Navigating IBS and Intimate Relationships
Last updated: July 2019
I first began to have persistent symptoms of IBS beginning when I was 19 years-old and just a month or so into my junior year of college. I had just transferred to the school and within the first few hours met the person who would become my boyfriend for the semester within a couple of weeks. This would be my first real relationship (I went to an all-girl high school and was a late-comer to intimate dealings with the opposite sex), so it was unfortunate that it intersected with the onset of a disorder that began to seriously compromise and complicate my life.
Embarrassed by my IBS
Still technically a teenager, I was embarrassed by my illness and didn't really disclose any details to my boyfriend, other than to tell him that I had an "upset stomach" much of the time. Whenever he asked for clarification, that was all I would offer. Who wants to speak to their new boyfriend about their bathroom habits or issues? I didn't. We were both virgins learning about each other's bodies and I didn't want to introduce this unattractive thing I was dealing with behind the scenes.
This was a shame, because in many ways it hindered us from ever becoming truly close to each other. Many times, my then-boyfriend would want to go out on some sort of excursion - either dancing at a club or one time to a mutual friend's cabin in the woods. And my stomach would be feeling squeamish, and I would say "no." At an age when I should have been at my prime, I began to feel trapped and old, like my life was over in many ways. Worse than often not being able to accompany him on trips or adventures, I sometimes became bitter and moody about it with him afterwards when he went without me, or guilted him into staying home, which in turn made him resentful of me.
Breaking point of the relationship
One breaking point for both of us was when Thanksgiving rolled around. I was desperate to go home to my family, and start eating real food again (looking back all these years, I have no doubt the substandard cafeteria food at my college worsened my symptoms) and to convalesce in my own bed and finally have access to a private, non-communal bathroom again. But I knew I would not be able to handle a Greyhound trip from upstate New York to Manhattan (the possibility of needing to use a bus bathroom filled me with terror, as did the prospect of then having to take the subway from the Big Apple to Brooklyn) and I didn't have a car at the time. I talked my boyfriend into driving me home (which was a two-hour drive) the Monday of that week when I got so sick I couldn't stand to be at my dorm for another minute. Even though I paid his gas, showered him with gifts afterwards, and thanked him profusely (as did my grandparents, who gave him a new coat and paid to tailor his old one that was fraying), it was the beginning of the end of our relationship. I could tell he really didn't understand my situation or why I couldn't take the bus, and in fairness to him, I wasn't completely forthcoming about the risks that would force me to take (such as defecating myself on public transit). Even if I had been honest though, I wasn't sure he would understand then either, as I've learned over the years it's difficult for most people to truly "get" things they don't themselves experience.
IBS was the demise of another relationship
A few years after college, when I was in my early 20s, I wound up in a relationship with another person that would last nearly a decade. Though my partner in that respect sometimes acted like he understood or empathized with my plight, it became clear as the years progressed that he did not and wished for a different kind of partner - someone without so many health problems. Even though my IBS was much better when we were together than it was during my college days, I still had nights where I couldn't go to the movies, or days when I needed to stick close to home. I had very specific, non-negotiable preferences about where we could eat out (places that had food offerings that I knew had less chance of triggering a flare for me) and if there was an event we were going to, I needed to make sure to know about the bathroom situation and what kind of food would be there. He felt constrained by all of these needs, and frustrated with me, and it led to many arguments and an overall tension in the relationship. I was tired of feeling defensive about my body...because in many ways he began to frame it as something in my head or something over which I had more control than I was exercising. It didn't help that this boyfriend was very much into a ton of traveling and high-octane adventures either (he was a black diamond skier, a rock climber, a mountain biker and someone who wanted to camp in the middle of nowhere for weeks at a time - things I all liked and wanted to do in the theory, but in actuality could not).
This is not even to mention sexual intimacy, which can also be difficult to navigate. Diarrhea, constipation, gas and bloating are not sexy. And if I wasn't feeling well, sex is not going to make me feel better - and can actually sometimes cause an upset.
Done feeling apologetic
Now in my late 30s, I am at the age where I am done caring about what people think of me, and over feeling apologetic or ashamed over my body and its idiosyncrasies. My current partner, whom I've been with a few years now, seems to understand this much better than past partners. He is much more flexible about scheduling plans together and is much more lower maintenance in terms of what he needs to enjoy a life with me - going for a walk in our neighborhood, or simply staying in and watching a movie at home, is his ideal. We don't have to spend a lot of money, travel time, greenhouse gas emissions, or expend a lot adrenaline and physical exertion to enjoy ourselves together; however, we do other things as well, such as hiking, kayaking, and occasional weekend trips away from the city - but we plan carefully and keep in mind my limitations. My partner also has his own life - he's a part of several social groups that have weekly or bi-weekly meetings that he attends on his own without me, that offers him another independent outlet. And I in turn, enjoy my time alone at home to read, write, watch television, or my time doing things in my neighborhood with friends and neighbors.
All of this is to say, it's been a learning experience, but the main things I've gleaned from it is that to have a successful partnership when one person has a chronic illness such as IBS is flexibility - by both partners - and compatibility. This is also why it helps to be honest early on in the relationship about one's health. If the would-be partner isn't interested or willing to to negotiate a life together that enable you both to have happiness and companionship, then it's probably best to move along and find someone who is willing (which you will).
Have you ever tried acupuncture to relieve IBS symptoms?