What Happens to Sex When Your Partner is Ill?

By Kendra Holliday | November 11, 2020

Ivanyi, Lovers, 1909

Ivanyi, Lovers, 1909

In the past three weeks, I’ve had three men approach me for a consultation about a problem they’ve been dealing with for longer than I can fathom: their wife is chronically ill, and they haven’t had sex in years. They’ve cared for her, support and love her, would never leave her, but they are frustrated. Drained.ย  They aren’t getting their needs met. They feel guilty. When I ask if they feel resentful, they immediately say no, but…

What should they do?

What would YOU do?

Are you partnered with someone who is ill?

Are you ill and partnered?

Are you getting your physical and emotional needs met?

Is your partner getting their physical and emotional needs met?

Are you monogamous or polyamorous?

How do you cope?

When I put the word out about this topic, I immediately got responses from both sides. It’s a delicate subject, but it’s clear that it needs to be addressed openly and honestly.

One man said:

“What do you consider illness or dysfunction? It’s been almost a year since my wife and I had intercourse, and the 2 years prior was less than 6 times.”

Another man shared:

“My wife and I have been together for seven years. I have been relatively healthy but my wife has had a host of life long issues with asthma and several sinus surgeries. After the last surgery about a year ago, she started to experience panic attacks. This has resulted in several hospital visits throughout the year.

So in terms of how my sex life is going, it’s been almost nil. Between the stress of that and me being laid offย  last year, sex has sucked. When we could have sex it was awesome, but it was few and far between. Considering all that’s happening, sex is the last thing on her mind. I don’t want to pressure her, but at the same time I have needs as well. We flirt with each other, but sex is something that has been put to the side.

As far as what I do to keep sane, well I masturbate a lot lol. I want to be supportive, but it makes for a difficult time sexwise.”

I asked the men if they could have an open and honest conversation with their wives to discuss options, and they couldn’t imagine putting further stress or complications on the situation.ย  Their wives were already vulnerable, and didn’t need any trigger to make them feel further compromised.

So is it better to have these conversations before someone gets sick? Have an agreement in place?

After all, you won’t always be in sync. One of you will go through menopause, be in a car accident, get cancer or another chronic illness. Just like having a will in place, is it wise to consider the countless steps that come before death? The time when one of you is more fully functioning than the other?

Here is Liza, a sex blogger who deals with chronic pain:

Every so often we would “try again” to bring sexual intimacy back into our lives. It was almost always very awkward, and filled with “you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to” sorts of statements. Well, I didn’t want to have sex. I didn’t want to be naked in bed. I didn’t want to do any of it. But I would try.

One night we got beyond the laying in bed naked together bit and actually proceeded to the sex bit. Chronic pain was a big limiter for me, and I was having it that night. And he takes a long time to come. And he wouldn’t come and I was in misery and overall it just sucked. I shut it down.

We tried to talk about it, but I was so upset all I could do was sob. I was upset that I’d done more than I wanted to, that I was in pain, and it felt like no matter what I did I wasn’t going to be able to satisfy him. Despite saying over and over that I didn’t have to worry about not getting him off, I felt like a complete failure. I hate failing, so why would I continue to put myself in situations where I couldn’t succeed?

I think that was the last time we attempted fucking until a good 5-6 years later.

Her sexual journey is fascinating – you can read about it here.

There are several Well Spouse Associations, which are support networks for spousal caregivers.

But what would you think of a “dating” website for healthy partners caring for their ill loved ones? That way they could find someone in the same boat who could fulfill a need, but there would be a built-in understanding that they are committed to their partners and have no desire to leave them. Still, they do have desires. If the well partner finds a way to get their needs met, won’t they be stronger, more patient and supportive to their ill partner? Is that concept too taboo?

Would surrogate partners in the form of sex workers be a better option? That’s what a lot of men are doing, in secret. Is it better to keep such matters secret?

