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How to Build a Deeper Intimacy

Reconnect with Your Partner and Enhance Your Sexual Connection

by David Bullard, PhD

Wellness image

Whether we voice them or not, most of us at times have questions about how we can deepen the intimacy and sexuality of our closest relationships. Cancer survivors also can find it challenging to voice their need for deeper intimacy and share their concerns and feelings about resuming a sexual relationship after cancer.

Regardless of whether you are in an existing relationship or hoping to start a new one, it can be difficult to talk about what helps you feel closer to your partner, what you enjoy sexually, and what you miss about your intimate relationship before cancer. However, despite the intimacy challenges that a cancer diagnosis presents, many cancer survivors find that intimacy and sexual fulfillment are still possible after can­cer, though this may look different than it did before cancer entered the picture.

For example, some survivors find greater satisfaction in emotional inti­macy after cancer than in sexual activity. Others learn to expand their ideas of what sex is and discover a greater appreciation for all the intimate activities they can participate in and enjoy. Still others find that discuss­ing their fears and sexual limitations with their partners can lead to deeper conversations that inspire greater inti­macy and increased sexual pleasure.

Re-establishing intimate touch may feel a little awkward at first.
This awkwardness is perfectly normal.

Author of Article photo

Dr. David Bullard

There are several things couples can do to deepen their intimacy and enhance their sexual connection after cancer.

♦ Respect each other’s feelings. When you focus the conversation on how your partner’s actions or words make you feel (rather than on criticizing them or trying to change their behavior), it becomes easier to understand and empathize with one other. Your relation­ship should be a safe place where each of you is able to express your feelings without judgement.

♦ Remember that you are a sexual being. Regardless of whether you are sexually active, sexuality is part of who you are as a human being. Your sexuality is not defined by what you do, how often you do it, or with whom.

♦ Prioritize intimacy. Studies reveal that most married couples in the U.S. do not make as much time for sexual intimacy as they would like. And when your already-busy life has been dis­rupted by cancer, it can be even more difficult to find the time for intimacy. That’s why you need to make intimacy with your partner a priority. Set aside some time each day to share your feel­ings with your partner, instead of the usual rundown of your to-do list. Even just 15 minutes of intimate conversation can make a difference.

♦ Embrace the awkwardness. Reestablishing intimate touch may feel a little awkward at first after the inter­ruption of cancer and its treatments. This awkwardness is perfectly normal. Instead of looking at it as a problem, embrace it. Remember to laugh, be patient with each other, and keep practicing intimacy. Eventually the awkwardness will subside.

♦ Get to the root of your relationship distress. If you feel irritation, annoy­ance, or frustration toward your partner, these feelings may actually be symptoms of deeper, more painful emotions. It’s important to get to the root of what is causing your annoyance or irritation. When you identify and acknowledge the pain, sadness, or fear beneath the surface, you will be better able to resolve the relationship distress that results from it.

♦ Take your partner’s feelings seriously, but not personally. When your partner is upset or frustrated, try not to react defensively. Instead, hear them out, acknowledge their feelings, and ask how you can help resolve the situation.

♦ Choose being kind over being right. When conflict occurs, accept your part of the responsibility rather than engag­ing in faultfinding.

♦ Hold on to love. Remember, sex can be part of love, but love is not sex. We are loved for who we are.

♦ Find simple ways to reconnect. In a relationship, it is important to feel safe, cared for, and deeply understood. During difficult or uncertain times, find simple ways to reconnect with your partner – a gentle touch on the shoulder, a caring smile, a hug, or comforting words.

♦ Ask for help if you need it. If you are struggling with intimacy or sexual difficulties after cancer, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. He or she can answer your questions, refer you to a specialist, and help you find solutions.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. David Bullard is a clinical professor of medicine and medical psychology (psychiatry) at the University of California, San Fran­cisco, where he consults with Spiritual Care Services, as well as the Symptom Management Service at the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2015.