Sexual Health

Sophie Bergeron  Ph.D


Did you know that depressive symptoms and fear of abandonment play a role in the intimacy of couples coping with genito-pelvic pain?

This type of chronic pain in women, whose most common form is called Provoked Vestibulodynia (PVD), is associated with a range of psychological, sexual and relational consequences that are sometimes more damaging than the pain itself. Studies with couples coping with PVD demonstrate positive repercussions of intimacy (empathic responses between romantic partners) in their relational and sexual lives. In other words, feeling cared for, validated, and understood by a romantic partner has been associated with positive effects on sexuality and the relationship (e.g., less sexual distress and better marital satisfaction).

In this study, we wanted to know what is associated with the ability to properly perceive and offer empathic responding towards the romantic partner in this population. Knowing that women suffering from PVD often report a certain fear of losing their partner (insecure attachment) and that both members of the couple generally report more depressive symptoms, it appeared relevant to examine the impact of these factors on couples’ ability to communicate empathically. The aim of this study, therefore, was to examine the associations between depressive symptoms, insecure attachment, and perceived and observed empathic responses. To do this, 50 couples coping with PVD took part in a filmed discussion about the impact of PVD in their lives and completed questionnaires.

What did we find?

Results of our study indicated that when women and partners reported greater depressive symptoms and fear of abandonment, they perceived each other as being less empathic. When partners experienced greater depressive symptoms, women and partners engaged in fewer empathic responses.

These results suggest that depressive symptoms and fear of abandonment may act as perceptual filters to partner’s empathic responses. Consequently, behaviors that could be objectively classified as having been understanding and validating may not be perceived as such by each member of the couple. Results also indicate that the partners’ depressive symptoms could interfere with both partners’ capacity to be empathic to each other. Taken together, these findings point to the fact that assessing and targeting depressive symptoms, in addition to the presence of relationship insecurity in couple therapy could increase the perception of empathic responses in each member of the couple. In turn, this could enhance their sexual and relational lives, knowing the important role intimacy plays for couples coping with PVD. Further, although women carry a higher burden from the pain condition, clinicians should not underestimate the presence of depressive symptoms in their partners as it interferes with couples’ healthy and empathic communication patterns.

If you would like to know more about this study, we invite you to read the full paper:

Bosisio, M., Pâquet, M., Bois, K., Rosen, N.O., & Bergeron, S. (2019). Are depressive symptoms and attachment styles associated with observed and perceived partner responsiveness in couples coping with genito-pelvic pain? Journal of Sex Research, 1-11. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2019.1610691

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