Why Sex Matters

One of my colleagues recently told me how dismayed she was that so many of her clients in long-term relationships or marriages seemed to have given up on sex entirely, or had passionless, unsatisfying sex a couple of times a year at most. (She herself has been married for more than 20 years and has an active sex life with her husband.) For the most part, the sex lives of my own clients in long-term relationships aren’t so different from those of my colleague’s clients. The clients who have managed to maintain active sex lives over many years of marriage share a view that I expressed two years ago, in a post that outlined three pieces of unorthodox advice concerning relationships.

My third suggestion in that post read as follows:

“Sex is both a pleasure and a responsibility.

Now before you get all up in arms, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that women have a duty to provide sex to their husbands, whether or not they like it. What I mean is this: feeling needy and full of desire is a vulnerable state for everyone; many (most?) of us have some issues about being that vulnerable and few people enjoy the experience of frustration. If your partner asks for sex and repeatedly hears “not tonight,” eventually he or she will find the experience unbearable and shut down. He or she may begin to look elsewhere to have those needs fulfilled. Both of you have a responsibility to keep sex alive in your relationship. Sometimes you might simply do the deed as a way of giving, an act of generosity; you might even find you enjoy it more than expected once you get started. Don’t have sex if you’re too angry or full of hatred, of course; on the other hand, never withhold sex in order to inflict pain.

Years ago when I was working in a law firm to put myself through I college, I knew a woman named Sheila who once told me: ‘When it’s going okay, sex is about 25% of a relationship; when it’s not, it’s about 75%.’ I’m not sure if she had the percentages right, or even if I fully agree with her, but to this day I see her point. When sex isn’t going right, it’s the elephant in the room and a huge source of shame for both partners. While I don’t see good sex as the answer to relationship problems, I personally find that having good and regular sex makes me feel more generous. The minor irritations that might become major problems just don’t seem to matter as much. The resentment a partner feels in the sexual arena can easily spread to other areas, transforming everyday relationship molehills into mountains.”

I still subscribe to this point of view, but I’ve also developed some further thoughts on why an ongoing sex life is important in long-term relationships.

Another colleague I respect told me not long ago she believed that, in the long run, “having sex doesn’t matter.” Passion inevitably fades with time, she said, and what’s important in long-term relationships is the ability of partners to bring their shame and vulnerability to one another and be accepted, to reveal one’s damage and be truly “known.” Of course I agree with this latter point of view, but not the former. On the contrary, I think that the sexual arena can be a major place of healing where shame is concerned — another experience where we may bring our shame to our partners and feel accepted.

The sexual arena is generally fraught with shame. As cultural mores and religious strictures have relaxed, we’ve come to view sex as much less shame-ridden by nature, but revealing our bodies and having sex nonetheless opens us to more opportunities for feeling shame than just about any other experience. Does my breath smell? Do my sexual organs have an unpleasant odor? Are they too big or too small? Am I a “successful” lover or a failure? Is my body attractive to you or is it ugly? Do you think I’m weird because of what excites me? For those of us who have struggled with life-long shame in one way or another, being found sexually attractive is a precious experience. I’m not speaking about the earliest days of heated sexual passion, the kind that stems from idealization and unfamiliarity, but desire that abides: You are still beautiful to me, after all these years.

I can imagine few experiences more valuable, more healing or more important in long-term relationships. It’s an ongoing antidote to the sense of inner ugliness many shame-ridden individuals have to live with. It feels good to be wanted, to feel attractive even when we’re no longer young. I don’t think it’s enough in itself, of course; but when both partners strive to be real, open and honest in the non-sexual aspects of their relationship — to reveal their shame and let themselves be truly “known” — good sex can help keep the lines of communication open.

