Sex life and impact on relationships after a stroke
A serious illness like stroke can put a huge strain on relationships because of changed roles and responsibilities. Stroke can also have an effect on people's emotions making them more irritable or emotional and likely to take their frustrations out on those closest to them (see 'Emotional impact of stroke').
Many people felt that their partners had been very supportive and stuck by them despite their stroke illness and impairments. A few felt that the stroke had actually brought them closer together and made them more appreciative of each other.
One man had been worried that his wife might leave him but a psychologist had helped him realise that she still cared for him.
- Age at interview:
- Is married with 2 adult children. He was a master plasterer but now medically retired. Ethnic background/nationality' White/Scottish.
What sort of, you said that you had concerns that you talked to the psychologist about? Can you tell me the sort of things that you were concerned about?
Well, just about... well, virtually a cripple or whatever, because I used to be fairly active. I run marathons and half marathons and that, raft racing and that kind of stuff, done everything. And all that stopped, will the wife still be with us or what, losing the business, losing everything. That's all sort of I had left the family. That really worried, well, what will I do when, well 'We don't need him now, what, what can he do for us? Dump him.' You know, it was silly thoughts going through your head. They weren't silly at that time.
How did the psychologist help? What sort of advice did she give you?
Well, just, likes of says that's silly. Said my wife had been at the, when I was in Intensive Care, she was there every day sitting in, she didn't go home, she sat in the hospital all day with us and everything like that. But she was 'Do you think she would have done that and all that? 30 years you've been together'. But you still think, you know, it's no joy for them, I'm a cripple. Just because we've always been, everything was done together. That's what our friends say. 'You two are joined at the hip' sort of thing. Because when we done the go-kart racing, we both pushed the go-kart to start it for my son. It was all one either side, pushing the kart to get it started. Everything was just together.
A few people felt that the stroke had caused the problems in their relationships. A woman who had been the major wage earner found that losing her job and health put a huge strain on their marriage but they were able to resolve things through Relate counselling.
Others had not been able to sort out their differences and had parted. Whilst most found this difficult others thought it was for the best.
A common fear following a stroke is that sex will bring on another stroke. There is, however, no medical evidence for this and no reason why you cannot begin to have sex as soon as you feel well enough after your stroke.
Some people that we spoke to said that they continued to have an active sex life after their stroke. Others, however, said that they had sex less often although some put this partially down to their increasing age. Most said that their partner had been very understanding and that a good relationship did not always need to involve sex.
One young woman explained that her relationship had ended because of lack of intimacy but she was still good friends with her ex-partner and he gave her a lot of practical and emotional support.
Some had noticed a definite reduction in their libido which they put down to tiredness, medication and feeling less attractive because of disability. One man had found he could not get an erection and thought this was probably due to a combination of blood pressure tablets and reduction in blood flow due to diabetes.
- Age at interview:
- Is a married father of 2 children. He is a retired Professional Engineer. Ethnic background/nationality' White/Scottish.
How about your relationship? Has it had any impact on that at all?
Well, we don't have any sex... but we didn't have a lot before really... But... I can't just remember when I recognise that sexual activity was over but it's been over for and I can't remember just when it ceased completely but it's... quite a while now.
Is it that you have a functional problem now?
Yes. I mean... apart from anything else, if you take pills to reduce your blood pressure, that has an impact, you know.
Have you ever talked to a doctor or anybody about the problems with your sexual relationship?
And have they been able to offer you any solutions or is it something that'?
No, they've been able, they've been able, they, they've said, 'You haven't got a good enough blood supply to your nether regions' and so I couldn't get a satisfactory erection and there wasn't much they could do about it really... And' again, as I say I certainly now have diabetes. I didn't have any treatment for diabetes before I had a stroke but... it may have been insipid and that affects the minor blood vessels, doesn't it? So they would be slowing up... earlier than I had my stroke I imagine. So I, I'd be getting circulation, I was having circulation problems in other words beforehand.
Loss of sensation on one side of the body sometimes took the enjoyment out of intimate contact and a few people who had post stroke pain found it difficult to be touched by another person. Paralysis could also make it difficult to people to get into a comfortable position.
- Age at interview:
- Is a widowed retired legal secretary with no children. Ethnic background' White/English.
