Who knew that my first serious long-term adult relationship would be after my spinal cord injury? I certainly did not! I was always the type of girl to have 1 foot in a relationship and 1 foot out in my 20’s. When I would break up with the guy I would usually move cities or countries. Truth be told after my accident I figured I had my shot at relationships and I would likely be single the rest of my life, which I was surprisingly okay with for many years. When I first started dating in a wheelchair I had an array of gentleman callers in order to explore my sexuality years after my accident. I’ve written about my dating adventures in multiple blogs, but I’ve never really touched on the subject of how my current boyfriend and I have grown to fall deeply, and madly in love.
It was not until this past year that I really started to understand what emotional intimacy meant and how one really has to work at it keep a relationship alive. In my opinion, emotional intimacy is the glue which holds a long-term relationship together. Even if you have a super strong connection initially, the more time you spend with someone and the better you get to know them, the deeper your connection can become — and emotional intimacy in a long-term relationship is so much different than emotional intimacy in a brand-new relationship.
In new relationships we can reflectively listen, spend quality time with our partner without distraction, and make thoughtful gestures to build closeness.
At the time I didn’t realize what this meant, but approaching relationships from a slightly different angle with spinal cord injury has made me appreciate what this means. When I first started dating my boyfriend I spent the first year actively keeping him out of every aspect of my spinal cord injured life with respect to caregiving. I wanted to take the time to get to know him as a person, and, more importantly, I truly believed that keeping the “paralyzed” part of our relationship was the best way for us to grow. Looking back, I am happy with the results, but I probably could’ve shared all of me sooner as opposed to just part of me.
You see when we first started dating I wanted to make sure that he didn’t feel overwhelmed by my spinal cord injury and everything that came with it. Honestly, when I think of spinal cord injury I get overwhelmed and I am the one who is injured! There are so many things to look out for on a daily basis with respect to bowel issues, bladder care, dressing, pressure sores, infections, etc. The list is endless and when I started becoming truly intimate with another person I wanted them to really get to know me as a person, and not just the injury. This is pretty silly because a big part of me is my injury, and while it is not my personality, dealing with it ins and outs of daily life with respect to my care cannot be ignored.
Regardless, I chose to keep half of me locked away for the better part of the year in order to let our sexual relationship flourish in addition to just having fun. I spent so many years in misery with a myriad of medical nightmares that I just wanted to leave that part of me locked away for a time. My boyfriend was beyond understanding and while I think he wanted to get to know all of me more quickly I was quite reserved with respect to my care. Ultimately, I think I made the right choice, but I was convinced that I would be able to spend the rest of my life with a man, and not have him involved with my care. I was so wrong on so many levels.
The longer two people spend together, the longer they have to explore each other’s inner worlds. With time we can become highly attuned with one another be able to understand our partner’s motivations instead of misinterpreting their actions. Communication can become clear and hopefully with time we feel safer to share vulnerable parts of ourselves.
About a year into our relationship my boyfriend gently communicated to me that he needed more. He wanted to know all of me and I realized that the time had come to share what I consider the most terrifying part of a relationship – combining intimacy and care giving.
It took many months, but I slowly taught him how I got dressed, how I showered, how I washed my hair, how I went to the bathroom, how I changed my catheter, etc. I truly believed that that showing another man these aspects of my life would diminish our sexual relationship on many levels. Again, I was wrong in magnanimous ways. Not only did he handle all aspects of my spinal cord injury care with such tenderness, but we actually grew closer together. I’m not quite sure how this happened, but perhaps it is because I decided to let another person truly into my life other than my family.
While we learned to better communicate with one another we still have moments when we want to kill each other. However, it is in those moments if you still feel that you want to spend your life with someone even when they drive you bananas you have truly found something special!
Not only did we build a stronger relationship based on trust, communication, and compromise, but we are now able to finally take trips on our own without the help of family or caregivers. This propelled our relationship to new heights, and, for the first time in my life, this helped me understand what emotional intimacy really meant. Sexual intimacy has always been very easy for me as I never really placed much weight on sex itself. Sex has always been just an act for me, but emotional commitment seemed incredibly daunting throughout my life. I didn’t realize until recently that I had never really trusted another man before my current boyfriend. When you learn to trust someone you start to see love through a different prism. With respect to spinal cord injury, he has been the only other person in my life, other than my immediate family, who I trust 100% with making sure that I do not get injured and I am cared for. It’s hard to say, but I would probably trade walking again in my life in order to have what I have now.
“Adventures in Mexico together!”
OUR RELATIONSHIP TECHNIQUES
- Physical Intimacy
In my humble opinion I think the defining line between friendship and a relationship is physical intimacy. Whether you define physical intimacy as sex, oral sex, snuggling, kissing, etc. is up to you, but there needs to be some sort of connection that you do not feel with other people. The physical connection in whatever form it takes causes the brain to release oxytocin to feel good, which through neurotransmitters impacts emotional responses and promotes relaxation, trust, and psychological stability. Emotional and physical intimacy may not be one and the same, but there’s a lot of overlap between the two – and couples with a strong sense of shared physical intimacy, in my opinion, are likely to also be attuned to each other emotionally.
How do we keep up our physical intimacy in order to promote our emotional intimacy?
My boyfriend and I share an extremely strong physical connection with one another. With that said, over time, and anyone who is or has been in a long-term relationship can tell you, the physical act of sex has a tendency of dwindling as the years roll on. I think this is perfectly natural, but in order not to lose the emotional intimacy you feel towards one another the physical intimacy needs to be tended to, just like a garden.
