One might think, given how much I write about relationships, that I would write more about sex. I’ve touched on the subject sporadically – here and here and here – but I haven’t delved into the topic in depth for a variety of reasons, the primary being that it’s such a vast and complicated realm that it’s difficult to do it justice in a single article. Still, because the topic arises so frequently with my clients and on my forums, it’s worth diving in a bit more, even if we only scratch the surface.
I’ve written about what’s “normal” and hopefully have shed some light on the connection between anxiety and sex. A large part of my work consists of debunking the pernicious “shoulds” that weigh heavily into psyches and mutate into shame. When we’re up against an externally derived barometer of what a healthy relationship should look like, we will almost inevitably fall short. And the falling short then provides evidence to our fear-based self that we are, indeed, with the wrong partner.
Here’s what this might look like:
The culture says we should be having sex 2-3 times a week and I should feel desire for my partner more frequently than I do.
Since I don’t feel desire – since I don’t want to rip his/her clothes off the minute he/she walks in the door – there must be something wrong.
Therefore, I’m in the wrong relationship.
The implicit message here is: If I were with someone else I would feel desire and we would be having the requisite sex 2-3 times a week. And the sub-message of the implicit message is: My partner is responsible for my arousal. There’s this thing called “chemistry” and you either have it or you don’t. We obviously don’t, so we’re doomed.
But today I’m going to take a different angle. It may spark some anxiety, and that’s okay, as you may rub against an internal “should”. Bring breath and compassion to that spike; it will pass through. And then stay open to what I’m suggesting here and see if it rings true for you.
I want to talk today about the habit of sex, for there’s something to be said about making a habit of it. Like any habit, the more you do it the easier it gets, and the less you do it the harder it becomes. If you wait weeks without cultivating sexual energy in your relationship, when you do attempt to connect there it can feel like starting a cold engine in the middle of winter. The gears are tight; they grind and groan (and not in the erotic sense). Your wheels are rusty and dry and it can take some real focused effort to lubricate them (the metaphor fits perfectly here:)). It’s easy for the mind to enter at this point and throw up roadblocks of resistance: If it’s this difficult there’s something wrong. My partner just doesn’t light my fire. We’re not a good match. We have no chemistry. You’re then faced not only with the stagnation of your body but you now have to contend with the fear-blocks of mind.
On the other hand, when you have more frequent sex your body stays lit up. The frequency of desire hums at the surface like a bevy of honeybees. Your motor is warm. Your body is alive. You purr. Like exercise, which can be a hard habit to create but once you’re in it you can’t imagine your life without it, when you’re in the habit of sex you start to crave the sex. And you also start to notice that a healthy, active sex life creates a storehouse of goodwill and positive feelings that can only benefit the relationship.
As Charla Muller writes in 365 nights (her memoir on the gift she gave her husband for his 40th birthday: sex every night for a year after “a career of dodging sex with my nice husband”!):
“On the way home, we had a backseat smooch session like we were teenagers. This, I have to admit, was not normal behavior for us. In the past it would have been a warm embrace and a meaningful peck and let’s call it a day. But it seems that touch begets touch, and regular intimacy makes everything nice.” (p. 138)
“Having sex today is always worth more than having sex tomorrow. We reap the benefits of having sex plus all the goodwill it generates in for our marriage and in the eyes of our spouse. In turn, this accrues (like compound interest), and we now have a “bank account” of intimacy that can be reflected in less stress between partners, less anxiety, a closer relationship, and so on.” (p. 217)
I’m writing now to the low-drive partner, as, mostly commonly, it’s the low-driver that wields the control regarding sex in a relationship. It’s also the low-drive partner who usually becomes a victim to their own anxiety or trapped in their own inherited stories about sex, which shuts down their aliveness and sends them Googling their way to my work.
What happens if you’re the high drive partner? It’s important to keep expressing your need in an open, vulnerable way – a way that invites your partner into your heart instead of shutting them down with your attacks and blame. One of the most common dynamics in intimate partnership is when one person pushes for sex and the other person dodges it. And when both partners retreat to their corners to lick their wounds and nobody is expressing a need for more sexual intimacy, a relationship can suffer. In EFT terminology this is referred to as a withdraw-withdraw couple.
While sex begets sex, and it’s ultimately up to the low-drive partner to move past some blocks so that he or she is more available for sexual contact, it’s far too trite to offer the prescription of “just do it”. If there are not deeper issues of shame, trauma, abuse, or intergenerational absorption of ancestral stories in the way, yes, you can move past sexual stagnation by just doing it. But in order to create true flow and authentic desire, the low drive partner must first work to excavate the blocks. This, like all healing work, takes time. And the high-drive partner needs to learn ways to communicate healthy needs in a way that opens his or her partner instead of causing more shut down.
Patience and trust are essential. You’re in this for the long haul and when you can trust that, over time and with commitment, you will find your way to a mutually loving and satisfying sexual relationship, you can both exhale into the journey. Most people carry a giant boulder of shame that interferes with their ability to freely express their sexuality. If that’s true for you, please know that you’re not alone and that there is no time pressure to move past this into healing. But sometimes, as if often the case in the realm of love, indulging in the consequence of shame (I’m closed down so I don’t feel like having sex), can further entrench the shame. Just as love is action, sex is also action. By this I mean you don’t always have to feel desire in order to do it, and that quite often the desire comes from the doing it.
Finally, let me be clear on two points:
1. If the two of you are content with your sexual relationship, celebrate. Do not fall into a cultural mindset that says you have to be having a certain amount or a certain kind of sex in order to qualify for the healthy relationship category. As you know if you follow my blog, I’m a big believer in the mindset that there are as many healthy models for relationship as there are couples. In other words, if it’s working for the two of you, then you’re just fine.
2. When I say “sex”, I do not mean the limited and narrow-minded definition of sex that the culture espouses: namely, intercourse that culminates in orgasms. Rather, I mean all kinds of intimate sharing: kissing, touching, exploring with fingers, hands, and mouth, lying naked together, full body, extended hugs, and massage. I mean, first and foremost, feeling connected to each other in a variety of physical ways, and recognizing that these physical connections are a natural and organic outgrowth of your emotional connection.
However, it’s worth saying again that the habit of sex can also facilitate the emotional connection so sometimes, even if you’re not “in the mood”, connecting sexually is a good place to start. We now know that sexual connection releases oxytocin, the same hormone released from breastfeeding that strengthens bonding between mother and child. What does that mean? Sex bonds. It’s not the only way to bond, but once you work through blocks of fear, old stories, and resentment, it’s one that works. It can keep the gears of a marriage well-oiled. It can keep the channels in your own body clear, open, and alive. And, if it’s working well, it’s just plain fun.