How relationships change

Monday 1 December, 2014

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On this page: Changes in sexuality and intimacy | If your caring role ends | Key points

Taking on a caring role often changes relationships. For many carers, a cancer diagnosis affects the established roles they have with their partner, parent, friend, dependent or adult child or sibling, and this can be a challenging adjustment.

The effect of cancer on your relationship will vary, and the impact often depends on what your relationship was like before the cancer diagnosis. Some carers find the opportunity to care for someone strengthens the relationship with the person they are looking after. For others, particularly those who had a strained relationship before the diagnosis, the pressure of a cancer diagnosis and treatment and the demands of caring add further tension. You may find it best to share the caring role with other people so you are not the full-time carer (see asking others for help).

Understanding potential changes can help. See below for ways a relationship may change, and how to manage these changes.

How will cancer change our relationship?
  • If I’m doing all the caring they may feel like they’ve lost their independence.
  • I might need to take on new responsibilities that will reverse our roles.
  • The intimacy we shared might be replaced by the caring role.
  • We might need to re-evaluate our priorities and set new goals. 
Ways to manage changes in your relationship
  • Arrange home help if you feel uncomfortable doing the bathing and dressing. 
  • Allow time for both of you to get used to the change in roles, particularly if your roles have reversed.
  • Set boundaries to maintain independence and allow both of you to feel in control.
  • Listen to each other’s needs and find ways to meet them. 
  • Use touch to show you care.
  • Talk about the changes to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Give the person you’re caring for the chance to do things for themselves so they feel useful.
Support for LGBTI carers

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people may face specific challenges when caring for their partner. They may worry about the family of their partner accepting them, or wonder if support services are LGBTI-friendly. Ask the Carers Association in your state or territory what support is available for LGBTI carers in your local area.

Changes in sexuality and intimacy

If you are caring for a partner, you may find the cancer and its treatment affects your sexual relationship. The effects on your sexuality and initimacy will depend on the type of cancer, the treatment and its side effects.

  • Tiredness can make people lose interest in sex during and after treatment. This is called a lowered libido.
  • Pain, medications and treatment can also reduce your libido and can affect someone’s physical ability to have sex.
  • A person’s body image may change after treatment, making them feel self-conscious and embarrassed.
  • The emotional strain of cancer or caring may preoccupy you and cause you to lose interest in sex.
  • Many people worry that touching their partner intimately will cause pain. 

There are ways you may be able to manage sexual side effects and maintain intimacy with your partner who has cancer.

  • Restore the intimacy in your relationship by spending time together. If your partner is well enough, you may be able to go to the cinema or out to dinner. Otherwise, watch a movie at home together, give each other massages, do a crossword together, look through old photo albums, or talk about how you first met.
  • Tell your partner you care. Your partner may need reassurance that you love them and find them attractive despite the physical changes from their illness or treatment.
  • Discuss any concerns you have about being intimate with your partner. If you keep quiet and withdraw, your partner may misinterpret your distance and think they’re no longer desirable. Being open with your partner about your sexual needs can help you identify changes to make.
  • Keep an open mind about ways to give and receive sexual pleasure. You may need to try different things if your usual ways of lovemaking are now uncomfortable or not possible. Some people find lubricants or sexual aids help. For a while, you may need to focus on kissing and cuddling.
  • Take things slowly and spend time getting used to being naked together.
  • Be patient. You may find that any awkwardness will improve with time and practice.
  • Talk to a counsellor who specialises in helping couples with intimacy and sexual issues.
  • For more information see Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

If your caring role ends

There may come a time when your assistance is not needed as much. It may be because the person you are caring for is getting better and trying to resume their usual activities. This may make you feel a bit lost or not needed any more.

The person you are caring for may gain a new independence and appear to have forgotten how much time and effort you gave. This can be hurtful, but the person is probably not aware of how you are feeling.

You may expect to slip back into your day-to-day life as it was before you took on the caring role, but this can be challenging. You might feel you are still on call for the next setback. Your life may also have changed. Going back to work or resuming other responsibilities you had put on hold can be overwhelming. Do things at your own pace and give yourself some time to adjust. You might be able to return to work part-time or take on fewer responsibilities.

Talking about your feelings with someone you trust can help you to process the changes and think about what is next.

Key points

  • Caring for someone with cancer may put your relationship under greater stress. However, some people say that facing a cancer diagnosis together strengthens their relationship.
  • If you have a difficult relationship with the person you care for, the demands of caring may add further tension.
  • If you or your partner are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex and your relationship is not recognised, you may face extra challenges caring for your partner.
  • Cancer may affect your sexual relationship. For example, some treatments leave people with little or no interest in sex, or you may feel too tired to have sex. You can maintain intimacy by spending quality time together, exploring other ways to be intimate, discussing your feelings, and taking things slowly.
  • The person with cancer may not want your help with some tasks, such as toileting or showering. You may also be uncomfortable with these tasks or you may find it hard to step back and respect their privacy. Seek in-home help if needed.
  • At some point, your assistance may not be needed as much or at all. This may make you feel redundant or hurt. It might be difficult to resume your life as it was before. Give yourself time to adjust to the situation and to find other activities that give you pleasure and a sense of worth.
  • Professional counselling can help you cope with these relationship changes.

Reviewed by: Maxine Rosenfield, Counsellor, Private Practice, NSW; Joan Bartlett, Consumer; Julie Butterfield, Consumer; Julie Hill, Telephone Support Group Coordinator, Cancer Council NSW; Anna Lovitt, Senior Social Worker – Oncology, W.P. Holman Clinic, TAS; Carolina Simpson, Policy and Development Officer, Carers NSW; and Helen Tayler, Social Worker/Counsellor, Cancer Counselling Service, Belconnen Community Health Centre, ACT. We would also like to thank the health professionals and consumers who have worked on previous editions of this title.

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