This post is a summary of: Santerre-Baillargeon, M., Rosen, N.O., Steben, M., Pâquet, M., Macabena Perez, R., & Bergeron, S. (2017). Does Self-Compassion Benefit Couples Coping with Vulvodynia? Associations with Psychological, Sexual and Relationship Adjustment. The Clinical Journal of Pain. DOI: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000579
Provoked vestibulodynia (PVD) is a chronic vulvovaginal pain condition that is characterized by burning pain at vulvuar vestibule (entrance of the vagina) when pressure is applied. This pain often happens during sexual intercourse and intimacy, but can also occur in a non-sexual situation such as tampon insertion .
As you can imagine, experiencing this type of pain can greatly impact women. Women with PVD have reported more sexual distress, less sexual satisfaction and poorer sexual functioning compared to women without PVD [2-5], increased psychological distress , higher anxiety and depression [7-8], and altered self-image .
Partners of women with PVD can also be affected and often report increased psychological distress, lower sexual satisfaction, and poorer sexual functioning [10-12].
Researchers that study chronic pain have begun to examine potential protective factors that may help people cope with and reduce their pain. One of these factors, called self-compassion refers to a quality that promotes a kindness and understanding towards oneself when they experience difficult situations such as pain or failure.
Self-compassion has been shown to promote better mental health  and decrease levels of distress, anxiety and depression among clinical and non-clinical samples . Additionally, self-compassion has been linked to greater pain acceptance . However, the majority of studies on self-compassion as not considered its impact in a relational context .
Specifically, no studies to date have examined self-compassion among a chronic pain population such as partnered couples. The present study tested whether having a caring or kind attitude (e.g. self-compassion) towards oneself would be linked with a decrease in psychological, sexual, and relational distress among women with PVD and their partners.
What was the goal of the study?
To see how self-compassion among women with PVD and their partners was linked to psychological distress (anxiety, depression), sexual distress, relationship satisfaction, and levels of pain.
What did they do?
48 women diagnosed with PVD and their partners completed a structured interview that collected information on their demographics, relationship history, gynecological history, pain history, and current pain/sexual activity. Couples also completed separate online surveys that measured self-compassion and psychological distress (anxiety, depression), sexual distress, relationship satisfaction, and levels of pain.
What did they find?
- Women’s and partners’ higher self-compassion was linked to their own lower reports of anxiety and depressive symptoms.
- When partners had higher self-compassion, they reported higher relationship satisfaction, and they and women reported lower sexual distress.
- Both women and partners’ higher levels of self-compassion was not associated with women’s reports of pain during intercourse
What do these findings mean?
Broadly, this research tells us that self-compassion is a promising protective factor in the experience of vulvodynia and that it has an impact on decreasing distress that commonly accompanies this chronic pain condition.
These particular findings emphasize the importance of positive emotional factors such as self-compassion in the adjustment and distress associated with chronic pain. Self-compassion has been associated with less negative coping strategies such as catastrophizing, rumination, and avoidance responses. These results suggest that self-compassion could reduce the likelihood of women and their partners engaging in negative coping responses to pain .
Among partners, being compassionate toward themselves could be linked to less negative self-related emotions (e.g. guilty feelings from causing the woman pain), and may allow them to be more aware of pleasuring the woman sexually and emotionally despite the pain.
Women may feel that having a more self-compassionate partner may allow them to feel more accepted and validated in their pain which could lead to increased sexual adjustment and satisfaction.
Interventions targeted at helping women with PVD and their partners should aim to increase and promote positive protective factors such as self-compassion in therapeutic or clinical settings. Self-compassion may allow women with PVD to have decreased feelings of inadequacy, isolation and shame that are commonly associated with vulvodynia. Additionally, interventions may allow partners to better cope with the negative consequences of this pain.
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