My partner has endometriosis – what does that mean for me?

Photo of couple (PantherMedia / Elena Yutilova)

Having a partner who suffers from severe abdominal pain on several days every month will affect your life together too. It is not easy to deal with. If this pain is caused by endometriosis, effective relief is often available. But it is important to be aware of the options, limitations and disadvantages of treatments.

Men sometimes find it hard to understand how their partner’s period pain can be so bad that they regularly have to cancel plans. Perhaps you have also found yourself wondering why your partner can't simply cope with her period pain “like other women do.”

The answer is easy: If your partner has endometriosis, her period pain is much worse than that of other women – so she is by no means just whining. Endometriosis is a medical condition where the kind of tissue that usually lines the womb also grows in other parts of the body. These “growths” are called endometrial implants. Like the lining of the womb, they build up and are shed every month. But, unlike period (menstrual) blood, the tissue that is shed in the abdomen can't leave the body, so inflammations and scars often develop.

About 1 out of 10 women have endometriosis. Whether or not it causes symptoms, and what kind of symptoms women have, depends on things like where the endometrial implants are and how bad the inflammations are. Some women hardly have any symptoms, whereas others are regularly knocked out of action by painful cramping. Endometrial implants may grow on a woman’s ovaries and in her fallopian tubes, which can lead to fertility problems. Sometimes women first find out that they have endometriosis when they go to the doctor because they haven't been able to get pregnant despite trying for a long time.

Diagnosed with endometriosis – Now what?

There are two reasons why it's important for endometriosis to be diagnosed. On the one hand, the diagnosis may come as a relief to both of you. Many women who have endometriosis believe that their “period pains” are normal, and just try to cope with them somehow. Some get the feeling that other people think they are exaggerating, and start wondering whether they are simply too sensitive or wimpy. The diagnosis helps avoid these misunderstandings and feelings of self-reproach.

Knowing that you have endometriosis also means you can start treating the symptoms. The treatment options include various medications, and sometimes surgery too. The most suitable option for a woman will greatly depend on whether she would like to become pregnant. So it can be important for you to make decisions together. Having a good doctor and good medical advice is important too.

You may need to be patient while waiting for the treatment to work. Many women manage to get their symptoms under control over time. By the way: Endometriosis-related problems nearly always go away on their own after menopause.

How does endometriosis affect your partner?

Severe abdominal pain and cramping force women to make changes in everyday life. They sometimes end up having to cancel plans with friends or other appointments. If they have problems sleeping, they might feel tired and weak too, and less able to cope with stress. Women who regularly have to stay home from work because of their pain often feel guilty towards their colleagues. The pressure at work might increase as well.

A further possible symptom of endometriosis is pain during or after sex. It's not hard to understand why the prospect of pain might reduce a woman’s desire to have sex. Many women who experience pain during or after sex try to avoid it. They often feel bad about doing so. Some women simply “get on with it” despite the pain because they would like to get pregnant, or are afraid that their partner might feel rejected or even leave them if they don't have sex.

As her partner, it's easy to feel a little rejected or dissatisfied, particularly if you don't understand why she doesn't want to have sex. Knowing that sex is painful for their partner makes many men feel guilty or uncomfortable. For all of these reasons, sexuality can easily become an issue within relationships.

Not being able to get pregnant often adds to the burden. Discovering that a woman’s fertility problems are being caused by endometriosis can lead to mixed feelings. On the one hand, you know what is causing it, which means there are treatment options. But there is no guarantee that a woman will be able to get pregnant if she has treatment. Many of the effective treatments actually prevent pregnancy themselves.

How can you deal with endometriosis?

Endometriosis is a disease that both partners have to deal with together, with mutual understanding for each other’s situations. Treatment may help relieve the symptoms of endometriosis. But the treatment can also be distressing in itself.

Women find it helpful if their partner takes them seriously and understands how much the endometriosis affects their life. In phases when the symptoms are worse, it is easier for women to cope if they are given support in everyday life. If painful sex is a problem, trying out different positions or techniques might improve things. These may include extended, relaxed lovemaking sessions that don't necessarily involve sexual intercourse.

But there's no need for you, as a partner, to completely ignore your own desires and needs. It can take some time to process and understand the consequences of the diagnosis. Feelings of anger (“Why us/me?”), despair, non-acceptance and helplessness are normal. Over time, most partners manage to face the new situation and find ways to live with the problems associated with endometriosis. Although you may not be directly affected by the symptoms, you will probably have to share the burden of the effects they have in your life together.

It is important to find out how much support your partner would like to have, and then give her that support if possible. But it is also just as important not to ignore your own problems and feelings. Men often avoid talking about these things because they are worried that it may cause their partner even more distress.

Caring for each other and being honest with each other are key – for both of you. It is important to try to shape your lives in a way that focuses on the positive and fulfilling aspects of your relationship rather than on endometriosis and its consequences.

If you feel like you aren't coping well with your partner’s endometriosis, or you are no longer able to solve problems together, you can get help from others – for instance, through counseling or a self-help group. You could have counseling or therapy on your own, or together with your partner.