Talking about sex with my partner is so difficult!
The reason for this is no surprise. When sex is working, we don’t generally see the need to talk about it. But when issues arise we don’t have an existing dialog about sex, it’s more difficult to start a dialog when there are already problems.
Nonetheless, we might feel that our partner should be the easiest person to talk to about anything. We often see our partner as our best friend, a confidante and someone whose insight we trust with almost any other issue. So why is sex so hard to address? In fact, the reason is again, quite straight-forward. When we are talking about sex, our partner is involved in the problem. Talking to a friend can actually be a easier, because they aren't directly involved.
Because your partner is directly involved in the issue, it is much more difficult to express ambivalent or even negative thoughts and feelings. For example, how easy is it to say, “I’m not really enjoying it when we have sex" or "I know I love you, but I’m not sure I really fancy you at the moment" or "sometimes sex is more of a chore than a pleasure."
Sex is seen as the main thing - rightly or wrongly - that distinguishes a couple relationship from just being friends. So if these negative feelings are around, it can feel like your whole relationship is on the line.
In some ways, this means there is a positive disincentive to discuss sex. If feelings of desire have changed or feel like they’ve gone altogether - if there’s no spark - then doesn’t that mean the relationship is over? You may think, "perhaps it’s best to leave the whole issue! So long as we are running our lives OK and doing the job of co-parenting our kids, maybe we can just ignore the rest."
But if these feelings get left, they can cause resentment: with one partner feeling pressured into having sex, and the other feeling hurt that their partner is not interested. This can lead to rows. Unfortunately it rarely leads an honest and calm discussion of the situation.
Some couples instead of expressing resentment or rowing, reach an unspoken accommodation around sex. Firstly, it is a subject they will consciously avoid (no mention of its absence, and no complaints about it). Then perhaps they will arrange separate bedtimes, to avoid the possibility of intimacy - and explain it to themselves by saying, "After all, I’m a bit of a night-owl and you need your beauty sleep."
Yet other couples bicker continually, which while not actually splitting them up, means they are unlikely to ever be intimate and have to address the issue of what is problematic.
A more insidious affect of not talking is that one or both partners can start to desexualise themselves, and feel they have a depressed libido - in a form of unconscious accommodation to the problem.
The way through all this - if you want to break these patterns - is to talk. And since talking is so difficult with your partner, a good place to start is in acknowledging how hard it is to discuss.
Chances are, your partner will feel the same way.
Having agreed that talking is difficult - embarrassing, awkward, anxiety-provoking - a good next step can be to normalise the situation for each other. The fact is, most couples go through these issues and here are some good, generic reasons that is the case:
- Domesticity, everyday life and the demands of work, children and running a house deadens us to the erotic connection we used to find easy. We get tired, stressed, bored and even if we can find the time for sex, it can feel like a just another task to tick off the list. Another demand, not a pleasure.
- Long-term relationships put the emphasis on security, stability and a feeling of home; not on excitement, surprise, and eroticism. These feelings actually pull in opposite directions and keeping them both is very difficult. How can you have two different visions of your partner: co-parent, economic partner and hopefully best friend, but also lover? Can you see the person you go to the supermarket with as erotic? Your ‘rock’ as ‘hot’?
- Don’t we dampen down the sexual excitement and explorations of youth almost deliberately in a long-term relationship, since we have promised fidelity and monogamy? Too much being in-touch with passion might be destabilising.
If talking is proving difficult, it might just help to offer this article to your partner to read.
Finally, if you feel stuck, most couples find that a good, specialist relationship therapist who really understands these issues can help a great deal. They can show you how to restore a balance in your relationship, so that sex can become something to look forward to again, and help you communicate about it.
The key is to find someone you feel you can relate to. Perhaps look for someone who will offer you a trial session. Don't go to someone who tells you these problems are signs of failure in a relationship - because however dissatisfied we feel, these problems are really normal!
Don’t necessarily accept that because you aren't connecting sexually, you must need to get closer. In my experience, couples often need more individual space, as much as they need more quality time together. It's all about regulating intimacy, and different types of intimacy. Think of ‘us’ as two individuals, and then as a couple.
Related articles from our experts
Cate Campbell MA, MBACP (Accred), MCOSRT (Accred), MAFT23rd March, 2017
- Reactive and responsive relationships
Graeme Armstrong MBACP21st March, 2017
- How psychodynamic therapy helps to break the cycle of unhealthy relationships
Margery Parsons, d.c.t.p., UKCP reg.20th March, 2017
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