When you have a stroke, every area of your life can be affected - and that includes your most intimate relationships.
Whatever your gender or sexuality, stroke can cause problems with your relationships and sex life.
A Stroke Association survey in 2020 found that 57% of stroke survivors said their sex life had changed since their stroke, while one third are too afraid to have sex at all.
It's not just physical issues like tiredness and poor mobility that can make it tricky to rebuild an intimate relationship with your partner after your stroke, or get the confidence to start dating again. You might feel low or depressed, or find that you're struggling to communicate.
If your partner has to care for you, this can also affect how you see each other. But that doesn't mean you have to give up on sex. Talking about how you feel is a good place to start.
'For many people our intimate relationships are a key part of what life is all about,' says Stroke Association trainer and qualified psychotherapist Doug Youngson. 'Intimacy, whether sexual or otherwise, makes us feel loved and human and is linked to our wellbeing and sense of self.
'We often find it really difficult to talk to our own partners about how we feel. We don't want to upset them, or we might worry that they won't understand. But if we share our feelings we can be on the same team. Facing shared challenges together can strengthen our relationships.'
Intimacy is about more than what happens (or doesn't) in the bedroom. There are lots of ways you can stay close as a couple, explains Doug.
'Intimacy is about sharing yourself and trusting another person. You could read to your partner, prepare a meal together or just cuddle up on the sofa.'
As part of your post-stroke care, your stroke coordinator, GP or nurse should ask if you have any concerns about sex after stroke, but don't be afraid to ask if you need more help. Many stroke survivors and their partners do ask for support with relationships or sex. Single people often have questions about dating again.
'Speak to your doctor or anyone on the stroke team you feel comfortable talking to,' suggests Doug. 'If they are not able to help, ask if they can put you in touch with someone who can. One option could be counselling or sex and relationships therapy. This can help by providing a safe space where you can explore what stroke means for your relationship and ways to rebuild sex and intimacy.
'Some people decide that sex is less important to them than other forms of intimacy, and that's absolutely fine. Rebuilding a satisfying sex life is possible, but it can take some persistence. Don't be put off if things don't work perfectly at first.'
Graham Martin, 68 from Sunderland, had an ischaemic stroke (clot in the brain) early one morning in 2018.
'All of a sudden I lost half of my vision and couldn't walk properly. By 9.30am, I was in hospital having emergency treatment for stroke.
When I was discharged from hospital six days later, I was left with weakness in my right arm and leg. My thinking was affected, as was my ability to express myself. Worst of all was the fatigue, which put paid to my sex drive for over a year.
As a specialist social worker, I had previously given talks on sexuality and disability. Now it was my turn to 'walk the walk'!
My partner and I found that humour was a great help and healer during that period. We stayed close by facing the challenges together, so that far from drifting apart, our relationship became stronger.
I also went to my GP for help with the physical side of things. I know that some people might feel shy or embarrassed about this, but I found that the support available was good and it helped me to rekindle my sex life.
Stroke may be a challenge to our self-image, but the concepts of 'disability' and 'sexuality' are not mutually exclusive! Our sexuality is an important part of who we are, and you have a right to lead as full a life as possible.'
Download our information leaflet to find out more about sex and intimate relationships after stroke.
Stroke News magazine
This article is featured in the summer 2021 edition of our magazine, Stroke News. Subscribe to our future editions available in print, on audio CD, or via email.