A great sex life—it’s what every couple and every adult wants. Much has been written about sex, yet so much of it is misleading. Sex matters, and having a healthy, informed attitude towards sex will enhance your sex life.
Latest research lists 237 motivations for people to have sex. In this article, I am narrowing it down to two: 1. It meets our human need to feel good about ourselves, and 2. It meets our human need to bond with another. So, when sex isn’t fulfilling, it can affect your self-esteem and your relationship.
Sexual problems are not unusual. About 47% of Australians encounter sexual problems at some point in their life. Sex problems are not usually a topic for discussion (apart from jokes) even among the closest of friends. Sadly, couples tend to think other couples are having more sex, better sex, great sex. Single people may feel alone in their problems believing their friends are having a more successful sex life than them.
Sexual problems tend to have a domino effect if left unaddressed. Like any other problem, there is no shame in seeking help. For an individual, feeling sexually good about you is closely linked to feeling confident and secure. For a couple, sexual problems create emotional distance that over time will lead to further disconnection.
As relationship psychologists and counsellors, we are experienced in helping individuals and couples (heterosexual and same sex) address some of the common issues. This list is by no means exhaustive:
Impotence or lack of desire
Premature or delayed ejaculation
Mismatched libidos or sexual desire
Faking orgasms or inability to experience orgasm
Unsatisfying sex for one or both partners
Boring, routine ‘obligatory’ or ‘to-do list’ sex
Fear of feeling exposed or vulnerable
Fear of intimacy
Compulsive sexual behaviours that interfere with the relationship
Life changes that interfere with fulfilling sex, such as birth of a child, ageing, significant life stressors - loss of job, money, etc.
What Is Sex
Sex is a bonding activity. Strictly speaking our bodies cannot differentiate between physical acts of sex and bonding. Touching, gazing, kissing, hugging, hand holding and sex causes neurochemical changes in our brain releasing chemicals to create emotional bonding between partners. Oxytocin the feel-good ‘bonding’ hormone is released in both men and women (but felt more strongly by women, due to being enhanced by oestrogen). Vasopressin, also known as the ‘monogamy molecule’ is a male hormone released after sex that inspires a man to stay by his partner protectively. Because of the important roles played by oxytocin and vasopressin during and after sex, it is easy to see that emotional bonds can result even when the intent is casual sex or an extramarital affair. This is why the idea of ‘friends with benefits’ (non-romantic friendships with a sexual component but no emotional involvement) rarely works out in reality.
The more you have sex with your partner, the more bonded or attached you will feel purely because of the chemicals your brain produces. Perhaps this is a reason why men and women can stay in unhappy or even abusive relationships due to a satisfactory sex life.
So, you may ask, ‘if it is natural for us humans to bond and stay with partners, how do some people or couples end up in difficult situations such as problems listed above’? While some sexual problems may stem from a medical cause, most often they are about emotional conflicts within a person and or emotional conflicts between partners. These conflicts stem from a person’s bonding style. Better known in psychology as attachment style. For couples, this means how each partner’s attachment style influences the other.
Sex Therapy for Couples
For some couples, satisfying sex can happen in an insecure or unstable relationship motivated by the underlying parallel needs of the couple's attachment style. But the relationship won’t last if the relationship remains unstable. For other couples, if there are emotional problems or conflict in a relationship, that couple’s sex live will inevitably suffer. But to consistently enjoy great sex in a long term relationship requires both components: a good relationship and great sex.
A good relationship is one where partners can feel emotionally safe, secure, vulnerable and open. This intimate connection leads to increased spontaneity and risk-taking. In other words, a good relationship allows us to play, to learn, to explore each other’s bodies and minds. Thrilling sex is about being secure enough to surrender to the moment and to our partner. Three decades of attachment studies have shown an inextricable link between the quality and quantity of a couple’s sex life and the quality of their relationship. To have good sex, a relationship must address the emotional and physical needs of both partners.
When a relationship is not working for whatever reason (stress, time poor, anxiety, depression, birth of a child, etc.) partners often get caught in cycles of ‘pursue and withdraw’ both in their daily lives and in sex. The pursuer partner may initially reach for and demand sexual contact, seeking affection and reassurance, while the withdrawer partner, feeling pressured will tend to shut down or retreat. After the initial withdrawal, the withdrawer partner may initiate sexual contact (out of pressure, obligation or fear) but avoids emotional connection or emotional intimacy. To shut down this innate bonding response and keep an emotional distance from one’s sex partner actually takes hard work, as it means resisting the natural urge to connect emotionally during sex.
Over time this cycle will cause the pursuer partner to feel undesirable, unwanted. And the withdrawer partner to feel not good enough or inadequate. In this negative cycle, there are no winners. If these vulnerable feelings are not acknowledged, discussed and resolved, the relationship is in trouble. At some point, sexual contact reduces or all together stops as both partners feel disappointed, inadequate, hurt and rejected. Moreover, after sexual contact stops, it is likely that other forms of touch will also go away thus reinforcing the emotional distance and disconnection between the couple.