After my husband died, I realised that, with stroke problems, it would be very difficult to actually live with anybody and so I'd made up my mind that I had, I had absolutely no intention of meeting anybody else and living with anyone. But I did, strangely enough meet somebody outside Sainsbury's in the pouring rain. I was having problems putting my shopping in, into the car and this gentleman came along and was very helpful and we found that we had lots of things in common and we did, we started a relationship, we went out to dinner many times, which was really very nice and then it came to the point where he was going to stay overnight and I must admit I was a bit apprehensive because it's the sexual side of things is very difficult because you've had a stroke and if it has been, as in my case and lots of people that I know, it is really, one half of your body completely, it's right up, right down the middle, one half is completely numb and you can feel things on the other side and you do wonder how you're going to react. So it certainly was quite strange for me and a little bit worrying but I have to say that we made love and I, everything really was OK but something is missing. I think you possibly don't have the same amount of feeling in, well obviously bits of you are a bit, a bit numb I suppose, so you're not going to get the same sort of feelings that perhaps you've had in other relation, well, in other relationships when you, well pre stroke time.
So I think although it can be a satisfying sort of relationship, I would say that it's not quite the same as it used to be. You don't have the same sort of feelings. I must say everything works more or less [laughter] as usual but I, just from personal experience, I don't feel that I'm taking part in it, in the actual, when we're actually making love, I don't feel as if I'm really taking part in it. I feel that my partner is getting the pleasure out of it and he's certainly making it all work and I'm there but I'm not really having, it's very difficulty to describe, but I think it's probably that I don't feel as involved as I used to feel and I think it is because you don't have the same sort of feeling. There is a bit of your body that, that's not working, you know, you, you can't respond, I think, in quite the same way. So I would say that there are probably people after stroke who do possibly have great problems in that direction, I don't know, but it, you know, that would be quite a normal feeling, I think, if, you know, if other people do have problems. I think that would be something that, you know, something not to worry about because I think it is something that probably happens.
- Age at interview:
- Is a married mother of 6 adult children and a retired neuropsychology assistant. Ethnic background/nationality' White/English.
You've talked quite a lot about your husband and I was wondering what sort of impact has your stroke had on your relationship with your husband?
Well, I, in some ways it's brought us closer but in some ways, it's been very difficult. One of the first things that I can recall was that in my left side, my stroke side where I've got this central post stroke pain [laughter] I can't bear anybody touching me either on my bare skin or like on top of my clothes and so I did find myself so often saying to him, 'Oh, you know, don't touch me, get away' and so... any kind of intimacy has not been, not been on the cards at all and of course, it, it coincided conveniently possibly [laughter] with my husband getting... oh, I've forgotten what it's called. Diabetes. And so we weren't, he wasn't able to have sex and I wasn't interested and we, then that's how it's continued. He did, on the advice of a friend who's a GP, he did get some tablets once but neither, of us were all that interested and we've just, we found to my amazement [laughter] that we're just not interested any more and so it's not something we miss.
I mean, I miss, it's very difficult to explain. I miss being able to cuddle up to anybody but that's, that's not a psychological thing. That's because of how my, my body feels, you know. What happens when you've got, when you've had a stroke, well, this is how it's, it feels to me, it feels as if you've got half a dead body, maybe you've had an accident and half your body's got sliced off and then somebody's stuck it back on because it's there and you're learning to walk on it like it might be if it was an artificial leg but it's, it's not there right. It's, it's just, I mean, it's not there correctly. It's as if this horrible accident has happened and somebody's stuck half a body back on to me but it's not mine and it doesn't connect up with anything and so if I'm thinking like getting back into bed in the morning if I, if I've got up in the morning and I'm thinking of getting back into bed with my husband and snuggling up, it's not like it used to be because that half of my body can't snuggle up to anybody any more. I've only got this half and that half is OK, that half is just the same as it was before but [ooh, beg pardon] it's too overwhelmed by the left side. It's as if the left side were actually much bigger than the right side. It's as if maybe my hand and my arm are alright but the rest of my body's dead because although I can see and feel logically that it's actually only half my body, it doesn't feel like that because it's like, it's like a dead weight and, and it's a dead weight that can't be comforted.
Younger people found that contraception became an issue. Women who have had a stroke are advised not to take the pill as there is an increased risk of stroke with women using the pill. Similarly women at menopause age should not use HRT. Some younger women we spoke to had also been advised not to have children and others had decided that they were not physically capable of looking after a child. It is likely that there will be no reason why it should be any more difficult to conceive or continue with a normal pregnancy and give birth to a normal baby after a stroke, however, some less common types of stroke may result in an increased risk of stroke in future pregnancies. If you are planning to have more children or have any concerns, you should discuss it with a medical professional.
Last reviewed June 2017.
Last updated August 2011