There comes a time in many long-term romantic relationships when couples experience some limitations in the bedroom. Such limitations arise when one partner faces physical, medical, or emotional issues that affect sexual performance, which can become distressing for both members of the couple and can affect relationship quality. If sexual intimacy is compromised, whether temporarily or permanently, are there things that partners can do together to help promote the rebuilding of intimacy?
Some researchers have addressed this question by targeting a population of individuals for whom the issue is particularly relevant: couples affected by prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is common among men as they age (though it can affect younger men as well), and often impacts men’s sexual function; many men become impotent as a result of the treatment. Impotence, understandably, drastically alters a man’s sexual and affectionate behaviors with his partner and undermine the quality of their romantic relationship. The wife/ partner may now assume the “caregiver” role exclusively, while the “sexual partner” role may be dormant. Professionals working with couples affected by prostate cancer have long recognized these issues and have sought to find ways to promote intimacy.
In a recent study, researchers tested whether exercising together promotes sexual intimacy and affection in couples affected by prostate cancer.1 They recruited 64 couples (average age 71.8 years old who had been together on average 43 years) in which the male had undergone treatment for prostate cancer. Couples were randomly assigned to either a control group (no intervention) or a group-based partnered exercise program. This exercise program included twice weekly hour-long exercise sessions for both partners for six months. Specifically, couple members in the experimental group attended sessions together (attendance rate for the couples across the six months was 75%) and “trained” each other by spotting, counting reps, etc., and exercising alongside their partner. The study included no other intervention – just these exercise sessions.
Partners rated their levels of affectionate (e.g., kissing, touching) and sexual (e.g. intercourse, foreplay) behaviors at baseline when they began the exercise program, 3 months later, and at the end of the program (6 months later). The results of this study are fairly encouraging. The women who participated in the exercise program were more likely to report an increase in affectionate behavior compared with those in the control group. That said, men did not report any changes in behavior with their partners across the study period (though there were other positive health effects, such as increased muscle tone).
What might this mean for couples affected by prostate cancer? There are a host of reasons why the results for men weren’t as strong as for women. It is possible that because many of the men were older and had been diagnosed with prostate cancer many years prior to study participation, they have assumed that they will always be impotent and are thus less amenable to putting in the effort to promote intimacy. Additionally, sexual function was not directly assessed here; there were likely very real physical limitations such as impotence. The authors speculate that there could also be gender differences at play, as women tend to respond well to emotional affection, endorsing greater satisfaction when emotional affection is present. Thus, the results suggest that encouraging non-sexual couples-based physical activities has the potential to have a positive effect for the couple, particularly for women.
Which brings us back to the larger question. What might this mean for couples who are not affected by prostate cancer? Can exercising with your partner promote sex and affection, generally speaking? And does working out with you partner increase these behaviors in couples with currently active sexual lives? This is certainly an experiment that you may want to try at home. At worst, the benefits could include increased muscle tone.
1Lyons, K. S., Winters-Stone, K. M., Bennett, J. A., & Beer, T. M. (2015, October 12). The effects of partnered exercise on physical intimacy in couples coping with prostate cancer. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hea0000287
Marni Amsellem, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology, Washington University in St. Louis) is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in health psychology. She is a research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations, as well as a practitioner. Her research interests include how physical health and health-related behaviors affect individuals and their relationships, and vice versa. You can reach her via twitter @smartpsychreads.