How to Build Intimacy When You Can't Have Sex
Sex is an important part of a relationship for many people. Most movies and TV shows might even have you convinced it's the most important part of a relationship.
Couples are constantly sold the line, "If they don't get it from you, they'll get it from somewhere else." Marriage has long been portrayed as a sex killer, with TV couples in their 40s pretty much waiting for their partner to cheat because they're not getting it at home.
I don't disagree that sex is great and a functional way to deepen a relational bond. But the perspective that sex is the only way to measure a relationship's health is wrong for many reasons, one being its ableist perspective. Sex isn't always an option for people with disabilities, myself included.
Personally, I love sex. I've been married for four and a half years, and I'd say my husband and I both have average sex drives. But we have gone long periods of time without sex—like, months—not because we wanted to abstain, but because physically I couldn't have sex. I have a form of arthritis called degenerative disc disease, which leads to severe chronic pain and multiple herniations. My pain flare-ups sometimes last for weeks or even months.
Despite these "dry spells," my husband and I have a fulfilling, intimate relationship. There are a few different ways we've managed to build a deep, close bond during times when sex isn't on the table.
We've learned to build intimacy over the years with deliberate eye contact, which is extremely important in our relationship because it keeps us connected and invested in each other.
I've found that when I'm in pain, I want to withdraw and be alone. Deliberately making eye contact with my partner has forced me to confront my tendencies and let him in, even when I don't feel like it. Studies indicate that eye contact gives the implication of closeness and attention between two people, and can even strengthen the probability of a future bond. I've found this to be true.
We've also learned to build intimacy through massage and physical touch in general. This aspect is a bit tricky. Touch is sometimes really painful for me, and if my man even thinks about touching me in any way, I'll destroy him.
But when that's not the case, touch has been a really great way for us to connect. Sometimes it's through massage, which can also help alleviate my pain (an added bonus), sometimes it's hand-holding and sometimes it's even kissing. Of course, this can lead to sexual touching if my pain allows, which kind of makes up for not being able to actually have sex since we're both still receiving pleasure.
We've found ways to make touch intentional, too. Massage oils, candles and music playlists really help set a mood that feels intimate and pleasurable even if there's no "happy ending." Taking the time to physically connect with each other in new ways is exciting and fun, and on the days when I need some physical alleviation for my pain, it lets my partner shoulder my pain with me.
Acts of service
Another method in which we've built intimacy is through acts of service related to my disability. As I said, I tend to withdraw in my pain, but that's because it can be embarrassing to need help, a side effect of my pride. Acts of service have really helped me learn to accept help, demystify my disability and give my husband a chance to be part of my pain.
When he does something for me I can't do for myself, such as helping me in and out of the shower, doing my laundry for me or bringing me food when I'm bedridden, it helps me feel taken care of and loved. Sometimes, the service can be related to my disability, such as driving me to my appointments, applying pain patches for me and helping me do my stretches.
These acts chip away at my wall of pride and strengthen our relationship. I always feel safe and know if I need something, it'll be handled. On top of that, it's plain helpful, and what's sexier than a partner who does things for you?
Involving my partner in my bad days has helped build an intense trust between us and provided a chance to learn to appreciate each other in new ways.
Terrific Lady Day
A more fun way we've built intimacy over the past few years is through something called "Terrific Lady Day." This is an idea we totally stole from the TV series "The League" and expanded into our own tradition. Once every few weeks, one of us plans a surprise day for the other, catered to their interests and likes, and the best part is it always involves a gift. It might seem like a glorified date night, but for us, it's much more. Terrific Lady Day (or "Terrific Scott Day" when it's my husband's day) has been an incredible exercise in listening and showing that we know each other well, and it helps each of us feel seen and valued. We make sure each day is something new, and we're intentional about planning something that means a lot to the other person.
The day doesn't have to cost a lot of money. For example, I planned my husband's day as a visit to Little Tokyo for ramen, his favorite food, and he planned a surprise picnic at the beach for me with my favorite food. The whole day is tailored to making the other partner feel special, and when we nail it, it really deepens our bond and reminds us we're paying attention.
Whenever you can
Honestly, we also build intimacy by having sex whenever we can. My condition fluctuates a lot, and I have no idea how I'll feel from one day to the next or how long my flares will last. This means on days I feel good, we try to make sure we have sex. We're intentional about making sure sexual needs are met for both of us when we have the chance, which makes the times we can't have sex feel like less of a big deal.
Managing a relationship when you have a disability is hard for a lot of reasons, but it isn't impossible. I've learned the key for me is being honest about my needs and intentional about every aspect of life. While it is definitely a bummer that my disability affects my sex life, it hasn't stopped me from having the best relationship of my life. Sex is great, but intimacy is much more than that. Having built a deep and intimate bond in all the ways above means when we do have sex, it's even better. What a win-win.