Sexual/physical intimacy is one of the most powerful and connecting experiences for couples. And while some couples seem perfectly fine with little sexual connection, for others, the expression of love, pleasure and sensuality through sexual contact is central to a fulfilling marriage/relationship.
The challenge for couples in long-term marriages/relationships is to find ways to nurture sexual intimacy. You may have noticed that sexual desire is pretty fragile. It buckles under the demands of life (work stress, the demands and pull of parenting, the pressure of caring for elderly parents), and it is highly sensitive to our own internal conflicts and emotional struggles (our self-image; how we feel about our bodies; self-judgment and feelings of guilt over sexual pleasure and abandon).
As one wife described, “With every pound I gained, my desire for sex diminished until I got to the point where I didn’t even want my husband to see my body or touch me. If I hate my body, how can it become a means of pleasure for me?”
Relationship Help: When It Comes to Sex, Your Mindset Is Key
We all must learn to nurture and care for the different parts of our relationship, including sexual/physical intimacy. Too many of us assume that sex and passion should effortlessly remain alive and well, spontaneously fed by the love a couple feels toward each other. This exceedingly romantic, overly idealistic vision of passion does more harm than good, often leading couples to erroneously think that the relationship must be broken if their sexual attraction is floundering.
Here are seven relationship tips to keep in mind when it comes to passion, sex and intimacy:
1: Couples need to be mindful of sexual desire’s fragile nature and when possible, take steps to protect this part of your relationship from the influences that can extinguish desire (practicing self-care and stress management are central; setting appropriate boundaries around the relationship);
2: Couples need to be aware of the relationship conditions that positively and negatively affect sexual intimacy and desire (effective couples communication is essential in creating a supportive and trusting atmosphere that will allow the emotional vulnerability needed for a fulfilling sex life);
3: You and your spouse/partner may have very different sexual rhythms—approach these differences with understanding and openness rather than blame or judgment (“You want sex all the time, what’s wrong with you?!” is not the message you want to be sending);
4: Turn-ons and sexual fantasies can vary widely between individuals, no matter how compatible in other areas – therefore, couples must work to create an atmosphere of mutual curiosity and acceptance that will allow the expression of both partners’ sexual desires and longings – remember, not feeling safe enough to share your deepest desires forces these desires to go underground where they remain hidden, unarticulated and frustrated.
5: Be mindful of your long-standing beliefs and attitudes that may block sexual fulfillment and intimacy— certain anti-sex/anti-pleasure attitudes (which may be unconscious) can arise from the messages you received growing up about sexuality, or they may result from your own sexual history, experiences that may have negatively shaped your views about intimacy;
6: A mindset of sexual exploration, play and discovery will allow you and your partner to experience sexual fulfillment as an evolving phenomenon, no matter how long you’ve been together (or how well you think you know your spouse/partner) – learning about each other sexually (as well as yourself) should be a lifelong journey of discovery;
7: At some point in your marriage/relationship, it may feel like there are always competing priorities and good reasons to place sex on the back burner—the truth is, couples in long-term relationships make the decision and put in the effort for sex. These decisions have to be made over and over again so that physical intimacy (and the emotional intimacy that it fosters) doesn’t wither away.
In the opening paragraph, I stated how powerful and connecting physical intimacy can be for couples. This connecting power is shaped by how emotionally vulnerable sex makes us—sex in a loving relationship is never devoid of strong feelings. We are emotionally exposed when we share ourselves sexually, and the good news is that this level of vulnerability allows for a deepening of genuine emotional contact—as long as you’re open to it.
In a loving relationship, nurturing sex, emotional intimacy and love are one and the same.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro