Published On: Sun, Dec 16th, 2012

Sex and Other “Issues”

Sex and Other “Issues”

by Connie Stapleton, Ph.D.

Two aspects of a relationship that are (theoretically) the most natural behaviors of human beings, somehow lead to the deterioration of many a couple. Wouldn’t you know, these two things go hand-in-hand! When one is good, the other usually follows suit. What I’m talking about are communication and sex. We communicate from the day we are born and we enter this world as sexual beings. It baffles me how our species so often struggles with these inherent abilities, which have the capacity to make our most intimate relationships highly rewarding. As a therapist, I see, on a daily basis, how we humans use these instinctive behaviors in unhealthy ways, often leaving couples frustrated, lonely, and insecure.

So what’s the problem? We know how to communicate from infancy, albeit in a rudimentary sort of way. And most of us figure out that sexual activity is pleasurable and sort through the mechanics of how that works from a fairly young age. These two simple, intrinsically healthy behaviors too often, and too easily, become the very things that epitomize an unhealthy relationship. 

How does that happen? Most of us yearn for an intimate relationship in which we feel heard and understood by our loved one, and they, in turn, feel reciprocally heard and understood by us. Similarly, we want a mutually fulfilling sex life that provides physical pleasure and is a source of emotional bonding. Fortunately, there are couples who experience this combination of healthy communication and healthy sex. My guess is they had to put some effort into both to attain their healthy status! Why would we have to work at such “simple” parts of life in order to achieve satisfaction?

Enter the powerful duo: Nature and Nurture. 

Nature provided us with the innate ability to communicate and to derive pleasure from sex. However, as we are all acutely aware, Mother Nature did not endow males and females of the human species with equal amounts of desire, or ability, for either communication or sex. You know you’re chuckling from a felt sense of “knowingness” as you read that sentence. Comedians entertain audiences for hours on end, acerbically jesting about the stereotypical communication differences between men and women and wisecrack (quite accurately), about the sexual differences between the genders.  

Women are communicators. They like to talk and to “process” information, which means discussing whatever the issue is time and again – and then again. Women want to turn a topic inside out, upside down and sideways, verbally reconstructing it from countless vantage points. Men say what they think and they’re through. What else is there to say? These discrepancies, as you know, lead to “issues” in relationships: “You never listen to me,” vs. “You talk too much.” 

As for sex… women like sex (most of them do, anyway). Men like it more. And they want to engage in it more often than do most women. Women experience orgasm (most of them do, anyway – some of the time). Men also achieve orgasm (most of them, most of the time). Mother Nature created somewhat of a sexual mismatch between the genders. 

Nature laid the groundwork for potential problems between the boys and the girls for congruence in communicating and in regard to sexual behavior and satisfaction. Generations of people have nurtured a population of highly unhealthy sexual people who don’t know how to effectively communicate with one another. Whether this was because prior generations did not understand the differences between the genders, didn’t have the time to worry about dealing with the differences, or were overly religious or not religious enough, etc. etc., is irrelevant. What is important is that, during their developmental years, few people are taught healthy communication skills and are taught who-knows-what unhealthy information about sex. The result? A present generation filled with couples suffering in silence, or acting out their unhealthy, unfulfilling sex lives in a variety of unhealthy ways.

Add to the mix a host of physical and/or psychological problems, plus the stress we live with on a daily basis, and sex can become a far cry from something that provides physical and emotional highlights in our relationships. Many of us haven’t learned to talk about sex in a comfortable way, and, in the early stages of a sexual relationship, when our brains are flooded with the neurotransmitters that make us feel head over heels in love, who needs to talk about it? In a committed relationship, this chemical euphoria doesn’t last forever, and, eventually “real life” sets in. Real life usually has high doses of stress, which may include depression, or anxiety, or issues in relationships resulting from these and a host of other possible sources (kids, jobs, families, physical problems, low self-esteem, poor body image, weight gain, unresolved childhood abuse of any sort – to include sexual abuse – and financial concerns) to name a few. 

A result of these can be a lack of interest in sex by one or both partners. Conversely, physical and emotional stressors can be the catalyst for “using” sex to avoid the “real” issues. A particularly problematic situation arises if one partner loses interest in sex and the other attempts to avoid life’s issues via an increased desire for sex, turning to internet pornography, affairs, or other sexually-motivated behaviors. The couple becomes more emotionally distant as their psychological health is compromised. If the people involved are not talking to one another about their stress, their depression, their anxiety, and their fears and worries, their emotional health decreases. The couple’s intimate and sexual health declines in turn. 

Medical problems can negatively affect a person’s desire and/or ability to perform sexually, as can the medications that are prescribed to treat the medical problems. If partners are not talking about their concerns related to their medical problems, their level of desire for sex, and any performance concerns as a result of these or other factors, emotional intimacy decreases. When physical and/or emotional intimacy decreases and a couple is not talking about it, the relationship is extremely vulnerable. Individuals often turn to unhealthy means of either denying, or expressing their unspoken emotions in ways that harm the relationship. This manifests in numerous ways: excessive drinking, shopping, gambling, sexual acting out, drug use, overeating, undereating, workaholism, fatigue, poor sleep, depression, anxiety, and self-doubt.  Almost universally, the results of an unhealthy emotional state are rarely favorable for one’s sexual health. This is a negative cycle that eventually snowballs. Anxiety about libido or sexual performance can arise. Self-consciousness can further diminish sexual desire or capability. Expectations about one’s desire for sexual relations with their partner or concerns about their performance level exacerbate the problems, spiraling things in a decidedly negative direction. 

If the couple is not talking about the surface issues as well as the deeper level issues, the picture isn’t a pretty one. Couples close themselves off from one another emotionally. Any kids in the home are negatively impacted by the “chill” in the air resulting from the unspoken tension between the adults – or conversely, from the fighting between the couple who doesn’t know how or what is really igniting the deadly flames. Many couples stay together but maintain separate lives, maybe sustaining some level of a sexual relationship. Many couples part ways, never fully understanding what happened to the emotional intimacy and the great sex they once shared. 

Sadly, too often the emotional or physical split takes place because the tangled knot of issues seems too convoluted to sort through. 

Learning to talk about the issues in a healthy way is essential. It’s not a personal flaw if you don’t know how to work through issues without resorting to arguing, name-calling, yelling, walking away, or blaming. Most people were not taught how to effectively communicate. Don’t expect to fix the sex in your relationship before you learn to talk about the problems. You can work on both simultaneously, but you’ll run right back into the Nature and Nurture problems. Men will want to fix the relationship by dealing with the sex problems. Women will want to talk through the issues before they feel like having sex. 

 For the sake of both your emotional and sexual health, seek counseling. If you’re having sexual problems in your relationship, whether the problems are related to physical health issues, lack of desire, low self-esteem, body image problems, unresolved abuse, or something undefined, and if you and your partner are struggling to discuss the sexual issues in a productive manner, then obtain professional counseling. Sex may or may not be the “real” problem, but if it is perceived as any part of the problem, it needs to be addressed. Dealing with a professional therapist is usually the best route to take to get the help you need to sort through these issues. 

Focus on learning healthy communication skills. Your relationship, your emotional health, and your sexual health depend on it much more than you know. They are inextricably intertwined. Male or female, if you want a healthier relationship, which we all seem to want, learn to listen to the foreign communication language of the other gender, respect the differences between sexual desire and the physiological wants and needs of your partner, and you’ll be amazed at how much healthier and happier you will be as individuals and as a couple. An added bonus: you teach the next generation the same healthy attitudes and behaviors.

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