In my experience, in relationships where sex eventually breaks down, it’s because the partners ultimately aren’t able to face their own shame, damage or limitations. The excitement of early sexual passion — the feeling that we’re part of a unique and amazing couple, mutually idealizing one another — serves as a powerful defense against underlying shame, but it eventually fades as the relationship becomes more real. We come to see one another more clearly and honestly. On an unconscious level, many of us then experience a return of the shame we escaped through idealized sex. The exciting sexual arena is no longer a haven from shame but a place where we may experience it even more intensely. Projecting unbearable shame into our partners also makes them unattractive, another obstacle to ongoing sex. Eventually, our defenses against intolerable shame kill off desire and our sex life dies.

By contrast, successful long-term partners manage to keep their particular sexual lives vital, with all their quirks and imperfections. One of my middle-aged clients and her husband have a day each week when they generally try to have sex. Her hair is entirely gray, he’s overweight and has back issues; there are other physical complications, but more often than not, they manage to have satisfying contact that brings them closer. It helps defuse the kind of shame-trading that too often comes to characterize many unhappy marriages. You can often tell the difference between couples who have a satisfying sex life after many years and those who don’t: do they still feel proud of one another, or do they undermine each other in subtle ways, exposing them to criticism and ridicule?

In my opinion, sex matters, even after many years of marriage. Being found “beautiful,” in whatever sense, is a powerful salve to underlying shame.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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57 Responses to Why Sex Matters

  1. Warren says:

    Funny how, a generation ago perhaps, it was the therapists role to help a client accept their sexual desires, and now, in our present culture, many people need permission not to take such an interest in sex. In our culture, many people feel brutalized into feeling shame because they aren’t as interested in sex as a liberal society expects them to be. Moreover, since perhaps the last generation, there has been an accepted intensification of sex without intimacy, marketed as liberation. People can go to work, have friends, a social life, occasionally have sex, and it’s all under wraps. In fact the rise and success of dating sites in my view is a direct outcome of this utilitarian out look on sex.

    What people aren’t prepared for or willing to tolerate these days, is the obscene trauma of falling in love. Try keeping to schedule throughout your week when that happens!!! And ok, falling in love is about idealization, the temporary loss of ego boundaries et al, but it’s also the way two people are initially brought together. Sex without falling in love has now become a commodity. For all it’s terrifying, god awful vulnerability, I’d rather go trembling and naked in the night towards the new lover, with my own shame and self disgust ringing in my ears. Because it takes courage to do so. Courage isn’t the absence of fear, courage is doing something precisely when you are afraid of doing it. But, how sweet is the glory of the risk, at the moment of our most wretchedness, we are on the cusp of becoming our most glorious. Sex is a mystery, there’s not room here, but I find many flaws in the dynamic theories that try to explain sex, attraction and love.

  2. Anonymous_1 says:

    This is an interesting topic, and I’d like to read your thoughts on talking about sex with a therapist (when sex is not the primary issue). What do you see as markers of a healthy sex life, or not?

    I am a young woman who has been in therapy with several different therapists on and off, starting at age 19 or so until now. This post made me curious about why I have almost never spoken about sex in therapy. Few of my therapists have asked much about it, and I rarely brought/bring it up.

    I have watched myself skirt the issue a few times over the years when it could have come up. I felt unsure of what was expected in that type of discussion, how to bring it up and whether or not I needed to.

    I also wonder about gender and age differences in the therapist/client relationship, and if my work with older, male therapists (both in the past and now) may have led to this situation, either because they didn’t feel comfortable pressing me for details or I didn’t feel comfortable sharing them. If I had to guess, I’d now bet the avoidance was mostly on my end and that their discomfort — or so I imagine(d) — was probably a projection of my own embarrassment.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      It’s hard to say for sure, but my impression is that many therapists don’t talk as much about sex with their clients as we might expect. I don’t know if it’s discomfort or what. Interesting when you consider that Freud believed virtually everything was about sex. My guess is that talking about sex means approaching shame, for both therapist and client, and there’s a certain amount of avoidance on both sides. One reason why I wrote this article was because it became clear to me how little I’d written about sex over the last couple of years. I’ve probably been avoiding the subject, too.

      • TPG says:

        Dr. Burgo, I would expect that you are the exception, but I would posit that many therapists avoid the subject of sex because they’re not comfortable with their own sex lives.

        For a sports analogy: If you can’t hit a first serve in the box 95 percent of the time, you shouldn’t be teaching tennis, and you probably know this. If your own sex life is merely OK, or maybe even less than, counseling clients about sexual issues, and exploring them, will be a countertransferential nightmare, as well as therapy that does not come from a position of strength.

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          I didn’t want to put that in print since I have no way of backing it up, but I think you’re right. I’ll bet there’s a lot of shame around this issue for many therapists.

          • TPG says:

            Thanks for you response!

            And the damn thing is, as a therapy client, if you were to ask your therapist, “So, if we’re going to be talking about sex, how’s your own sex life?” then you will almost never get a straight or honest answer. In fact, you will be labeled a pushy or difficult patient who has no sense of therapeutic boundaries. Meanwhile, as we’ve established, it is a highly relevant to this arena of psychological practice. It is also highly relevant to the patient in weighing the nature of therapeutic exploration and/or counsel.

            • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

              Take a look at my most recent post.

            • wiian says:

              To coach someone at skill X, it is not necessary that the coach is good at X at the time of coaching. Perhaps it is important that the coach was good at X some time in the past. Wisdom about sexuality is not necessarily associated with a ripping sex life.

      • anonymouse says:

        Probably also many therapists aren’t using Freud. As psychology has had 150 years of research since Freud, who hasn’t had a single theory proven. Defensive mechanisms, okay, that’s pretty insightful, but not a fact in the literal sense. But most of the rest was hogwash and there’s plenty of sex-neutral ways to look at the mind. Which can actually be tested and applied and have been.

      • Ophelia says:

        Dear Dr. Burgo:

        I had that same question. Why are some therapists so uncomfortable talking about such a common human topic? I (as so many times before) found your website when doing research about this topic, because I feel that the topic of sex should be part of therapy. It should be part of the assessment (e.g. what is your sexual life like? Are you sexually frustrated? etc.)
        I have done some clinical work and have been in therapy before, and I have not find it to be an issue bringing it up myself (unless the therapist has an issue). But some of the therapists I know, I can’t think of one I know who feels comfortable about this topic. I have even specifically asked some friends who are therapists and received an avoiding answer.
        Would you think that it is most likely because of the topic itself or something in the therapist’s background or his/her own state of sexual activity, or perhaps even abuse or a combination? I am so curious about why there is such an avoidance and if it is gender-specific (e.g. a male therapist counseling a woman, etc.). Thank you if you know anything else.

        • Joseph Burgo says:

          I don’t have enough experience with other therapists to generalize, but my hunch is that there are two reasons: 1) many people feel a lot of shame about their own sex lives, and that includes therapists. They’re already avoiding a lot of uncomfortable feelings, so a discussion of sex during session reminds them of what they’re avoiding in their own lives. 2) Therapists are afraid of becoming sexually aroused during session if sex becomes a topic.

  3. Nathan says:

    This is a wonderful article, and I happen to agree with you. My hope would be that newly married (or soon-to-be married) couples encounter this type of guidance. Many couples “wing it” and eventually find themselves at the relationship’s breaking point. I think this guidance would go a long way toward helping couples work through their humanity together. Thanks!

  4. Jane says:

    Thank you, Joe.

  5. Sonjia PRIDHAM says:

    I always learn a lot from reading what you write, excellent article.

  6. Alexa says:

    In the weeks before I got married, my Grandmother decided to talk to me about Making Love:

    “You can be celebratory, sad, happy, frightened, elated, lost, angry – bring whatever mood you are in to making love and it will also be there. Making love is a language too. It’s about communication and shared places, not performance.

    “It can help you resolve issues: just bring both yourselves to it and enjoy its ‘magic’. You don’t need to understand or ask questions, just feel and live in its moment. Later it will give you a place to communicate about more difficult things should you need to. Trust it.”

