When sexual difficulties are not about sex

Your sex life is a barometer, showing you when something in your relationship deserves your attention. Sex doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Before you exclusively focus on the sexual aspects and label yourself and/or your relationship as having “sexual problems”, it is worth finding out what is going on in your relationship and your life in general. Here are 6 areas that can be responsible when you notice things aren't going well sexually.

Go to the profile of Eva Karia
May 16, 2019
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Struggling with sex- whether it’s because your partner wants sex more or less often than you; because there has been trauma; you are in pain; you and your partner have completely different desires; or you struggle with having an erection - this is incredibly painful and can threaten your whole relationship. These are important issues to explore and get support with. Before you exclusively focus on these aspects and label yourself and/or your relationship as having “sexual problems”, it is worth finding out what is going on in your relationship and your life in general. You probably do not have a “problem” with sex. Consider your sex life as a barometer, showing you when things in your life more broadly deserve your attention. 

Here are 6 areas worth checking out:

1. What is going on in your life?

If you are going through a major upheaval in your life you can expect your sexual desire and your capacity to be present in your body and open up to another to be impacted. Whether you are coping with a bereavement, caring for someone, have recently become a parent, have had a major health procedure done or are really tuned in to a big disaster - whether that is personal or more collective- you will naturally be disconnected from your sexual self. Giving yourself space to rest and to reconnect to yourself needs to be a priority. Many first time parents can be devastated when their sex life goes on hold, fearing they will never be sexual again. The concern is understandable and the reality is there is a time for everything- and being sleep deprived and looking after a baby means that sex will initially become less of a focus. If you and your partner feel differently about this it’s good to have a chat and to also be realistic and give each other time to breathe. Eventually there will be time to rekindle the passion, and that time might not be right now. A conversation with your partner can help you tune in to assess whether now is the time to accept and wait, or whether you have capacity to make more space for this in your life. If things are very tense or too much it can be good to explore this in the context of a facilitated session. 

2. How is your relationship in general?

Do you actually enjoy your partner’s company?

Do you feel your partner appreciates and sees what you contribute to the relationship?

Are you contributing to the relationship? 

Or are you focused much more on what you are interested in? 

Do you spend time together just hanging out without discussing practicalities?

Do you laugh together?

Mainstream culture implies that we all should be having frequent exciting sex. We sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees anymore and as a result focus on having more sex, when actually we should focus on “what the hell are we doing with each other”?! 

If this applies to you, connect to what brings you together and what your vision is. Who are you as a couple? Where do you see yourselves together? It’s time to reevaluate where you are. Do you still want to be together? Take a good honest look at yourself and take it from there. If you choose to reconnect and find that spark that holds you together, you are likely to find yourself drawn back sexually to your partner as well. A good therapist will help you explore your high and low dreams for your relationship- what could your relationship be in your wildest dreams? and in your worst nightmares?; and connect you to what moves you as a couple.

3. How is your communication? 

Do you have a sense of how your partner is doing? Do they know how you are doing? 

Are you able to have arguments and resolve them? 

Can you appreciate your partner’s point of view in an argument?

Can they appreciate your point of view?

Or is each argument more like a competition for who is right? 

If you don’t argue at all and your disagreements become elephants in the room that can’t be named- the gulf will inevitably widen in the bedroom as well. If your arguments are shouting matches full of insults or focused on asking for or providing evidence for your statements- then you are really not seeing each other. That’s definitely not sexy. 

In either case you need to learn how to have constructive disagreements and how to talk about uncomfortable issues. Being able to hear each other, to disagree and still stay ok in your own skin even when your partner is angry with you, will mean you can feel present and engaged again sexually as well. 

This is an area that many couple counsellors cover- having a neutral and caring facilitator present is very helpful when you learn to communicate and disagree more effectively.

When you can fight and experience a sense of your point of view being valued by your partner, even when they might disagree, you will also be able to connect sexually more easily. Clear the air and see what happens! The beauty is that you don’t have to be perfect at this. What it takes is a genuine willingness on both sides to engage with your partner- that makes the difference. 

4. Self-esteem

Do you feel able to say no to your partner? Or are you worried they will be hurt/upset/irritated/angry?

Do you feel able to ask for what you want- in general? Or are you someone who finds that hard because you want to look after others/ be liked by them/ not offend anyone? 

