Sexual Desire In Long-Term Relationships

Are you able to fully express yourself sexually in your marriage/relationship? 

As a couples therapist, I’ve heard many stories from couples involving conflicts over sex; conflicts resulting in the inhibition of sexual desire and expression. There are many factors that can impact sexual expressiveness—a passionless/sexless marriage or relationship can be the result of:

  • An underlying physical condition (that negatively impacts one’s libido);
  • Psychological/emotional issues (that negatively impact one’s libido);
  • The particular circumstances of one’s marriage/relationship;
  • Or some combination of the above.

And to complicate matters even further, the fact is that many couples often have libidos that aren’t in sync, with one partner desiring more frequent sex than the other. This issue (sexual incompatibility around frequency) requires skillful communication, acceptance of inherent differences, and the ability to negotiate and compromise for the sake of the marriage/relationship.

Let’s now turn our attention to a particular psychological/emotional issue that can dramatically impact your sexuality and sexual satisfaction.

The Suppression of Your Sexual Self (and the Strangulation of Sexual Desire)

Throughout our lives we are inundated with messages about sex, sexuality and sexual desire. These messages give shape to our conscious values, preferences and choices about sex. And some of these messages also seep deep into our unconscious minds where they direct our sexual experiences from behind the veil of awareness. It is our unconscious attitudes (and conflicts) about sex that often have the most pronounced and lasting affect on our sexual experiences.

One of the earliest and most powerful internalized messages is that sexual desire and behavior (such as masturbation) are private events that should not be allowed free expression whenever the impulse arises. These are powerful lessons we all learn at an early age: The norms regarding sex and sexuality, what is considered appropriate/inappropriate, private-public, as well as the discovery of how our behavior impacts others (respecting the space and boundaries of others; considering the feelings of another).

So from an early age the lesson is clear: Our sexual-self must be contained and controlled, with liberation allowed only under certain circumstances (if ever).

When Messages of Privacy Morph into Messages of Wrong-doing

“Growing up in my family, I never received the straightforward message that sex or exploration of my body was acceptable but should remain private out of respect for others. Instead, I felt my mother’s anxiety and my father’s disdain when they found out I was masturbating. Above and beyond what they said, their emotional reactions sent the message that I should be ashamed because I was being vulgar…” ~ Carlos (describing his parents’ reactions to his emerging sexuality as a teen)

It is not always easy to convey the message to a child about why certain behaviors and experiences should remain private matters. And too often when a child perceives that his/her experiences (such as sexual arousal) or behaviors (exploration of one’s body) are making others uncomfortable, the offending experiences become cloaked in shame and are forced to go underground—we begin to hide these experiences from others and slowly turn away and deny our own feelings and impulses. Our desires feel wrong and shameful.

In short, secrecy replaces privacy.

The result is that our sexual-self and desires are not fully and seamlessly integrated into our overall identities where they are allowed full expression. Rather, we become estranged from the vibrancy of this part of our self; we become sexually self-conscious and tentative about our deepest impulses and longings. Sexual fulfillment suffers, as does the emotional intimacy that accompanies a rich sex life.

This is why sexual intimacy has the potential to be so emotionally healing for couples when full expression of your sexual-self meets with full acceptance by your partner/spouse. And, conversely, this is also why sex is often a potential battleground for so many couples. In these instances, rejection or judgment painfully reaffirms what was learned long ago: What you desire is somehow wrong and should be kept hidden, a secret buried deep within the recesses of your mind.

Bringing Your Sexual-self into the Light

Do you feel safe enough emotionally with your spouse/partner to fully express your sexual needs and desires?

This is a question all couples face at some point in their relationship, even if they don’t openly discuss this important issue.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we continuously assess our relationship for conditions of emotional safety. Ideally, intimate relationships invite us to bring the long-buried, disavowed parts of ourselves out from the darkness and into the light of acceptance and love. This, of course, happens both inside and outside of the bedroom.

And since we are so vulnerable while expressing our sexual-self, we become highly susceptible to emotional wounding, even if our partner is giving us feedback in a sensitive and thoughtful manner. This is why effective communication (which centers around sensitive listening) is essential for couples in order to understand each other’s sexual needs, as well as your partner’s particular vulnerabilities and hang-ups about sex.

The rule of thumb to remember while communicating: An atmosphere of openness and experimentation allows for the unfolding of our deepest selves and needs; while an atmosphere of judgment and criticism causes us to retract emotionally and hide what is considered unacceptable to our partner/spouse. And the more we retract, the more intimacy suffers (both emotional and physical intimacy).

Which atmosphere do you try to foster?

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