    I was 36 and she 85: I often wonder if her mother told her the same. I just wish she’d told me 20 years earlier!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Wow! What an amazing bit of advice! You’re very fortunate to have had a grandmother with such wisdom to pass along, such candor.

    • meryl says:

      I’m so glad to read this. It related to my own response. If someone has a longing, what are they longing for? That is the where the therapist might be helpful. To be the object of someones need for sexual release is not a loving experience. (oh, the ego gets some gratification from the momentary expressions of “love”, but that will end soon enough). To be present with someone … really present… is what is needed. If it’s just for sex, surely there are ways to release that need besides using another person. When one really loves, one doesn’t love to get anything. Rather, taking time together for safe, loving touch without feeling there is a destiny to it–that someone wants something from you makes all the difference. To take a time… really take time… to look into someone’s eyes and let them know they matter. That you care. That loving presence will unfold the love that we are, the light that’s drowning under the stress and busyness of the day….Do that and then see what happens.

    • Selina says:

      What amazing advice!! It should be added to marriage vows.

  7. Francesca says:

    I’m not in a long term relationship, but if I were, I don’t know whether sex per se would be that important to me. Certainly a physical connection is vital and central, but it could also be based on a kind of daily sense of touch, and touch as communication of warmth and connectedness. I couldn’t do without that. Also, the cultivation of beauty and pleasure, finding pleasure and beauty not only in the partner but in all the things of daily life, that would be vital for me also. But, doing the sweaty moaning thing on a regular basis seems optional, to me at least.

  8. Grandmother says:

    This rings very true all around. Are there general words of advice you would give a long-term married couple that has gradually slid into such a marriage? Finding yourself there and knowing that it’s not a good place to be is one thing. And you make a very convincing case for why it isn’t a good thing. Reversing the slide seems so difficult, though. Can one partner’s growth and change turn this around? So much risk is involved. A disappointment, a misstep – and the whole thing seems to take on a dangerous life of its own that eventually becomes easier to ignore by mutual tacit agreement. And more shame results … How can a couple begin to break out of this cycle and venture to trust and risk again?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Oh boy. I think it begins with a frank conversation … but this is difficult because no matter what, it will stir up shame and probably defensiveness. It might be easier to begin by looking at the way shame/blame is apportioned in the relationship in the non-sexual areas. Do either of you hold grudges? Are there long-standing grievances that go unaddressed? In what ways are you no longer vulnerable to each other? It might also begin by finding ways to be together and make contact that could eventually lead to sex but not at first.

      • Grandmother says:

        Shame/blame, grudges, unaddressed grievances, not vulnerable to each other. What a list. To quote my therapist’s sympathetic acknowledgment of the multiple fronts I’m working on at those times when I express impatience or frustration: “You have a lot of fish to fry”. Yes, I do. And yes, we do. Maybe those are the easier ones for us to start frying first.

    • Been There says:

      There’s shame in even answering this question for me, which is why I changed my sign in name. (I didn’t realize there was so much shame until I went to post a comment…and…well, there it is!)

      My husband and I fell into the sexless rut. For us, it was a complicated pregnancy (no sex allowed), and too many sleepless nights with the babies (twins). A year later…we were completely out of the habit.

      We managed to get our mojo back. I planned a weekend away, and dropped the kids off at their Aunt and Uncles for the weekend. With uninterrupted time together, we made love and it was great. AFTER great sex is a good time to bring up, “Hey…let’s do this more often!”

      We just needed to make time for it, and make it more of a priority in our relationship. I think couple’s drift apart sexually for a lot of different reasons…and there are a lot of ways to reconnect.

  9. Beth Browne says:

    Sorry, sniff, had to stop reading when I got to: “You are still beautiful to me, after all these years,” because I couldn’t see past the tears. This is some wonderful stuff. Thanks for sharing!!

