Up until recently, low sexual desire issues are treated as a biological or an individual’s problem and recognized mostly in a medical setting, yet today, we recognize that it’s highly contextual – whatever is happening outside of the bedroom is impacting inside of the bedroom. Financial stress, communication issues, bodily insecurities, childbirth, personal sexual dysfunction such as erectile dysfunction or pelvic pain issues, personal mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, aging, sickness, affairs, unfair shared responsibilities at the household, resentment, anger, shame, guilt, and distrust are all contextual factors that are affecting the couple’s sexual relationship.
When we think of the past few years, the impact of the pandemic and quarantining are undeniable on couples’ sex life. I plan to share “the aftermath of the pandemic” on sexual relationships in another time. On this blog, I want to share with you where we go from expressing “We barely have sex anymore” in our sessions.
For many couples, sexual relationship is as important as emotional relationship. However, having conflicting thoughts and feelings around “the ideal sex life” is expected for partners. It’s very common that one partner may think, “We never have sex because we have sex only once a week”, while the other partner may think, “We have sex all the time, it’s every week”. For this reason, one of the common questions that I ask couples is: “What does ideal sex mean to you, including the frequency and the type of sex you want?” The official definition of a sexless relationship is if a couple has sex less than 10 times per year. But keep in mind that, every couple is different, and it is up to you and your partner to decide the ideal frequency of sex and the definition of a sexless relationship, so my next question is “Do you think your relationship is sexless and why?”
Often, I start exploring your sexual history as a couple from the most recent history with this question: “When was the last time you had sex and how was it?” When I ask this question to couples in therapy, the most common answer I get is: “It’s been a while and overall, our sex life is okay/fine”. I also get answers like, “I can’t remember the last time we had sex. I guess we haven’t had sex since the vacation we took about 3 years ago”. Asking this question gives me so much information about your sexual relationship. We’ve been thought that if you focus on the relationship, on the companionship, sexual intimacy will improve itself. But realistically, there are two parts of a relationship: companionship and eroticism. Companionship is the day-to-day interactions helps you to manage your world, for example, doing groceries, paying the rent, watching TV, etc. – you can think of this concept as friendship or as “the roommate life”. Many couples come to therapy and share that, “I just feel like we are two roommates living together and raising kids.” This sentence brings us to eroticism which is more about passion and being in love. When couples come to therapy, they initially think that their companionship needs work. Almost every couple comes in for therapy tells me that they want to work on their communication and conflict resolution. However, soon after they realize that eroticism aspect probably needs as much work as the companionship aspect because they want to figure out why they feel so conflicted, angry, bitter, resentful, frustrated, and disconnected. The good news is that when we work on the eroticism aspect of the relationship, companionship aspect also improves.
This brings me to my next question for couples: “Are you connecting physically in ways other than sex?” I spend a good amount of time sharing the difference between sexual touch vs nonsexual touch with couples, similarly the difference between sexual vs physical intimacy. For some couples, holding hands and watching TV is a sexual touch because they define this act of intimacy as foreplay – a touch that leads up to sex. Some couples, on the other hand, do watch TV by holding hands and not necessarily have sex afterwards. For them, holding hands is a part of their daily/relaxation routine and a form of physical intimacy. And there are some couples that don’t hold hands – often partners are terrified of “sending the wrong message” to their partner by holding their hands or engaging in any form of physical intimacy. If this is what you relate to, you may think: “If I sit next to my partner and give them a kiss right now, what if they think I’m initiating sex. I just want to relax and watch TV without having this pressure.” In this situation, my follow up question usually is: “How do you initiate sex?” Helping each partner to come up with their own cues to initiate and refuse having sex is a part of sex therapy where partners can be on the same page. I also ask couples, “How do you want your partner to initiate sex?” and similarly, “How do you decline your partner’s advances & how do you want your partner to decline your advances.” Saying no to a partner’s attempt at initiating sex can be challenging for many couples. Many avoid the situation entirely, making your partner feel rejected. If your partner doesn’t want to have sex and you feel rejected, the rejected partner often withdraws and stopped pursuing due to feeling discouraged. So, I further investigate how you cope with rejection as we come up with a new way of initiating/rejecting sex where no one feels rejected, unwanted, or unattractive. Also, please keep in mind that some people need to feel emotionally connected to have sex, but some people need to have sex to feel emotionally connected. If you are waiting to feel that connection to have sex, and if your partner wants to have sex to feel connected, you’ll miss each other’s sexual intimacy needs. At this phase of couples & sex therapy, I also help you to identify your intimacy needs, “What makes you more likely to want to connect sexually with your partner?”
Talking about your intimacy needs with your partner may not always be easy – these conversations can be anxiety provoking. The way you talk about sex can be heard as criticism by your partner. Sometimes couples also talk about their past sexual experiences when they aren’t ready to acknowledge or acknowledging these experiences are unhelpful. Questions you ask each other before you’ve decided to start couples therapy are, “What is wrong?”, “Why am I not enough for you?”, “Don’t you find me attractive anymore?”, “What else do you want from me?” These questions are going to cause you to point out everything that you think is not working. This is where I meet you. Couples come in and they usually list out the things they think are not working in their sexual relationship. However, the way that you can change your sex life is not by saying “I hate it when you go to the left”, it’s by saying “I love it when you go to the right.” So, my next question to couples is: “What do you like, or did you like about your sexual relationship with your partner?”
Being able to communicate through your sexual needs with your partner, also requires a sexual self-awareness. Focusing on your own pleasure, knowing what turns your sexual self on, what you like, and how you’d like to be touched and loved helps you to sexually communicate with your partner. In our popular culture, sexual health magazines are full of articles like “10 ways to rock his world” or “15 ways to blow her mind” but these articles aren’t helpful. Sex is more pleasurable when partners focus on their own needs and communicate through them with each other. So, I also ask each of you: “How do you define pleasure & what’s enjoyable for you?”
As we progress in our sessions, we continue to explore your sexual history as a couple with questions like, “When did you and your partner begin to feel you had a low sex or no sex life?”, “How was sex at the beginning of your relationship, such as before marriage or childbirth”, and “How does your sex life change over the course of your relationship?” Here I often get different responses from each partner – which only shows me that how each person’s experiences and perspectives are different. I help you to hear out these differences and listen to your partner without engaging in defensive listening, similarly I help you to feel heard and understood by your partner. This phase may be the longest phase but often the most rewarding part of the therapy process.
If you and your partner relate with experiencing low sexual desire & having a sexless relationship, contact me and schedule a couples/sex therapy session.
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