10:36 08 April 2005
In the traditional wedding ceremony, we make all sorts of promises to our partners about how the relationship will work, often without really thinking through the consequences.
How do we manage relationships when one partner becomes seriously physically or mentally unwell? How do people with health or ability problems find and keep partners?
What about potential partners where there is an age or health gap that means one of you is thinking they may end up as the carer of the other one?
In modern western society, people are living to an increasingly older age. Thankfully, many of us stay relatively well, even into old age.
But the reality is that as we age, our physical health tends to worsen and this can put a burden on a relationship. What can we do to help manage potential strains?
For most people, one of the most difficult problems with having poor physical health is the perceived loss of dignity that goes with reduced independence. For them, measures to support independence are preferable to becoming dependent on their partner. If you or your partner is facing these issues, try to discuss honestly what each of you might find acceptable and unacceptable.
You may need to consider moving home into supported/semi-supported accommodation. Or you may choose to stay where you are but use the services of professional carers. You may be able to access such support through your GP or social services. Alternatively, if you can afford it, you could look into paying for private assistance in your home. There is no reason why you or your partner should become a full-time nurse, though you may well wish and/or need to offer care for some of the time and for some activities.
It is also worth thinking about how you really feel about your partner. If you are unhappy about the situation or resent looking after them, it suggests that the relationship is not really about love or even genuine friendship and respect. Or there may be unspoken issues that you need to address.
If you have an illness or disability, there may be all kinds of additional obstacles to your gaining or maintaining a satisfactory sexual relationship. These may include having difficulty getting out to meet people or believing that any potential partner should take on the role of looking after you. They may even include fighting your own and/or other people's prejudice that you don't have the same sexual needs and desires as other people.
But often one of the key issues is yours and other people's attitudes to sex itself. A good sexual relationship includes being able to discuss your own and the other person's needs and desires as well as being open to try new things to give satisfaction. This may include trying a range of positions and letting go of the importance of penetrative sex. There are many ways to reach sexual satisfaction that don't include penetration!
For people with illnesses or disabilities and their (potential) partners, there is a very useful organisation called The Outsiders who organise events and provide information and support. They can be contacted via their helpline on 0707 499 3527. They also have a whole range of useful information and leaflets available through their website at www.outsiders.org.uk. The website also includes a useful links section.
There are also several books that you may find helpful, including The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability by Miriam Kaufman et al.
There is also information for people with mental health problems and their carers at www.rethink.org.
And if you or your partner need a break from caring, ask your GP or social services about local carer support organisations and respite care.
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