex due to my chronic illness

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Illustration: Tom Halliday

Illustration: Tom Halliday

Illustration: Tom Halliday

I'm a woman in my late 20s and have been with my partner for over three years.

We are absolute soulmates, best friends, and I couldn't imagine my life without him. When we met I was a virgin. He was so wonderful about this and made my first sexual experiences amazing. We would spend hours in bed together. 

We found out what we both liked and didn't like. This went on for the first six months but slowly dwindled to the point were we now haven't had sex for a year.

At the beginning I blamed myself as I'm not confident in my appearance, but he often tells me he finds me gorgeous. I've broached the subject a few times and got the general stress/time excuses. I let myself believe this as he is pretty obsessive about his work. However, last week I got fed up and wanted a real answer. He told me he finds it hard to think of me in a sexual way as I'm ill. I have a chronic illness that causes pain and fatigue. I will always have this. It doesn't effect my ability to have sex though, and he knew about it within the first month of us going out. I look perfectly fine and work and socialise as much as I can, but he says the constant doctor's appointments and the pain and tiredness I feel really stresses and worries him.

I was quite upset as this is something I can't change. I feel fairly broken at the best of times and it hurts to find out he does too. I try not to over talk about my illness, but I can't help the amount of sleep I need, or the odd wince.

Now I don't know what to do. I love him so much. We never fight, are always laughing and are still quite touchy-feely day-to-day with each other. I've tried everything the past year or so, weekends away, different clothes, date nights. I'm tired of trying and being rejected, it hurts. Am I doomed to have a sexless life? Is this the payoff for having a kind, sensitive partner? He says he just needs to get his head back around to seeing me in a sexual way. I have my doubts though. It makes me sad as we both deserve someone we find sexual and a good sex life too.

Please help.

Mary replies: I'm glad that your partner eventually owned up to what he was feeling because now that you know the true situation you can do something about it. You had tried various things to try to get him interested and you had the right idea with weekends away and different clothes. It is unfortunate that he has allowed it to fester for so long, but now you know that he finds it hard to think of you as a sexual person because of your chronic illness. This has taken away a lot of your hard-earned confidence, and that is sad. Your self-image took a big knock and you are now left trying to build it up again.

It sounds like you had a wonderful time getting to know each other sexually when you began the relationship. You had the illness at that time and he didn't have any problems seeing you as a fully sexual partner. So what changed for him? You haven't changed who you are. You are still the same person he met and fell in love with, and you will have to keep telling yourself that. What has changed is his perception of you. So how do you get him to once more see you through sexual eyes? You are entitled to a sexual life, as is he, and he is the one who is not feeling like it. A word of warning - you are putting up with things as they are right now, but there will come a time when you will feel extremely resentful of your boyfriend for your lack of sex. You will have to raise the subject once more, even though you may not want to, and tell him that you feel very rejected.

I think that sex therapy would be ideal for you. A prerequisite for any couple going into sex therapy is that they have a good relationship, and that is certainly the case with you.

In therapy, having taken a full history from you both, the therapist will give you feedback as to what they think is causing the problem, and then put you into a series of exercises. The couple undertakes to do the exercises a few times a week at home where, initially, they give and receive massage. At the beginning all sexual areas are out of bounds and then gradually introduced.

It seems to me that this programme would be ideal for you and your boyfriend. The exercises should help regain the intimacy you once had. To find a therapist go to cosrt.org.uk and under Find a Therapist there is a drop down menu under country listing Ireland.

If your boyfriend is not prepared to do this then you will have to question as to whether a life without sex is a deal-breaker for you, because I don't think this will be solved without help.

Sunday Indo Living