Endometriosis and relationships

Image via neopr.co.uk

Recently my partner and I celebrated our eighth anniversary and (naturally) it got me thinking about research, specifically that which has been conducted on endometriosis and women’s intimate relationships.

There have been several studies examining women’s experiences of endo; some of these have included women’s intimate relationships. Most of these studies have included only white, middle class, heterosexual women who found their experience of endo to be a mostly negative one.

My problem with this research is that there seems to be little active effort on behalf of the researchers to include a diverse range of experiences; they have included only women’s negative experiences. I also have a problem with the lack of inclusion of the experiences of women from various demographic backgrounds such as Indigenous Australian women, lesbian women, transgender women and men, etc (a common problem across all research).

As researchers, extending our focus to the positive experiences of women is not to dismiss the negative experiences of others*.  All women and their experiences are entitled to be represented within the research that informs their health care. In fact, this needs to happen if we are to produce research that can be used to inform health care that is both effective and satisfactory for women.

For my PhD project I interviewed women with wide range of demographic backgrounds and experiences of endo. When women spoke about how they believed endo to affect their relationships, their experiences suggested that endo was one of many factors in life that interacts (but not always) with a relationship in different ways for different couples.

Up until I had spoken with this diverse group of women, (based on reading the previous research) I had believed endometriosis to be some kind of monster that would destroy any relationship it came in contact with, save for a lucky few. Clearly this is not the case.

Endometriosis and relationship interaction

Social expectations around women and their bodies may be an important factor for determining how having endo interacts with a relationship.

Research on other conditions relating to reproductive health (endo has not yet been examined), such as PMS suggest that women in a same-sex relationship experience less associated negative effects on their relationship compared to women in a heterosexual relationship.**

Your partner also being female does not guarantee increased support and understanding. Many women with endo experience a lack of support from female family members, friends, colleagues, and doctors. This is often because they don't understand endo is a disease and they make the mistake of equating their own experience with 'painful periods' (thinking that this 'all' that endo entails) with that of women who have endo.

What may better explain this finding is that same-sex relationships are less influenced by socially prescribed norms, particularly around what women are ‘supposed’ to do (often in relation to men). These couples may thus be more likely to negotiate expectations around sex, parenting, housework, etc within their own relationship rather than being influenced by what society believes women and men are ‘supposed’ to do.

What can we take from this? How a woman’s endometriosis interacts with her relationship needs to be considered within the context of her life. Couples need to have the social freedom to define their own rules, and women need to be empowered and supported to have their needs equally accommodated.  

Further research is needed into women’s positive experiences of endo and intimate relationships so that we may learn how to assist women and their partners who feel that their endometriosis diagnosis and/or experience are negatively interacting with their relationship.

Kate xx

*It’s likely that most women would report both positive and negative experiences
**I’d like to make it clear that being in a lesbian relationship does not mean your experience of endometriosis is guaranteed to be more positive. Sexuality and relationships are far more complicated than this! Society further complicates this by restricting how same-sex couples can express their relationship (e.g. by not recognising marriage equality), among other things.