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Imagine you’re with a group of friends. The laughter is hearty, the talk amicable. In the midst of the chatter you hear someone from across the room say, “I guess sex just isn’t what it used to be.” You hear some chuckles of agreement, someone else offers a concurring comment, and then this conversational thread gets lost in the general chatter. Moments such as these, and my work as a couples counsellor where references to sexual roadblocks are frequent, prompted me to read more, do research, and eventually led to my decision to become a certified sex therapist in Ontario.
We live in a sexualized culture where, ironically, sex is also something set apart and private. There is permission to talk about different parenting styles. We laugh knowingly and speak freely about how-to-squeeze-the-toothpaste hassles. When it comes to sex, though, we have a different standard.
Our culture operates with a mythologized benchmark for sex. We are led to believe that good sex comes naturally, that it’s always wonderful and never problematic. So when our own sexual lives fall short of perfection, we’re confused. Often we carry that burden of sexual roadblocks in silence and shame–even while sexual jokes and innuendos abound. We blame our difficulties on our partner or ourselves.
Many–probably most–couples enjoy a “good-enough” sexual relationship most of the time. Sometimes our sexual relationships even soar–as they should. It might come as a surprise that even the bible celebrates sexual love. Check it out. Go to the Song of Solomon and read how erotic love has God’s very own stamp of approval.
And yet over the course of the relationship life span, every couple is bound to experience sexual roadblocks too. Sometimes such disappointments are temporary detours, but some become enduring roadblocks.
Types of Sexual Roadblocks
- In general, men and women are aroused, stay “turned on,” and are satisfied differently. These differences are sometimes expressed in stereotypes: “Men ignite like lighter fluid; women warm up slowly and burn long, like charcoal.” Or, “For men, love equals sex; for women love equals conversation and attention.” Stereotypes aside, couples run into trouble when they fail to understand and work with each other’s sexual differences.
- Age and hormones affect sexuality. Those of us with teenage sons can attest to occasional periods when their interest in sexuality is intense and consuming. Many of us recall with nostalgia and longing that flesh-tingling, mind-buzzing sensuality of courtship. As we age, changes in hormone levels–for both men and women–affect sexuality (which is not the same as saying that “old people don’t do it”).
- Stage-of-life issues also impact sexuality. Busy careers, children’s extracurricular activities, teen curfews, community commitments all conspire to decrease sexual activity. Don’t believe me? Take a no-kids, no cell phone, no e-mail vacation with your partner and see what happens to your sex life. Some people in midlife find themselves re-evaluating their goals, their lifestyles. In the process they may alter the way they prioritize their sexual needs as well as the needs of their partners. Couple relationships are potentially reinvigorated–or devastated.
- Making love is intimate. That means the balance of power and control within a relationship affects sexuality, especially if there are hidden resentments or concerns about how that balance is played out. In a struggling relationship, sexuality can be a tool of manipulation in blatant or subtle ways. If your marriage is out of sync, how could sex be good?
- Personal preferences that formerly endeared us to each other, or which we willingly tempered for the sake of our lover, become the very stuff that later alienates us from each other. The desire to stay up late or get up early, regardless of our partner’s natural inclinations, has ruined many a sexual invitation. A continual over-focus on the tasks of the day instead of a care for the heart of our partner can slowly and quietly erode sexual attraction and activity.
- The past can affect sexual relationships in the present. Sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, especially if it is unresolved, often works powerfully to inhibit sexual pleasure. What our parents did or didn’t teach us under girds our attitudes to-ward sex. I have been surprised by how often people together for many years still have attitudes about sexuality very shaped by their families of origin. Date rape–not usually labeled as such–previous infidelity, abortions have haunted the beds of the couples I have worked with.
- Medical conditions such as depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, and the medications prescribed for them can impact sexual desire, comfort, or performance.
- Sexual voyeurism via internet pornography, chat rooms, and e-mail can negatively impact sexuality. This is not only a male concern. Ready access to computers in the privacy of our homes impacts men and women alike.
- The old adage “Just leave well enough alone; it’ll take care of itself” is not a solution for those couples who struggle with problems such as premature ejaculation, vaginal pain, menopause, or Peyronie’s Disease (curvature of the penis that can affect some middle-aged men).
- Religion has affected our sexual attitudes. The indirect message has often been that there is something bad about sex and the “lust of the flesh.” That has made it difficult for some of us to abandon ourselves to the sexual experience.
Given the above, it’s almost remarkable that many people are content with their sexual life, isn’t it? So how do we manage when sexual roadblocks appear?
Overcoming sexual roadblocks
- Create couple safe space. Begin by consciously planning to resolve sexual issues in marriage–even before they arise, by creating a safe relationship where hard issues can be discussed. Create space where “Love is patient, kind, rejoices in truth, protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres.” These words, used by many couples in their marriage ceremonies describe an attitude that allows for gentle, caring, and selfless exploration of sexual–and every other kind of–roadblocks.
- Become informed. There are many excellent books on sexuality. Some are listed elsewhere on this site. Leave them lying around where you know your spouse will see them. Find some particularly scintillating passages and read them to your partner. Or ask your spouse to read the two or three pages that particularly speak to you. The subject matter alone is bound to entice your partner into reading more. Now you have an open door to start talking.
- Take a risk. Speak to a trusted, wise, mature friend. Or perhaps the two of you could speak together to a couple you both trust. If you’re rebuffed the first time, try again. I predict that you will not have to go far before you find someone as eager to open up this subject as you are. Be careful, though, how you speak and what you say about your partner. Your goal is to nurture your sexual life into joy and health, not to destroy it with barbed comments and a bitter tell-all attitude.
- Seek counselling. Find a caring, skilled therapist who can help sort out and guide you through the issues you are facing.
- Speak to your family doctor. Don’t suffer in silence–there may well be some fairly simple medication changes or treatments that will make a world of difference for you and your spouse. If your doctor is unapproachable about these issues, find another.
- Have realistic expectations. Marriage is an ongoing process of navigating all kinds of challenges. Our sexual lives are not immune to the process of change. We expect our bodies to become lumpy in places, our faces to develop wrinkles, but sometimes we expect sex to always match the myth of blissful, honeymoon intimacy from the first to the 60th wedding anniversary. A helpful way to approach sexual roadblocks is to normalize them as part of “figuring out this marriage stuff,” just like having to figure out how to do vacations when one of you is an avid camper and the other loves “hoteling” it.
- Grieve if necessary. For some couples, sexual roadblocks are bigger and more challenging then a temporary detour. Perhaps there may be no alternative to a certain kind of medication that interferes with desire and performance. Perhaps after all the talking, consulting, and working it through, physical intimacy will remain compromised. Truly a loss. But after the loss of joyous sex is grieved (no easy task), the couple with a healthy marriage will still somehow manage to survive because ultimately they understand that marriage is about a lot more than sex.
A wise, older woman, aware that I was writing and speaking on this topic, sought me out to share very honestly some of the many sexual road-blocks she and her husband have encountered along their long marriage path. She is of the opinion, and I quite agree, that many couples give up on sex when they run into obstacles along the marital highway. Her plea: “Irene, let people know, let people my age know, that it is possible to have wonderful and fulfilling sex at any age. They have to work at it and talk about it often. But it’s worth it!”