I’d love to hear from anyone who is dealing with this issue from any angle. How are we as a society dealing with this issue? What are our options? What sort of things can we do to make it better for all parties involved? How can you share intimacy with your loved one when regular intercourse is off the menu?



kira eros 2013-01-15 08:00:52

I love this article. I had a three level spinal fusion at age 24. I went from wheelchair, to walker, to fore arm crutches. I had to learn how to have sex again. I’m 26 now and still have problems but have an amazing husband who works with me to make sure I’m satisfied. We find that being swingers is wonderful. It allows our fetishes to still be fullfilled. He can still experience that more flexible girl with the ability to do all sorts of positions for extended periods and I can help a man tap into his more gentle nurturing side to help me meet my needs.


Liza 2013-01-15 08:10:52

Kendra, thanks for including me in this post. I’d like to tell your readers that it is possible to overcome having a negative attitude toward sex when you’re ill or in pain. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is possible. And it’s possible to find yourself in a stronger, more open, more honest relationship, too. We’ve learned to negotiate and make sex fit our abilities rather than go without.

Thank you for bringing a spotlight to this issue!


    Kendra Holliday 2013-01-15 08:14:02

    Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with the world! No doubt your story helps and inspires others.


    Pete 2020-11-12 10:32:25

    Liza, I’m interested in your blog, but I get a “permission denied” message. It says to contact the blog owner, but no email address is provided.


J C 2013-01-15 17:23:19

Once again, great information on a sensitive subject.


Dan 2013-01-16 07:06:17

Yes, this is the topic of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Me? Monogamous and 65, I’m on hormone therapy for Hypogonadism, which 60% of post 65 guys have this. My wife, I feel, has low libido this last year and fears hormone therapy for her means cancer and death. I want her to want to get checked out by an Endocrinologists. For me as a guy it’s simple: I’d rather be dead all at once than be dead on the installment plan sexually. However I’m tempted to stop my Testosterone cream and Estrogen blocker pills (costs me $113 mo.), even though it has taken a year and a thousand dollars of doc visits to dial in what has me now “low normal” (T score: 330) but her…two laps behind in the desire dept. This is drawing all the life of what was an exciting marriage of 7yrs. Now I feel much is dull and, well, half dead. We get nasty once a month rather than twice a week, my needs here. Desire seems gone for her and I’m tempted to grow tits, shave my head and join a nunnery where I can at least look. Ironically, before we got married I included a request in my Advance Directive for Health Care that if I develop a disability or dementia, that she take a lover…and not tell our priest. Thanks Kendra for making us think about this. But, for me, I’m tired of thinking about this.


LittleBumblebee 2013-01-26 13:14:39

I think this is not only a really good article for people who are ill but also those who find themselves in a relationship with someone who is asexual and maybe coming to terms with it late in life. While not an illness, asexuality brings its own set of roadblocks to deal with. Some asexuals are okay with having sex, some are not. Some just don’t have the same sort of drive to even want to have sex, while some have libidos that are skyrocketing off the charts. I am young still and since coming out as Ace, I’ve always been very open with my partners about being okay with a third person (either in a polyamorous relationship or as an open relationship). But so frequently I find that there are people realizing that they’re asexual that have been in relationships and perhaps struggling with these exact same issues. One partner is growing frustrated at the lack of sexual activity while the other finds themselves unsure what to say or do because they’re simply not interested right now (or may not really be interested ever). It has nothing to do with a lack of romantic interest in someone but, as you pointed out, just growing older can also change your libido and interest in sex. Illnesses – including mental ones like depression – are just as much of a factor.

I guess what I’m saying is that this discussion really strikes me as multifaceted in its application to other areas of the sexual spectrum! I’ve already shared it with a number of people and received some great feedback on what you’ve written.

(I also have fallen in love with your blog and have it bookmarked!)


Mandy 2013-03-31 21:22:28

I would support my husband if he wished to go elsewhere and I was sick. I have offered it in the past, when I was basically asexual for a while during a depression, but he didn’t want to.
He also takes a while to come, so if I’m having any chronic pain- i get hip pain- its not always good.. But I feel so bad for him I pretend I’m fine and make sure he gets some when it’s been a while.
He doesn’t like me to do it ‘just for him’ though. Bless him.. But he’s got needs.
I’ve been on the other side and desperately wanting a good fuck can be pretty awful, in my opinion.
Luckily my mental and physical health is much better now, and we have found ways to have quickies as needed as well ๐Ÿ™‚
The other thing I’ve found, is sex responds well, for me, to a ‘fake it til you make it’ strategy.
The more I do it the more I want it- and my darling is very giving in bed, so it makes me hungrier for him ๐Ÿ™‚
We’ve managed to work though a bout of depression each, my physical problems and our hugely differing body clocks.. And we’re still here ๐Ÿ™‚ rock ok!