If you or your partner isn’t able to hold their own in the relationship, you won’t be able to have meaningful sexual intimacy. After all, in order to be intimate, ‘you’ need to be present. That means someone needs to be at home who has boundaries, who is able to notice and express what they do or don’t want. Again, this isn’t a matter of perfection but of principle. Most of us don’t always know exactly what we want and we all have moments were we might struggle to stand up for ourselves. But if this is a general occurrence, this needs to be a priority. Therapeutic work in this area will support you to find out more about who you are, and give you the courage and connect you to your capacity to express yourself and feel less impacted by the fear that others my judge or disagree with you. This often also involves working with your own inner critic- many of us have an inner critical voice that puts us down so harshly it is hard to believe the wider world doesn’t feel the same way. 

Sex can be a great area to learn about this- provided you trust your partner and feel safe with them. There are some simple and amazing practices that support individuals and couples to notice and express their boundaries and learn about pleasure. This is something I coach couples and individuals in and it is wonderful to experience the depth of learning and joy that it brings. 

If you struggle to say no because you are scared of your partner, then this is a different scenario. This warrants individual support to find out if you have put yourself in harms way. Contact a therapist, and for urgent serious cases reach out to these places: National domestic abuse resource: https://domesticviolenceuk.org; Locally: Gloucestershire domestic abuse service GDASS Phone: 01452 726570, support@gdass.org.uk

5. Competition & power struggles

Do you feel disrespected and put down by your partner?

Are you trying to prove yourself to your partner ?

Does your partner feel insecure, and you are constantly trying to reassure them? 

In these cases, why on earth would you then open yourself up to being sexual with them? Sex may be one arena where you can say ‘No’ as a way to make an impact and to keep yourself protected.

We all have a need to feel good about ourselves. And we want to see ourselves and be seen by others as valuable. When one partner is more successful than the other this can make intimacy really hard. Feeling unseen and unappreciated won’t encourage sexual desire. 

This is further complicated by the reality that some things get more valued by the mainstream than others. For instance formal work is the foremost way people are seen to be important and valuable- the higher your hierarchical position and salary the more impressive. Looking after children on the other hand is not “proper” work and so is inherently less valued. In a couple where one partner works and one partner looks after the children this issue gets very complex. The same can also be true when one partner is professionally more recognised or earns a lot more than the other. Sexism is in the background for all of those issues- it is why caring roles - whether parenting or caring professions like nursing and teaching are less valued; and it makes it hard for some men in heterosexual relationships to grapple with the reality of their female partner’s higher income. The old assumption that the man needs to be the earner makes it hard to not become insecure as a result. 

You might also just be naturally competitive and are playing unconscious “one-up” games with your partner- finding ways were you want to be on the top. Competition in and of itself is not bad- it’s the lack of consciousness and the feelings of low self worth that are the problem. What is needed here is to be honest with yourself and each other. Competition needs to come out into the open. 

In these cases it is important to: 

Notice and speak about where you don’t feel seen and valued in the relationship

Share and celebrate your strengths and contributions

Explore ways where you can playfully compete

When feelings of low self worth have been heard and expressed and competitive energy is out in the open, it can become a beneficial fuel that adds charge and playfulness to your sex life. 

6. Your body

Do you feel ok in your own body?

Do you feel appreciated by your partner?

Do you appreciate your partner’s body? Does your partner know that?

Oppressive ideas of ideal body images make it hard for many of us to feel comfortable in our own skin, or to appreciate our partner’s beauty when they don’t live up to the look of a supermodel. The mainstream idea of beauty is incredibly limiting in favouring youth, whiteness, slimness and athleticism. However, you can have sexual intimacy and pleasure no matter what your body shape, age or size. To be able to appreciate your own and other’s beauty, it helps to question and let go of mainstream beauty standards and develop a perspective that looks for and savours the juicy beautiful diversity that exists in every body. We just need to allow ourselves to take it in. This is easier said than done- educating yourself on the origin of beauty standards is one way to help dismantle the limited perspective we bring. 

A very good way to enjoy your own body is to move it- finding pleasurable ways to do that- whether walking, dancing, running, weight lifting- whatever floats your boat. However the motivation why you are doing this makes a big difference. This is a question of intention: starving yourself and forcing yourself to work out so you finally look good is painful. Finding exercise you love and treating yourself to heathy food because you want to be well in your body now and in the future is nurturing. 

