When you hear the word “intimacy,” you may immediately think of sex. But the term actually has a much broader definition that includes emotional connections, bonding time and other aspects of the relationship. Having a healthy level of intimacy is important for any couple, but it may be especially key to couples dealing with cancer, given the critical role caregiver partners play in helping their loved ones through their journey. That often means strengthening bonds, communication and other areas of intimacy, especially when sexual relations become more difficult as a result of cancer treatment. “When people are blind, their senses of hearing and smell become stronger to make up for that loss,” says Traci Owen, Care Manager of Survivorship at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® at Southwestern Regional Medical Center. “I see the same for intimacy. If one of the areas is being hit for whatever reason, the other areas need to step up and be stronger.”
When sexual relationships become strained during cancer treatment, many people shut down with their partners. Instead, Owen says, flex your intimacy muscles and strengthen other elements of the relationship. “If we’re not in a place in our lives where sex can be a part of our world, how can we maintain a healthy, strong relationship without it?” she says. She suggests focusing on the four other areas of intimacy, which she describes as emotional, intellectual, experiential and spiritual.
The emotional connection you have with your partner—the proverbial glue that holds a relationship together—helps you weather life’s ups and downs. Owen says it may be the most important area of intimacy. In fact, if you don’t have a strong emotional bond with your partner, it may be hard to foster a physical connection. The connection isn’t built overnight, though. It often takes work. “You have to provide an atmosphere within your relationship to establish that link,” Owen says. “You have to feel respected, worthy and trusted. And you have to give your partner that respect, worth and trust, as well.”
Just because you’re in a relationship with someone, it doesn’t mean you always agree on everything. Or even on most things. What matters is whether you feel comfortable sharing with your partner your thoughts, ideas, desires and goals in a way that makes you feel heard and respected—and whether you make him or her feel the same way.
Put simply, experiential intimacy is melding “my” life story into “our” life story. It’s the sharing of life’s events and activities together. That doesn’t mean you have to enjoy everything your partner enjoys—he, or she, may love motorcycle riding; you may not—but it does mean you make allowances from time to time to share in something that brings him or her pleasure. So maybe you take the occasional spin on the Harley, and he or she does something you like in return.
If you have a strong sense of faith, praying, reading daily devotions and attending services together may all strengthen your bond with your partner. “It’s really hard to hold a grudge against your mate when you practice spirituality together,” Owen says. “If all the other areas of intimacy are in trouble but a couple has a great spiritual bond, I believe there’s a great opportunity there.”
It’s also important to note that even if sexual intimacy is off the table, non-sexual touch is not. “Couples can have a healthy, thriving marriage without sex, but they still need to be able to touch their mates and feel physically connected,” Owen says. Holding hands and cuddling are good examples. Also, make sure you ask for professional help if you need it. “There is help out there if you’re having a specific issue related to your cancer treatment, whether it’s physical or emotional,” she says. “Patients typically tolerate treatment better and have better outcomes when they’re more emotionally engaged and secure.”