I love spontaneous unplanned sex just like the next person, and while we still make this happen on a semi-regular basis, but as you get older & life gets in the way this is not always particularly feasible. So, just as you have to make a plan every week to keep going to the gym to stay in shape – you also have to plan for sex.
PLANNED SEX NIGHTS
This may not seem very sexy and lacks complete spontaneity, but planning certain nights for sex, in my opinion, still can be very sexy & arousing. We plan to have sex at least 3 times a week at minimum, and more if we have time. We are both super busy as many of us are when we get older, but taking a few hours a week to really focus on one another is an absolute essential part of our relationship. Sex, for us, is not just about the physical act, but rather a time to giggle, laugh, act like children, roll around naked, and be extremely present with just the two of us.
With my spinal cord injury planned sex nights are not very challenging for me because I have to plan most of my day on a regular basis. With respect to sex itself I have to rely on my man to have the energy and strength to throw me around 😉 Once you get in the mood this never seems to be a problem – I think for anybody!
What about when two people are just exhausted on a regular basis?
Many of us come home from work, the gym, life, etc. and are just flat out exhausted. We just want to be left alone, watch a TV show, read, etc. or just zone out. While this may be a great coping strategy for yourself, I don’t think it is a great strategy for the long-term health of a relationship. I think you really need to make a plan for sex or intimate time together for the sake of your relationship.
Specifically with spinal cord injury, I am usually in bed pretty early during the week after a long workday, exercise program, and other things I have to tend to. Sometimes it makes things challenging because I want to be up in my chair when my baby comes home from work around 6:30 at night, but the nerve pain in my body is usually higher than I would like, so I have to make allowances. The biggest factor in my life is the ramping up nerve pain at the end of the day. This does not necessarily put me in the mood to have sex and conversely my love is also exhausted from his long days. So, as mechanical as this may sound I think two people have to sometimes “force” themselves to have that intimate time together. I cannot think of many people that would say once they are aroused they are too tired to keep going, but it is the act of putting each other in an aroused mood that can take much effort just as saying “No” to donuts when you are trying to watch your weight.
Some years ago, an Australian sex therapist and dating coach, Bettina Arndt, controversially wrote that women (I also think men) who felt low sexual desire in the relationships should “just do it.” What she meant was this – even if women (or men) felt low libido, having sex anyway might encourage feelings of desire and sexual responsiveness. Despite the controversy, her idea had finally been supported by a scientific study, which basically found the same thing to be true in 2015. The study was published in Social Psychology and Personality Science, and it showed that when the partner who feels low sexual desire indulges in their partner’s sexual needs regardless, they strengthen the relationship.
Sex doesn’t always have to be desired to have the desired effect of intimacy. I couldn’t agree more!
So, regardless of your circumstance – if you are having a dry spell in your sexual relationship … Take a page out of Nike’s playbook and “Just Do It!”
- Alone Time
In my particular situation it can be challenging to find alone time with my man being a C6 quadriplegic paralyzed from the chest down and always having caregivers, and my mom constantly around. So, we have to actively work at finding time to spend together. When he gets home from work at 6:30 PM or so every night we usually close the door and have “us” time until we go to bed a few hours later. This is a time where we can catch up on our day, read to each other, watch a show together, have sex, giggle together, etc.
Do not get me wrong – there are some nights when he comes home and we’re both just truly exhausted, and we just lie next to one another so we can “zone” out. While we may not be entirely present and speaking to each other we are still physically in the same room lying next to one other. When he comes home from work I’m always in bed during the week nights to relax from the pain I feel, so if he wants to hang out with me he has to come to bed! I realize that many couples can go to different rooms and do their own things, but in one regard spinal cord injury brings us closer on weeknights!
- Date Nights
I am sure if we had children this point would not be as applicable, but since we don’t, we make sure that every Saturday afternoon we go out to do something fun whether that is meeting up with friends or having a private date night together. I always make sure to look up random and spontaneous adventures within the city that will create fond memories, we can laugh about in months or years to come.
This may sound easy, but sometimes I really have to search for random events around the city. When I cannot find something we literally go to different parts of town to speak with random strangers. Since we both work so hard during the weekdays I like to make sure we get out on the weekends, and experience something weird and unusual. You never know who you are going to meet, what connections you’re going to make or what fun/trouble you might run into. Even if you have to plan spontaneity … I know an oxymoron … I find it a critical part of making sure we have random adventures to laugh about in the future together.
- A Final Few
There are so many things that we do to keep our relationship alive, but one that I absolutely love is when we are stressed out or having a really bad day we always call one another to say how much we appreciate the other in our life. When you get caught up in the stresses of life it can be easy to take out your frustrations on the people that love you most. I find it crucial to make sure to tell the people I love how appreciated they are on a weekly, and usually daily basis. I believe at the end of our lives we’re not going to look back on how hard we worked, but on the relationships we formed with other people. I want to remember how intensely I loved, not how many hours I put into a workday!
We also have an extremely funny habit of making very random animal noises to one another. Yes, I know it sounds childish, but it keeps the playfulness alive in our relationship! Sometimes I think we sound like a bunch of kitties “meowing” to each other. I’m sure my boyfriend will love that I just disclosed that 😉
While I’m a constant work in progress (as we all are) I am humbled to finally understand what emotional intimacy means and what it feels like. It is a rare gift to find another partner who you truly want to spend your life with, but it is not without work. Just because you find love doesn’t mean you’re going to keep it if you don’t put in the time and effort just as you do toward your career, exercise program, diet, etc.