This is an area where you need to find your own middle ground. On the one hand it is a process of letting go of oppressive ideals, loving yourself and your partner for who you are. On the other hand you do need to take care of yourself- not to conform, but to be and feel well now and long term. Exercise, good nutrition, rest and purpose in your life are important ingredients. If you don’t move your body, don’t feed your body well, you will inevitably feel sluggish and disconnected- which makes sex less desirable and pleasurable and can affect your libido. 

Applying this to your partner- if you don’t take care of yourself chances are you are less attractive to your partner. Yes in an ideal world you would be loved and fancied unconditionally. However the reality is that if you don’t like you- how can you expect someone else to? 

A lot of sexual difficulties are in part fuelled by a partner who really doesn’t like their body and who need their partner to boost their self esteem. That is not sexy for either side. These are uncomfortable realties that need owning up to. These are collective issues we all grapple with in some way. From here it is a journey of discovery- sharing with your partner; doing your own exploring and finding a way to a better relationship with yourself. This will also bring deeper, juicier connection with your partner. 

How can a couples session help?:

Noticing something is not how you want it to be is an important step- whatever troubles you, engaging with this is an opportunity for you to have a richer, more intimate connection to yourself and your partner. Getting support from a therapist can make a big difference here. As a facilitator I hold the torch for the bigger vision and help you notice what is hard to see. I also work with your body, addressing what you are expressing there and might not be aware of yet. What a session looks like is different each time as it is tailor made to meet you and respond to what you bring and how you bring it. Depending on where you are and what you need, we might make space for you to talk and express anger in a way that is held. We might slow down and practice ways that you can communicate more effectively. It might be appropriate to focus more on each of you separately and discover more about you, while your partner witnesses. In other situations we work with your wider family system and how it impacts you. Or we will focus on your interaction, bringing in touch, working with your body, supporting you to be present with your openness and closeness to each other. The focus is never to shame or blame, but to bring awareness and discover what is already happening- this in itself is very transformative. You will make sense of and connect to what is really going on, and find out how you can make it better. Your focus will be very much on fixing things; which is understandable. In sessions we will shift that focus to also include a deeper appreciation for where you are and how what you are struggling with is bringing important information that points the way to how your relationship can grow.  

In Summary

If in reading this you could connect with aspects of one or more of the areas- these are great starting points to explore in order for you to be more content and connect with yourself and your partner. In focusing exclusively on sex when it is actually about other relationship dynamics, you are bound to fail if all you do is trying to “spice things up in the bedroom”. This only increases the sense of hopelessness and disconnection. Rest assured that you do not have to be, nor ever will be, “perfect” in these areas- that is not the point. You can address your sex life in parallel, you don’t have to wait till your communication or your relationship with your body feel brilliant. What I hope this article supports in you, is to change your perspective and make you feel less despairing that you are incapable of being sexually fulfilled. Our bodies are sensitive and won’t perform smoothy while we neglect our sense of safety or our deepest desires. Our bodies- whether that is our libido, our moods or our physical health- get impacted and show it. This is a gift that, if we pay attention, leads us to wholeness.

Go to the profile of Eva Karia

Eva Karia

What does it mean to be truly alive? If you are interested in awareness, in finding meaning and connecting to your body then I would be glad to support you. Recycling is a great concept also for your psyche- you can turn the very experience that disturbs you into very fertile compost. I work with humans of all genders and relationship styles. All sexual orientations, ages, ethnicities welcome. I have expertise in conflict facilitation, issues relating to parenthood, self-esteem, depression, anxiety, rank and power, trauma, relationships and sexuality. Therapy can’t exist in a vacuum- we will also connect to how what you are struggling with connects to the collective; how it reflects and is informed by the difficulties of the world at large. I am “sex positive” and kink aware (= I won’t shame or judge you for what you are into). Sexuality is an important part of our lives and we often don’t know how to be safe and free enough to enjoy it. I support individuals and couples to connect to what pleasure and safety means to them. This has huge benefits- it makes life more joyful and actually carries over into many other areas. I’m also “sex critical” - I don’t think sex is the be all and end all - it’s also fine to not be interested in it! I work with the body, the heart and the mind. My practice is trauma informed. Sessions face to face in Horsley, Gloucestershire or online.

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