John 2019-11-02 08:43:53

Thanks for the post, it hits a nerve. My wife had a TBI in an accident 2 decades ago. Probably only 5 sexual encounters in 20 years, I don’t remember the last. Huge part of my life is missing and I constantly ache for some sexual intimacy. Talking about it is useless. Last comments from her regarding sex were: “I never wanted to have sex with you.” I feel unloved, unappreciated and rejected. Sometimes life sucks.


Daniel 2019-11-03 11:31:56

We have two definitions of the word “commitment” in relationships. One is “doing the needed work to sustain the relationship” and the other is “being sexually monogamous”. And because they’re the same word, we confuse the two issues. But they’re really very different!

Being caring and supportive when your spouse is sick is an amazing and touching commitment (the first kind). I wish people would realize that the 2nd kind of commitment isn’t necessary (for everyone) in order to have the first kind.


Alan 2019-11-03 15:59:46

Marvelous article and interesting commentary. Thank you all for sharing your stories.


May More 2020-11-16 08:15:44

When I was 18 my Uncle died and I learned that my Aunt had been in a sexless relationship with my uncle for all their married life. It seemed weird as I spent a lot of time round them and their house radiated love. It was a joint decision after both suffering abuse as children. They were best of friends. I don’t know if they occasionally found sexual relief else where.
What I didn’t expect was to find myself in my late 30’s also in a sexless relationship. A differing of sex drives and sexual likes. I loved kinky sex – he didnt need much sex at all. However when i found someone who I could get the physical intimacy from, my partner was outraged. We split.
This is a complicated issue for sure and you have done a great job bringing it out into the open.
May More


Mike 2020-11-24 21:34:11

Great article and very interesting comments. I relate to much of it. Hard to even talk about. Thanks to all for the information.


Laura 2020-12-02 23:53:34

Just found this website from Molly’s Daily Kiss list today, so sorry for being late to the discussion. I’m certainly glad to see this topic.
I’m now the widow of my second husband, he’d been married once before as well. Seven years into our 22 years of marriage his libido basically died. Testosterone patches and the ‘magic’ blue pill did nothing. Couples therapy led to being seen by a certified sex therapist, and I was told I had three options; 1) continue to live without sex 2) divorce 3) find a lover. I did *not* want either of the first two options because I deeply loved the man, and enjoy sex way too much to go without. Do I wish I could have been open & honest with him about choosing option 3? Of course I do, but I also knew it would mentally crush him and he was too dear to me to consider it. Soo, a few more years go by and after much deep soul reflection I finally reached out and begin the search for a long term intimate partner. It took a year and a half to find the right prospect, but TB has now been in my life for 13 years. His own life situation is complicated; he’s not married but doesn’t want a live-in type relationship.
As my husband’s health declined, we were in home based hospice for 18 months, having TB as one of my support people was a huge factor in my being able to remain calm and loving toward my husband. No bitterness or resentment over a sexless marriage, no blame for sexual frustration. My husband’s been gone now just over 3 years and TB and I still see each other about once a month. I honestly think my husband would have enjoyed knowing TB in real life, and somehow deep down would have approved of my choice of TB had he been able to withstand the shock of my choosing option #3. My hope is that couples can/will work through this sticky situation with true, loving concern for everyone, but is is fraught with difficulties. Honesty with oneself is paramount, and I do not envy anyone having to grapple with situation. One particular hard part is not being able to openly talk about this topic with other people for fear of judgement. Perhaps this space can provide a bit of a sounding board.


    Kendra Holliday 2020-12-03 09:18:16

    Laura, thank you so much for this incredibly thoughtful, measured sharing of your experience. I hope many people read it and find comfort. I’m glad you got to be there for your husband, and that TB has been such an integral part of the process. An act of love.


      Mike 2020-12-04 15:55:12

      Good for you Laura. I can relate that your situation whould be difficult and your choice was actually very calculated and thoughtful. I commend you for how you handled it and thank you for the information. Great food for thought.


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