  10. Peggy Payne says:

    A couple of weeks ago a client of mine had a book come out titled Wanting Sex Again — lots of good thoughts and strategies about effective ways to proceed. I went to the bookstore kick-off signing and was fascinated by a small incident in the q&a. http://www.peggypayne.com/blog/?p=2203#comments

  11. KT says:

    It is great to read something real and organic about sex in marriage. It is so hard to know what is normal. I think my husband and I have a normal sex life and part of that normalcy is that we do think differently about it. I enjoy the closeness and the intense pleasure my husband gets from it. I am also very happy that he finds me very attractive still. However, I do not derive as much physical pleasure as he does. It is more of a responsibility for me. This bothers HIM a lot. He is constantly trying to think of ways for me to enjoy it more physically and it kind of stresses him out. I think it is fine, we have sex 1-2 x a week (which I think is more than most couples our age (or single people for that matter). I keep trying to convince him that its ok if I don’t have an orgasm but it still makes him sad. So this post made sense to me and thanks for helping me feel normal. Maybe someday you could post about the normal “weird fantasies” all of us have. I feel like this is a huge part of why my husband and I still have sex is that we accept and can indulge each other’s fantasies, however weird they are. (They aren’t that weird-I don’t think) But you know what I mean!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I do know what you mean! There’s so much SHAME around these fantasies. I’ll see what I can do to write more about it.

  12. Susan T. says:

    That link between sex and shame sure feels right to me. In the last year or so of my psychotherapy practice, I’ve become more assertive about asking my clients direct questions about sex, even though this goes against my psychoanalytic training and makes my client uncomfortable right at first. I noticed that as my client experienced my genuine interest in listening without morality or judgment, in very short order I’d experience HOW MUCH the client really wanted to talk about sex and how relieved he or she was to be able to speak openly. Real (ordinary) sex is still so strongly denied in our culture–it’s still weirdly taboo! But then it’s commodified, fetishized and presented in ideal form by the media (including pornography), which makes everything lead back to narcissism and causes people to feel worse about their own shame-ridden sex. That’s so sad because so many people are starving for ordinary sexual nourishment, which requires inviting shame into the bedroom.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Yes yes yes. I’ve started doing the same thing, too — just asking directly. With some clients, if you don’t ask they’ll NEVER bring it up.

  13. bobdick says:

    Stimulating post, pun intended. I think of sexual release as an adult human need akin to food, clothing and shelter. As with any generalization, certainly there are exceptions; people come in many variations of awareness and expression of needs,wants, and wants-so strong as to seem needs. I like a simple view,so in a simplistic way, my clinical experience with couples is similar to my personal experience: that regular sex soothes the body, mind and spirit, and functions as part of the “glue” that helps hold couples together over the looong haul.
    That old Woody Allen joke comes to mind: Dr- “How often do you two have sex?” Wife – “all the time.” Husband – “hardly ever”. Asked numerical frequency, they agreed the answer was “twice a week”. Dr Bob

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I was thinking about that quote just the other day (it’s from ‘Annie Hall’). I agree with your simple (but not simplistic) view, Bob, about the function of sex for couples over the long haul.

  14. Ricci says:

    What would you say about a long-term connection in which sex is the primary mode of relating?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’d have to know more. Sometimes excited, obsessive sex can be a way of avoiding real emotional intimacy. If it’s sex to the exclusive of other forms of relating, that sounds kind of lonely.

  15. Y says:

    If you sexually desire your therapist, is it always transference? Can that desire be overcome and mature into something both special and healthy? Also, based on your experience, what good can come of talking about it?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I don’t think that all sexual attraction is transference, but given the complicated emotional nature of the relationship, I think it can’t ever evolve into something healthy. There are lots of reasons why talking about it can help. For one thing, sexual attraction is often a defense against other kinds of feelings.

      • lisadiane says:

        “Sexual attraction is often a defense against other kinds of feelings”
        Any way you could explain this further? Sexual attraction as a defense?

        • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

          I think I put that badly. I meant people often turn to sexual excitement in order to avoid other feelings. Sex can be like a drug.

  16. pippa says:

    At 17yrs my 47 yr Doctor had a 2 year sexual relationship which began after he gave me alcohol and had sex.I have no memory of what he did ,but had the evidence on regaining awareness.He spend the rest of the time(over 2yrs) trying to get me to respond emotionally during sex,using some alcohol.I learnt unemotional sex.Therapy helps me understand how I ever let that happen.Basically I needed mothering,which I have had, as much as can be had, latterly.Now at 66yrs ,a” singleton”I am able to connect emotionally with sexual expression, but only in masturbation.With any man,even husband of 18 years,I am a carnal creature.I think to find a man who could understand my” disconnect”probably impossible.Only with masturbation where I suppose “self love”gives that “little death” do I find a peaceful contentedness .Men find me” hot stuff,”for them,but I might as well have aburnout at the gym.
    Any ideas on how to unlearn something pretty deep in me.To have a love relationship with a man ,in these latter years would be” the best” or am I like the adolescent looking for “Mr Right”
    I think you give out a lot of help, Joesph,and reguardless of your atheism(?)I feel you do have an effect at a spiritual level for people.Take care.When people get good at what they do,I think the challenges to their integrety are tougher.(My opinion only,of course)Pippa

  17. Dr Will says:

    Fresh stuff, and falls into the need for affection of all kinds from our partners. Well done!

  18. Orange says:

    Thank you so much for writing on this topic. It seems like so many discussions on sex these days are very polarized, but I believe you are cutting straight to the core issue, and that it is largely the same for people who seemingly oppose each others views. I feel very fortunate to have what I have with my husband, but I don’t put it down to luck or happy accident.

    This seems so upside down to me that there is now a cultural expectation or acceptance of marriage equaling the end of a thrilling sex life. I suppose really marriage forces us to face our shame, but we don’t because there are so many other easy access routes to escape it, especially on this great internet of ours. I felt very sad when a friend told me that she missed the part of dating where she had someone to make herself look nice for, and that now she had no one to look good for. My head spun a little, but I replied, with a wink of course, that she had her husband to doll herself up for. She looked a little surprised. I hope she tried it :-) .

    One comment above demonstrated, to me, a fragmented view that can hurt so. She said that she wanted touch, physical closeness, warm words, and long looks, but that she could really do without the “sweaty moany thing”. The sweaty moany thing is what bring us all of those other wonderful things and, frankly, is a huge huge part of my marriage. I sense that she’s not sharing the experience here, as I don’t think I could ever refer to the intense, raw, and completely freeing act that my husband and I share as “the sweaty moany thing”. It is delight beyond words and worth the cost to pride to get there. Referring to it that way only prevents connecting to it.

    i hope you write more on this topic!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I love the way you put it: “a delight beyond words and worth the cost to pride to get there.” I’m with you there.

    • Charlotte says:

      I am in awe of what you have posted. I had no idea that such relationships exist. With my life experiences filled with much abuse and severely lacking in affection and connection, I can’t relate to anything you say about what you have with your husband. It is completely alien to me. The greater sadness is that at this point in my life, I see little hope in ever having anything close to this. Women over 50 (maybe 40) become invisible in our society and almost no one that I know, even the very young, can live up to the ideals of beauty that our society has for women. So it eliminates most possibilities of an older woman ever finding anything of a lasting relationship such as you describe.

      • Orange says:

        Hey I don’t think that most men, even the young ones, can live up to the ideals that our society has for them either. Many are old and broken down by life; I watch them shuffle forward in the grocery line, buying frozen dinners and cheap vodka. It might be, though, that a smile and a gentle touch can bring a little light to one of them, and give them a reason to stand up straight and go conquer a small corner of the world, just for you.

        I know I can love even if broken, but I can see that it might hurt to accept the broken parts of another. People might even ask you what you see in him, why after all this time would you go for a guy like that, but you can be strong, and not afraid to see worth and love where others don’t.

