Sex is a common source of anxiety for many couples. Plagued by the world of “shoulds” that permeates our mindsets regarding love and relationships, most people carry a host of unrealistic expectations into their sex lives.When sex fails to live up to the impossible ideal, you may assume that there’s something wrong with your relationship or that you’re with the wrong partner. “Sex should be effortless,” the media says. “You should have wild chemistry right from the start,” Hollywood espouses. These are among the many lies that seep into our consciousness and can have a deleterious effect on our sex lives.
The truth is that sex is complicated. It touches on our most vulnerable places in every area of self: emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual. Few people begin their relationships with a clean slate but arrive with negative experiences around sex, early trauma, and/or erroneous beliefs that color their sexuality. The bedroom is often the place where the past collides with the present, so it would make sense that it isn’t always the smoothest ride. If you struggle with sex, you’re far from alone, and the following touchstones can help you navigate these tender places with more gentleness, honesty, and compassion.
1. Communicate Sensitively
I can’t tell you the number of clients who have said to me, “I don’t like kissing my partner because his kisses are too wet but I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” Since avoiding kissing can also hurt his feelings, I encourage my clients to sensitively communicate how they feel.” Without fail, the partner is grateful that she’s spoken up and the entire relationship can shift from this one simple change.
Likewise, if your partner is going too fast, for example, it’s okay to say, “Slow down, honey.” The key is to communicate gently and with love and keep in mind that sex is just as vulnerable for your partner as it is for you.
2. Take the Pressure Off of Frequency
Our culture says that you must be having sex 2-3 times a week to qualify for the healthy sex life category. Past the initial honeymoon stage, very few couples actually have sex 2-3 times a week, especially when children enter the picture. If the frequency of your sexual encounters works for you, then it’s healthy for your relationship. As there’s usually a high-drive and a low-drive partner, it’s not likely that your needs will align perfectly. This is where communication comes in, where you both sensitively work to attend to the others’ needs. It may seem impossible when needs are radically different, but in the pool of loving communication and intention nothing is impossible.
3. Focus on Connection Instead of Outcome
We are an outcome-obsessed culture, and when it comes to sex that means that we place a very high premium on intercourse and orgasms. The truth is that a great sex life isn’t dependent on intercourse and orgasms and when we focus too much on the end result we lose connection to the process.
There are two interwoven rivers of feeling during sex: connection and sensation. When you focus only on sensation, it’s easy to disconnect from the emotional connection and become single-mindedly focused on orgasm. For many women, having an orgasm requires so much focus, including closing their eyes and escaping into fantasy, that they almost forget who they’re having sex with! While there’s no problem with this, it can also be satisfying to open your eyes – both literally and metaphorically – and bring your attention back to the emotional connection with your partner.
4. Notice and Name Your Walls
We all have walls around our bodies and hearts; it’s part of being human and it’s very easy for these walls to emerge around our sexuality because it’s one of our move vulnerable areas. When these walls arises, the most common response is to try to ignore them. But if you find the courage to say to your partner, “My wall is up and I need your help crossing over it,” miracles can happen.
In order to name the wall, you first need to identify that the wall is up. Most people have telltale signs in their body when they’re closed off: tightness in the chest, heavy hands, tingly legs, and, for those prone to relationship anxiety, the almost knee-jerk desire to push their partner as far away as possible. If you allow your anxiety to sidle into the driver’s seat, you’ll end up withdrawing from your partner further. But when you take responsibility for your walls by noticing them and naming them, you create the opportunity for the two of you to move closer together.
5. Get to Know Your Sexual Cycles
Sexuality ebbs and flows, just like everything else in life. There will days, weeks, or even seasons where you feel more or less sexual; that’s normal. While men’s hormones are entering their systems at a steady rate day or night, women’s hormones fluctuate radically. Some women feel more sexual in the morning; others at night. Many women experience heightened sexuality before and during ovulation; other women notice higher drive around their period. When you pay attention to your body, you’ll start to notice patterns. These patterns can bring increased awareness to your sexuality.
6. View Sex as an Offering
I often hear women say, “Sometimes I have sex even when I don’t feel like it because it feels important for the relationship. Is that okay?” Yes, not only is it okay, if it’s done with loving intention then it’s a loving action that can help fill the relationship well. And, most times, women also say, “And even when I don’t feel like doing it initially, afterwards I’m always glad that I did.” As I mentioned, women aren’t typically as hormonally primed to have sex as men are (and this certainly isn’t a global truth), so it may take more effort to “get into the mood.” But what serves the third body of the relationship will also serve each of you as individuals, and if you view sex as an offering it can help lift you out of the mindset that you’re only doing it for him.
7. Lower Your Expectations
Sometimes the sex will be great; other times not so great. Sometimes you’ll feel completely present, passionate, and alive; other times you’ll be thinking that you need to add apples to your shopping list. Sometimes your body will respond effortlessly to your partner’s touch; other times you’ll need to communicate more because the flow isn’t quite happening. If you approach sex with the expectation that it has to be fantastic every time, you’re setting both of you up for disappointment, shame, and self-judgement. But if you recognize that there’s a natural arc to your sexuality, it lets both of you off the hook and frees you up to have a more positive experience.
8. Allow Your Sexual Connection to Infuse Your Relationship
Sexuality doesn’t only exist within the confines of the bedroom. When your heart and body are open to each other, partners communicate sexually throughout the day in a variety of ways: through loving touch, tender kisses, flirtatious words. By keeping these channels open, when you next meet in the bedroom you’re not starting the momentum from zero but are continuing a connection that has been kept alive in between each rendezvous.
Similarly, we tend to think that sex is only touching and having actual sex, but when you widen your definition of sex you’ll see that it can be much more than this. Taking a loving shower together can be sexual (even if you don’t actually have sex). Kissing passionately on the couch for a few minutes before bedtime can be sexual. The point is the sexual connection, not necessarily the acts themselves.
While having a strong sexual relationship isn’t essential to a healthy marriage, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Many couples feel that their shared sexuality is like a love-gel that helps bond them in a sacred and special way. Following these touchstones can help you keep this connection healthy and loving for years to come.
If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and sense that fear has clouded your vision of your partner and doused your sex drive, you may want to consider joining my upcoming course, “Open Your Heart: A 30 day program to feel more love and attraction for your partner.” And even if you never felt the “spark” to begin with but you have a loving foundation, the love and attraction can be cultivated.