While fibromyalgia profoundly compromises a couple’s sex life, a study has found that male partners of women diagnosed with the condition essentially respond by fostering support and fighting for the relationship.
Importantly, sexuality seems to be pushed into the background after diagnosis, and there is a lack of support from health services and patients’ organizations, the researchers say.
For most men, standing by their partner prevails over the couple’s sexual problems, and fibromyalgia is not a reason to end the relationship, the study found.
Titled “Sexuality in male partners of women with fibromyalgia syndrome: A qualitative study,” the research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The condition predominantly affects women, impacting their physical, psychological, and also their sexual health.
Pain during sex (dyspareunia), insufficient vaginal lubrication, loss of desire, and difficulty in reaching orgasm all contribute to female sexual dysfunction (FSD) in women with fibromyalgia, the study found. This condition can be compounded by bodily pain, feelings of anguish, fear, and low self-esteem. Overall, FSD was found to “deeply” affect sexuality among women with fibromylagia and their male partners, the researchers said.
“Fibromyalgia syndrome operates as a focal stimulus that activates a ‘sexuality coping process,’ with adaptive responses on physiological, self-esteem, role function and interdependence levels. Partners of women with FMS operate as a contextual stimulus that can contribute to this coping process,” the investigators said.
However, little is known about the partners’ experiences. Attempting to fill this gap, an international team of researchers interviewed male partners of women diagnosed with FMS to understand how they perceive their sexuality. Each couple had to be sexual partners for at least six months.
The study took place in a psychological care center and a FMS patient association in Spain. A total of 18 men were questioned by a psychologist with expertise in sexology, who had four years experience working with women with FMS. The interviews took place both at a focus group (six men) or at in-depth interview settings (10 men) between February and July of 2017.
After analysis of the participants’ answers, two main themes surfaced: “facing a new sex life” and “resisting the loss of the couple’s sexuality.”
According to the partners, FMS “profoundly affects the couple’s sex life.” When talking about coping with their new sexual reality, the participants spoke about FMS being an obstacle to the couple’s sex life and the difficulties in reconciling sometimes divergent levels of desire. However, the men also spoke about their ability to overcome these hurdles and to keep their relationships strong despite sexual difficulties.
In couples found to have strong relationships despite sexual difficulties, the men did not fear facing a “sexuality coping process.” They reported that they quickly realized they needed to develop strategies to give their relationship a “fresh start.” Examples included joint leisure activities that allowed the couple to avoid focusing too much on the disorder.
“We enjoy everyday things together like going to the movies, we seem to forget the FMS, … we are reigniting our beginning as a couple,“ one of the participants was quoted as saying.
“Although sexual relations change, the participants see women as their sexual partner and they still feel sexually attracted to her,” the researchers said.
The men reported that they tried to replace sex with other less physically intense practices such as masturbation and oral sex, with some using sex toys and lubricants. Massages also were favored by some male participants, who reported that they helped relieve pain while showing dedication and desire.
Such skin-to-skin contact also was reported to help increase the female partner’s self-esteem; some women reportedly saw themselves as unattractive due to fibromyalgia.
While the men reported that sexual relations were not their first concern after their partner’s fibromyalgia diagnosis, they noted a lack of sexology support from doctors and health professionals.
Many reported that they were currently considering sex counseling with their partners, which they believed would be an important aid in helping them as a couple to resolve sexual problems. On multiple occasions, the men had also encouraged their female partners to seek help from patient support groups.
One man was quoted as saying: “Yes, we must break taboos and find solutions for these issues.”
“Although patient associations try to holistically help women with FMS, sexuality tends to remain in the background. The public health system does not offer any type of sexology advice to help women and their partners to confront the impact of FMS on their relationship and quality of life,” the researchers said.
“For the majority of men, supporting the woman as a partner prevails over the loss of quality of their sex life,” they concluded.