People who: are quick to anger, are self-critical, feel guilt or shame easily, fear loss of control, or fear feeling vulnerable tend to struggle with sexual function and satisfaction. And men and women who easily disconnect from their emotions, struggle with the feelings of bonding that naturally occurs during and after sex. If such problems are occuring for only one partner in the relationship, we view this as a relationship issue, particularly if both partners want the relationship to continue. (click to read Understanding the emotionally unavailable.)
Commonly, sexual conflicts and anxieties mirror what is happening in the relationship overall. The frequency and quality of a couple’s sex life reflects how emotionally close and connected a couple feels, how assured each partner feels about being valued and loved, and how safe each partner feels about being vulnerable. This is also backed by research which shows that the most common cause of disrupted sexual desire or sexual dissatisfaction within a relationship is emotional disconnection or emotional distance.
Many people assume that once a couple have been together for a while, the fun and excitement of their sex life naturally wanes. This is far from accurate. Research based on 500 couples in America has shown that the best sex is experienced with couples who have been in committed relationships over 15 years or longer. A post we made on our Facebook page that says, “Familiarity does not kill passion. The lack of emotional connection and responsiveness does”, over 2,000 men and women in Melbourne agreed!
Many couples in fact do not talk to each other when they are not feeling good or when sex is unfulfilling. At ARM, our psychologists and counsellors are sensitive and experienced. We have helped many couples resolve their sexual issues and difficulties. We provide a comprehensive approach to sex therapy for couples as we help with both the sexual issues as well as the relationship issues. Give us a call on 0400 999 918 or send us an email for a confidential discussion.
Sex Therapy for Individuals
Desire or Arousal
What is your attitude or mindset towards sex? What comes first for you – desire or arousal?
Desire is a mental/psychological urge to engage in sex with someone. Arousal is a physiological state indicated by certain bodily reactions to a stimulus. Desire and arousal are not the same, and in fact, they can sometimes operate independently.
If we wait for arousal, we limit ourselves to having sex when we are aroused. If we desire sex and we place a ‘willingness to have sex’ first rather than waiting to be aroused, we will have more sex. Willingness leads to arousal and ultimately we have more sex!
Now if you are one who has placed arousal first, try to look back into your sexual history and trace the implications. Getting aroused may have been quite difficult if you: were stressed, had a bad day at work, argued with your partner, or were uncertain of where you stood with a new date. All these feelings of anxiety would most certainly dampen arousal, and research shows people who are prone to feeling nervous or anxious experience less arousal and a lower level of sexual pleasure. Woman may struggle with painful sex due to difficulty with lubrication and have fewer orgasms. A man will tend to have problems maintaining erection and experience a lower level of sexual satisfaction.
Things would look vastly different if the mindset is to place desire to have sex or the willingness to have sex, first.
Are You a Performance Lover or a Pleasure Lover?
Hollywood movies with images of ‘perfect’ bodies demonstrating how easy it is to fall into bed with someone you just met to enjoy sizzling sex focuses on sexual performance. Even the Kamasutra at first glance, focuses on the many positions of intercourse. The ‘Performance Model’ holds that intercourse is the only kind of sex, and that the only point of sex is to perform well and produce orgasm. Not only that, but there is pressure to analyse orgasms to measure whether they are long enough, intense enough, or multiple enough.
This model ultimately sets up individuals and couples for failure because of its emphasis on evaluating performance and quantity of sexual intercourse. This model is also the reason that we are constantly confronted by information about new and improved sexual techniques to make our relationships better. Couples or individuals who participate in the swinging lifestyle tend to view sex from the Performance Model framework.
The Performance model is attractive to people who are uncomfortable with emotions and who separate sex from emotions. Men and women who are perfectionists and high achievers tend to view sex through the Performance model.
The Performance Model is doomed to failure because most people will not be able to live up to it. Many men are rapid ejaculators, and almost half of men over 40 years old will experience erectile dysfunction at some point. Nearly half of women experience sexual dysfunction at some point and almost three-quarters of women are unable to achieve orgasm through intercourse alone. Reasons range from everyday events like work stress, not feeling sexy after having a baby, tiredness from looking after children to more major events like anxiety, depression and trauma. Other reasons include ignorance and not really knowing one's own body. Add to this the inevitable fact that feelings of boredom, inadequacy, or being ‘not good enough’ are likely to creep over an individual or into the relationship over time.
The Performance Model creates an environment of performance anxiety where pleasure is down played or seen as secondary due to the emphasis on achieving a measurable goal – the orgasm. The Performance model is also of little use to people as we age, which we inevitably do. (click to read Getting Older - Ageing Well and sex)
The alternative is a model focused on pleasure rather than performance. If you adopt a mindset of giving and receiving pleasure, most of the time the body will catch up to do the rest. And even if the big ‘O’ is not achieved, the pleasure would have been enjoyed and worthwhile. Instead of the singleminded foucs to reach for orgasm, this new model provides a multifaceted approach to sex. This Pleasure Model takes the anxiety out of sex.
If you have been struggling to feel confident about you and your sex life, perhaps it’s time to evaluate and explore with a skilled and experienced psychologist or counsellor. Counselling for sexual problems is a talk-based therapy only. We explore and discuss your mindset/idea of sex and may address the specific issues related to your sex life. This may include questionnaires on medical, lifestyle, family, relationship or personal history. Send us an email to make contact.