  19. Graceful Swallow says:

    Always a great topic to explore. Thank you, Dr. Burgo. For my partner and I, our strong sexual connection is a celebration of our emotional intimacy.

  20. Timber says:

    This post strikes a chord with me. I am a young gay man (28) and I have always had complicated feelings about sex. As you discussed in a recent post, the hookup culture in my generation is prevalent, but among gay guys it seems even more so. Sometimes it seems like sex can be 100% recreation and have no emotional component, and no relationship to relationships.

    I recently started dating someone seriously for the first time in about 3 years. I feel like it has a lot of potential and I am really excited about our connection and how he makes me feel, and the way things are progressing. But I have been blindsided by a sudden sense of shame about the way I’ve approached sex. My last relationship was so totally based on sex that sometimes I wonder if you could even call it a relationship, even though it lasted many months, and since then I have had a few “hook up buddies” and our “relationships” such as they were also depended entirely on sex.

    Now that I am coming into a relationship that feels mature and emotional and possibly long term, I have anxiety about sex that I have never ever felt before. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s about shame that I never realized existed. I think I’ve been having “idealized” sex but without the context of the relationship, and now that I feel like I have an important relationship, I can’t figure out how to have really good sex in this different context.

    I’m all disoriented about this and I’m lucky that the guy I’m dating hasn’t been pushing things sexually. But I think I have to address this situation, and soon.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      In the school of thought in which I trained, we talk about the difference between excitement and desire. Excitement (the kind of sex you’ve been having up until now) is a kind of drug and doesn’t involve true need and dependency. People are interchangeable. Desire comes up when it’s about someone in particular and you let yourself need and depend upon him.

      I’m not sure what you mean when you say that you “can’t figure out how to have really good sex in this different context.” Are you saying you don’t enjoy sex with this guy?

      • L K says:

        This is a really interesting topic that I have discussed with my brother who is gay. It seems to be a familiar issue with many young gay men but I have experienced similar confusing emotions around sex and wonder if it also has something to do with our emotionally abusive and neglectful childhood.

        I have only had one sexual relationship but experienced lots of different dynamics within that relationship – it is unrecognisable compared to what it was like in the beginning.

        I wonder if by ‘different context’, Timber means that prior to this current relationship, sex had been fulfilling in an exciting and fleeting way whereas he is now having to learn that sex can be enjoyed in a loving and trusting way. It’s not about encounters that thrill anymore which can lead to very enjoyable sex, it’s about love and trust and familiarity – which, if you aren’t used to it, can on some level feel boring and predictable and make it difficult to enjoy. If this is the case then in my opinion communication and regular sex is what helps here… not getting into a predictable rut can help as well.

        I’m not sure if my rambling is making sense – in the beginning sex is fun and exciting and all about the sexual pleasure but when you really get to know someone and more importantly they really get to know you then anxieties about acceptance and love can play into things. I became a lot more self-conscious with my husband during sex when I realised I completely loved him and wanted to spend the rest of my life with him – I had more to lose!

        I used to think the best sex was the risky, kinky type (playing out fantasies etc) but now I find that the most intensely pleasurable times have been when we have both been emotionally present and available to each other. My husband and I talk about sex a lot now. I have a much higher drive than him but I think that’s because I feel more loved and accepted when we are having regular sex – I read more into sex than he does. Talking about it definitely helps.

        I am not sure if I will ever talk about this with my therapist – I wish he would bring it up but I doubt that as the ‘issues’ I have brought into the sessions are about my parents. I would love to explore some of my anxieties/experiences and see if my therapist can give me a deeper insight.

        Thanks for the post Dr. Burgo, I do enjoy browsing over your posts and refrain from commenting on every one!

        (I am the same age as you Timber – I am 29, female and have been with my husband for 12 years.)

