Navigating Love and IBS: How to Support Your Partner Through the JourneyPublished on Wednesday, December 13, 2023 by
Understanding IBS and Its Impact on Your Relationship
In sickness and in health. That is a bold vow to make, and yet it is exactly what partners do. It is often hard for people living with chronic illness to ask for the help and support they need because they feel like a burden or are afraid their partner will “burn out.”
Communicating needs may be even more difficult with IBS because people are often embarrassed by their GI symptoms and worry their partner won’t still find them “sexy.” The good news is you are reading this article and on the right track to loving your partner through their IBS journey.
The first step is educating yourself on the challenges they face.
Understanding the Spectrum of IBS Symptoms:
IBS symptoms present differently, so your partner can go from cramping and diarrhea to stomach pains, bloating, and constipation. As the presenting symptoms shift, avoid saying things like, “Well, at least you aren’t constipated anymore” or “You were just complaining about not pooping, and now you're complaining about pooping too much.” Comments like these may make your partner stop sharing their experiences as they feel like you are making light of the situation or perceive their symptoms as “whoa is me.”
- Recognize the fluctuating nature of IBS symptoms
- Avoid dismissive comments that may hinder communication
Addressing Performance Anxiety:
IBS symptoms may increase performance anxiety, and there is plenty of evidence connecting sexual dysfunction and irritable bowel syndrome. Put yourself in their shoes, male or female- what if you had explosive diarrhea before jumping between the sheets, or if you had to have an escape plan for after– instead of enjoying post-sex cuddles, your partner may experience cramping and have to go to the bathroom. Discussing this with your partner may help them feel less self-conscious and open the conversation so you can devise a plan together.
- Acknowledge the link between IBS and performance anxiety
- Facilitate open communication to create comfort and intimacy
Tackling Bloat and Its Impact:
Bloating from IBS may interfere with your sex life as well. It is physically uncomfortable and may affect the way your partner views their body’s physical appearance in the moment. Being sensitive and discussing positions that are more comfortable for your partner may help your connection and their enjoyment.
- Show sensitivity towards physical discomfort and body image concerns
- Explore comfortable positions to enhance connection and pleasure
Empathy for Social Anxiety:
Consider the anxiety your partner may feel around social events. Will there be food they can eat? Will there be an accessible restroom? Will it be strange if they are in the bathroom for long periods of time? How long is the car ride to and from the event, etc? All of these things your partner has to think about may make them feel less social than before. Show empathy when your partner communicates their hesitations to be social and work together to prioritize the events you attend and your exit strategies.
- Consider the challenges around social events
- Collaborate on event choices and exit strategies to ease anxieties
Navigating the Complexities of Diet:
Diet burnout. Your partner likely experiments with foods and eating patterns that alleviate IBS symptoms. If you are a foodie, it may be hard to understand why they cook plain chicken and potatoes every night for dinner or avoid certain restaurants, etc. The likelihood is they do not like how restrictive their diet is, but it is the only way their symptoms are manageable. Checking in with your partner on their safe foods, cautious foods, and trigger foods allows you to plan menus, grocery shop, and pick restaurants that align with their needs. Remember to check in more than once. Trigger foods change frequently, so keep adapting.
- Understand the limitations of an IBS-friendly diet
- Regularly check in on safe foods, cautious foods, and trigger foods
Creating a Safe Space for Communication:
The most important thing you can do for your partner is provide a safe space for them to share their experience without judgment. Asking clarifying and open-ended questions will create a space for them to share and for you to learn. Let your partner know that you would like to help them solve problems if they need your input– or you can just listen if they need to vent.
- Encourage open dialogue without judgment
- Offer support through active listening and problem-solving
Providing Reassurances and Affirmations:
You may need to provide more assurances than usual so they know you do not see them differently, still desire them, and want to grow with them on their journey. These may feel like extra steps in an already busy phase of life, but remember investing in relationships is always worth it– and you get out what you put in.
- Reaffirm your desire, acceptance, and commitment
- Invest in the relationship for mutual growth and understanding
In navigating the complexities of supporting a partner with IBS, remember that communication is key. Empathy, understanding, and a willingness to adapt are the cornerstones of a strong relationship. By educating yourself about IBS, discussing challenges openly, and providing a safe space for your partner, you're not just facing the condition together but strengthening the bonds of love and resilience.
Investing time and effort into your relationship during this phase, marked by compassion and shared understanding, will undoubtedly contribute to a stronger, more connected partnership. Embrace the journey, support each other, and cherish the moments of growth and love along the way.
- Hsu, C. Y., Lin, C. L., & Kao, C. H. (2015). Irritable bowel syndrome is associated not only with organic but also psychogenic erectile dysfunction. International journal of impotence research, 27(6), 233–238. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijir.2015.25
Brooke OrrMS, RD