…and eczema makes three

There’s no doubt that eczema adds a layer of complexity to any relationship, but how you manage the situation can make all the difference, says Claire Moulds. This article was published in Exchange 181, September 2021.

From Gone With the Wind to Four Weddings and a Funeral, you would be hard pushed to find a trace of eczema in popular representations of romantic love. Of course, real-life relationships are far messier than the media would have us believe, but many of us still feel ‘not good enough’ and, because it’s so visible, eczema can easily play on those vulnerabilities.

It’s you, not me

Couple holding hands

If you’ve been rejected, or had a relationship breakdown because of eczema, you might be able to shrug it off and move on, but some find the experience affects their self-image and, in turn, their confidence. This is especially likely if you don’t know anyone else with eczema to compare experiences with or use as a role model. Without this, it’s easy to get into a negative mindset, thinking a relationship isn’t even possible with eczema.

If this does happen, remember that people are attracted to many different aspects of a potential partner: eczema is just one part of your story. Use friends as a sounding board: they enjoy spending time with you for different reasons, so ask them why a new love interest might want to spend time with you.

‘The talk’

When you’re tentatively taking your first steps in a new relationship, the idea of talking about your eczema might feel like the equivalent of launching a hand grenade. You may not know the person well enough to know how they’ll react. You may find it difficult to open up and be vulnerable with them about such a personal issue and might feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or unsure how to navigate the conversation.

However, it’s vital to raise the issue. Keeping it a secret will stop you from moving forward as a couple. If they don’t know anything about eczema, start with the basics – for example, that it’s not contagious – without overloading them. Think about what you would want to know in their shoes and offer to answer any questions, either now or later, when they’ve had a chance to think about it.

If you’re nervous, practise what you’re going to say and test it out on family and friends. This will help you refine your message and feel more confident about what you’re saying, reducing your stress on the day. Not everyone is willing to support a partner with a condition like eczema, so ultimately you do need to be prepared for the person to walk away. This is a terribly hard thing to accept. But if they do, take comfort from the fact that, by broaching the subject early, you didn’t expend time and energy building a relationship that wasn’t right for you.

In some ways, you might even think of it as a lucky escape: if they can’t cope with eczema, how might they cope further down the line, when other difficulties arise (as inevitably, they will – whether with health, family commitments or other life events)?

Keep talking

Ask any couple managing life with eczema and they will say that communication is key.

A few months in, your partner will have a clearer picture of what living with eczema means – from your treatment regime to your triggers or how you cope with the itch. Their role doesn’t end there: yes, it’s your condition, which you manage. But you’re in the relationship together, so it’s important that both you and your partner can talk about how the eczema makes you feel.

For example, if you like to be left alone and have your space during a flare-up, it’s important that your partner knows that you aren’t pushing them away and that this is just your coping mechanism. Equally, if they feel helpless as they can’t make things better for you, they may need reassurance about all the ways they do provide support.

If you’re not comfortable talking about your eczema and you find it difficult opening up like this, you might get defensive when your partner tries to talk to you. Try and remember that, while you may have lived with eczema for a long time, this may be completely new for them.

Naturally, there will be bumps along the way. For instance, a well-meaning partner might do some research and say, ‘Have you tried…’ and then rattle off a long list of things that you already know. This might feel a little annoying, but try to appreciate the fact they’re embracing the condition as a part of you.

Let’s get physical

If you have eczema, you are probably more in touch with your body – literally! – than many other people, as you are constantly caring for your skin. The downside of this is that instead of seeing your body as others see it, in its entirety, you may focus solely on the visible signs of your condition. So, while others might admire your smile or your shape, you might only see dry, flaky skin.

One way to overcome this is to practise looking at yourself naked in the mirror, while concentrating on all your positive features. The more you do this, the more familiar with your attributes you’ll become. And the more comfortable you are in your own body, the more comfortable your partner will feel, too, when you’re intimate with each other.

If you are concerned about what your partner will think when they run their hands over your skin, bear in mind that they might be equally anxious about hurting you, knowing how painful your eczema can be. A popular solution among couples is to apply emollient cream to each other’s bodies, as a way of getting to know what each other is comfortable with.

Physical affection is an important part of any loving relationship, but if you have a flare-up you might need to explore different ways of expressing your feelings for a while – especially if you have genital eczema (you can find factsheets for male and female eczema here). Temporarily taking sex off the agenda can reduce the pressure on you both, while still enabling you to maintain your physical connection by holding hands, hugging and kissing.

People are attracted to many different aspects of a potential partner: eczema is just one part of your story.

Don’t give up

All relationships are tricky at times – especially once the honeymoon period is over. If your partner cites your eczema as the main source of strain on your relationship, remember: it’s not a personal attack on you. Your partner will know you can’t control your eczema, but the condition may still generate feelings that they’re struggling to cope with and perhaps feel guilty about.

For example, if you’re going through a particularly horrendous flare-up, they might feel more like your carer than your romantic partner. They may feel overwhelmed or frustrated that they can’t do what they want, even though they don’t have eczema themselves. Equally, you might resent the fact that they don’t have to plan their life around a long-term health condition!

If this happens, take a breath and remember what attracted you to each other in the first place. A good first step is to admit that eczema has temporarily taken over your relationship and that you need to reel it back in. Sharing how you’re both feeling is a good start. After a rough patch, try to negotiate what you need from each other going forward, to prevent the same thing happening further down the line.

Living with eczema can be isolating, both for you and your partner, so make sure you both have strong support systems in place. Friends and family can offer vital perspective, a shoulder to cry on and some much-needed fun.

If you find you’re struggling to move forward but are both still heavily invested in the relationship, counselling can help you to see a path through your current difficulties and to come out from under the shadow of eczema.