  21. alina says:

    Dr. Burgo, what do you think of people who are asexual? Do you think it’s something you’re born with, like homosexuality or heterosexuality, or more of a psychological issue? I’m pretty young and went through a period in my late teens where I worried I was asexual, though I eventually realized I was just very depressed to the point where it extinguished my sex drive. Btw I ordered a copy of your body a few weeks ago, but it has not arrived yet unfortunately.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Someone who is asexual must have some highly developed defense mechanisms and is shut off from his or her sexuality. I don’t think that’s innate or normal.

  22. Hermes says:

    Agree, Bobdick:

    “that regular sex soothes the body, mind and spirit, and functions as part of the “glue” that helps hold couples together over the looong haul.”

    Orange: I am no therapist, but I think yor friend needs to see a sexologist, and soon. The very fact that she uses those words to describe what should be a unifying act says a lot about her attitude to sex. And that attitude did not suddenly appear overnight.
    She’ll have something to moan about all right when her husband starts to look elsewhere.

    Hermes

  23. Flowerstar says:

    I found this article really interesting and touching and agree with your analysis of how sex functions in relationships. I wondered, though, how can someone who has suffered child sexual abuse come to develop a healthy, happy sexual relationship? I have had good experiences in my sexual life in the past, and have a reasonably positive body image etc., but my partner is an abuse survivor and I couldn’t help thinking that your article would not speak much to him, although he is in long term therapy.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Possibly not. Sometimes a person is so damaged by early trauma that they never fully recover. But I’ve known survivors of child sexual abuse who do go on to have satisfying sexual relationships.

  24. Cate says:

    Dr. Burgo, during the past year I have taken comfort from your website. I come back to this posting and the one on unrequited love again and again. I am 48, childless, an only child, and looking after my widowed mother who has dementia. I have been in a relationship for twenty-five years with a man whose parents were alternately abusive, angry, and cold. Their marriage was joyless, and after him, sexless. For the past six years, mine has been dead too. Since both our fathers died, my husband has had two “emotional” affairs with two different co-workers. The second affair was happening last summer when I finally told him I could not go on. I didn’t know there was a second affair the whole time we went to marriage counseling for a few months. What I did know was that I had tried to physically rekindle our marriage after the first affair, but he was unresponsive. I kept trying to spark his desire all the way to the end of last year, reading books, doing my hair, changing my wardrobe, trying to give him space, trying to show I cared when he was injured or lost his job. I was so ashamed of my failure as a woman, wife, and human being, that I kept our first trouble secret from everyone. After he admitted the second affair, I finally reached out to a few people: my pastor, my husband’s mother, his music instructor — only to find they’d known all along. He texted and talked to friends constantly about his unhappiness, but he will NOT talk to me. I asked him to leave twice this year, but he won’t. His friends have told him to leave if he is unhappy, but he won’t. He knows he will end up alone, he tells me. He does not like it when I won’t sleep in the same bed, but he never, never initiates sex, not in six years. I don’t either, anymore. His inability to physically respond, his unwillingness to talk, hurts too much. I am sorry for his unhappy childhood, but I am so ashamed of aiding and abetting his behaviors by being weak and afraid of what he might do. His mother and all her siblings had nervous break-downs. I should go, but it hurts to leave my dog, my home. When my mother passes away, I will have no family; but I can not stay with him. Looking back, I don’t think he was really happy in the beginning of our marriage, but I thought it was his family, his job — now I think it was that he knew he’d made a mistake in marrying me. We had some intimacy problems then too — and again, I was too ashamed to ask for help. Give it time, back off, give him air, and it will pass. Obviously, I was wrong. He would get so angry when I’d try to talk to him. I yearn for the joy of love and physical communion, but I do not think I will ever have it. I’m afraid I’d either find someone like him, or somehow create the same problems.

    • Joseph Burgo says:

      At 48, you’ve plenty of years ahead to find another sexual partner and experience the joy of love and sex. Don’t let the shame and fear keep you trapped in such misery. So many of us stay in unhappy marriages because the known misery is less frightening than the unknown. Take heart and be brave!

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