Wednesday, October 15, 2014

To Be (Intimate) or Not to Be (Intimate)

As Hamlet said about a quarter of the way into his famous soliloquy"  "...'tis a consummation devoutly to be wish'd..."

Hamlet was talking about death.  That's not the consummation I have on my mind.  I am thinking about physical intimacy with one's partner.  Many couples think that the switch that controls intimacy lives in the genitals and is binary - either on or off, either intercourse or watching a late night TV comedy show.

That switch actually lives in the brain, with hundreds of thousands of outposts permeating the skin.  The brain is the key sexual organ.  It takes its cues from the body, but ultimately the brain decides how much physical contact it wants and when it wants it.

For many couples living with illness, sexual intimacy is problematic.  They physicality of the act may not be possible, may cause pain, or may require activity that is just not on a radar screen already overflowing with medications, side effects, exhaustion, and anxiety.

However, sex is also a bridge.  A way of bypassing practical and emotional turbulence and surrendering to the flow of the physical.  An escape.  A way of connecting and feeling greater than you are separately - beyond the reach of what Hamlet calls the "mortal coil."  Indeed, a consummation devoutly to be wish'd.

So what do you do when illness interferes with physical intimacy, but the yearning for the passion and liberation of sexual connection is still active.  

Of course you wonder -- how can couples be intimate without touching?  The solution lies in using the brain as the sexual organ it is.

Your brain can make anything into something else.  Just close your eyes and imagine a perfect lemon. See the textured skin and the bright yellow color.  Smell the fresh lemony fragrance.  Now imagine biting into it.  Most people, as they imagine the bite, pucker their mouths at the imagined tart flavor.  If we can do all this by putting our minds to a lemon, think what we can do if we just imagine playing sensually with our partner and a sponge or a pile of clean laundry.

Both partners, through the words they use with each other and the sensuousness they can bring to everyday activities, can use their brain to create the feeling of the bedroom anywhere, any time.

Here are some ideas:

1)  You can really look at each other.  You can spend more than .05 seconds glancing at each other's face.  Linger on the the face.  Notice the contours, the textures.  Imagine you are touching through eye contact.  This can be a powerful catalyst to intimacy.

2) You can use language to show that you truly see each other.  In addition to saying, "I love you," you can say, "You are beautiful to me," or "It makes me smile to see you smile."  Use words to convey that you are "home" to each other.  There is no script.  Don't assume that your partner knows what's in your heart.  Speak it out loud.

Of course there are not only loving sentiments in your heart.  You may be carrying anger, fear, and despair.  If you can, put those feelings in a separate compartment, temporarily.  Dig down to wherever you shelter your love and compassion for your partner.  Give voice to that.  There will be other times to discuss the hard stuff.

3)  Coping with the demands of illness can be exhausting and demanding -- both states are antithetical to relaxing and connecting.  Playing together can counterbalance that tension and can lead to emotional intimacy.  Partners can convert the mundane into a playful event.  Loading the dishwasher or cooking together or wandering the aisles of Costco can be a chore, or it can be a time of silliness and connection.  Imagine how children would behave if engaged in any of these activities.  The dishwasher is a puzzle to put together.  Cooking is mud play.  Wandering the aisles of Costco is finding Neverland.  Try not to focus on accomplishing, but rather on enjoying - the activity and each other.

One woman I interviewed for our book said that one of the biggest brain turn-ons she had occurred when her husband was in intensive care after having had open heart surgery.  She was laying on the couch in his hospital room suffering her own pain flares and trying to quell them with an ice pack.  She said to him, "I feel so useless.  I wish there were more I could do for you."  He responded, "Just having you here helps me breath easier."   She said that this was a truly intimate connection, even more intimate than some of their physical love-making.

For some people brain intimacy can be enough, or can be all their physical condition will permit.  For others, brain intimacy can be the runway for physical contact.  In future posts I hope to explore how couples can be physically intimate when illness prevents intercourse.

How do you and your partner "do" intimacy when illness interferes with physical love-making?  How do you use your brain to be intimate with your partner?

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