When Shame and Anxiety Interferes with Your Sex Life

Although issues that arise in the bedroom can certainly have medical explanations, they are just as often about psychological or emotional conflicts within a person or between partners.

We often feel at our most vulnerable when asking for physical touch or giving ourselves away to our sexual desires, and this means that we are extra sensitive to rejection and evaluation by others, and that it does not take much for us to recoil from physical intimacy in order to protect ourselves.

Frequently the pleasure of sex gets replaced with anxieties about having sex or feelings of shame or guilt. We can quickly get stuck in an unpleasant struggle with ourselves that prevents us from being open and vulnerable enough to fully enjoy and receive the pleasant sensations of sexual touch and stimulation.

When Sex Becomes Full of Anxiety

There are many reasons why a person may start to feel anxious about sex.

A frequent occurrence in a relationship is that one partner begins to feel anxious if there is not enough sexual contact. This might lead them to worry about their own attractiveness or doubt the strength of their connection with their partner. To manage this anxiety they may therefore pressure their partner for sex or become more critical of their partner. Unfortunately this then makes sex more anxiety filled for the other person, who may now start to have doubts about their own adequacy or ability to please their partner. They may now agree to have sex mostly to avoid a painful consequence such as an argument or attack on their person. Alternatively, they may agree to have sex to avoid feeling shame about their adequacy as a partner, or to not feel weird, wrong, abnormal, or deficient.

However, when couples get stuck in this pattern of assuaging fears or abating shame, it is hard to enjoy the sexual sensations and pleasures of the sexual act itself, and to fully be emotionally present to the other person. The openness and receptiveness that would allow you to enjoy the sexual experience has now been overwritten by an anxiety-driven need to know that you are attractive or loved, or an anxiety-filled attempt to not fall short of one’s role as husband, wife, lover, or partner.

Anxiety tends to take us into our heads. It makes us become vigilant and evaluative in order to protect ourselves from danger. Pleasurable sex, on the other hand, is about surrendering to our desires and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and receptive. Enjoyment and anxiety are therefore not good bed fellows, and their mutual presence can quickly turn the bedroom into a mine field, where it feels like conflicts and arguments are just waiting to happen.

When Shame Takes Over

shame and sexShame or negative evaluations of oneself can also be a sure way of killing a person’s desire for sexual intimacy.

Oftentimes cultural messages about masculinity and femininity enter into the bedroom and give us performance anxiety about not living up to what we think is normal or expected of us.

Fears about not being “manly enough” or not measuring up to other women in terms of one’s attractiveness can quickly lead to self-doubts and make the sexual act an aversive risk filled experience.

When we worry about how our partner views us and let our worries erode our confidence about our attractiveness as a man, woman, or lover, the natural response is often one of wanting to hide, or one of becoming hyper-focused on performance.

Men who feel uncertain about their adequacy as a man or lover, may often equate sex with a technical performance, and may be so concerned with whether or not they can bring their partner to an orgasm, that they undervalue many women’s need for tender loving care, and appear emotionally absent during the sexual act.

Women, on the other hand, are more prone to judge their partner’s desire for them as being related to their physical attractiveness or the attractiveness of their bodies, and they may quickly become overly critical of themselves and start to feel “ugly”. This shame or disgust, which they may direct at certain aspects of their bodies or appearance, can quickly kill desire and make sex an aversive experience that is best avoided.

Overcoming Anxieties and Shame in the Bedroom:

overcoming anxiety and shame about sexBecause sex can often become an arena of self-doubts, fears, and shame, it is an area which it is particularly important for couples to be able to talk to each other about.

Oftentimes when partners don’t feel safe enough to broach the topic, and to reveal their fears and desires to each other, they end up battling their fears alone, feeling less “normal” or adequate, and feeling more anxious and less satisfied with their sex life.

Barriers to having open conversations about one’s sexual feelings, desires, fears, and doubts are often rooted in shame and discomfort about revealing oneself, and the fear of being judged by the person whose opinion matters the most. Sex can also be difficult to talk about because one might be worried that honesty about one’s feelings might trigger an angry or defensive reaction by the other person in an already tense and sensitive area of one’s relationship.

It is for this reason that sexual satisfaction in the bedroom cannot be separated from how comfortable each partner feels about revealing their true selves to each other outside the bedroom. A great sex life rests on open communication and the safety of revealing oneself without being judged. This feeling of trust to be oneself fully comes from being assured of the strength of one’s connection to one’s partner.

For similar reasons, it is often necessary to talk about sexual issues with one’s partner in the larger context of how a couple is generally doing with each other. Sexual conflicts and anxieties are often a direct barometer of how close a couple feels, how assured each partner feels about being loved and cherished, and how safe each partner feels about revealing themselves and letting the person into their inner worlds of doubts, fears, and insecurities.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston Texas. Visit my new couples therapy website for more articles and insights on frequent relationship problems.


The Secret to Great Sex

What does it take to have a great sex life? Is great sex about good technique, about keeping desire burning by catering to each other’s sexual fantasies, or about feeling wanted and desired by the person you love?

Great sex is about all of these, but perhaps most importantly, it is about trust.

Sex as Technique:

Technique, such as putting pressure the right places and pleasuring each other in ways that are enjoyable rather than uncomfortable is obviously important. But to truly be able to do this, partners need to feel comfortable talking about sex with each other and asking for each other’s feedback and guidance. Men often find this difficult to do because they have an idea in their head that they are already supposed to know what to do and how to do it. Oftentimes they worry that asking their partner for feedback is a turn-off, and think of it as a blow to their masculine self-worth. Women too may feel pressured to live up to an expectation of the objectified woman they think their man might want, and may not always voice it when sex is not altogether pleasurable.

When both men and women enter into the bedroom with preconceived notions of the roles they need to play, sex becomes more of a performance than an intimate experience. Both partners are then holding something back and not fully trusting their partner with their true opinions about what is pleasurable and what is not.

Sex as Self-Expression:

In addition to knowing how to pleasure each other, a great sex life is also about allowing each other’s sexual fantasies to be fully expressed. This task is often a most difficult one because partners typically feel a great deal of shame about admitting to their sexual desires. Having a great sex life is thus really about a journey of discovering and fully expressing one’s sexual self with someone else. Each partner secretly wonders if their sexual desires are okay, and if their partner will turn away or reject them, if they truly express what turns them on. Great sex thus requires a comfort with self-disclosure and the courage to face possible rejection.

In many cases, the anxiety that this degree of openness brings about is simply too great, and a person may end up living out only an inhibited and repressed version of their true sexual self. Great sex, as you can see, is therefore not only about knowledge and technique, but also about comfort with self-discovery, acceptance of oneself, and the ability to let oneself be known to one’s partner in the fullest possible way.

Sex as Need for Affection:

A third dimension to a great sex life, in addition to good technique and open self-expression, is the ability to give and receive affection. Great sex is not just about reaching orgasm, but is also about connecting with your partner, and feeling cared for and wanted. To gratify this need for affection, you must be able to accept your own need for affection and allow yourself to surrender to the embrace and comfort of another person’s love, care, and concern.

This comfort that we can feel from the embrace of another person, sometimes even supercedes the desire for orgasm. It is not unusual to hear women say that they will “put up” with the sex in order to get this sense of being special and loved. Many men will also admit that what they are really after when they ask their partner for sex is a sense of reconnection and knowing that are loved.

Sex as Spiritual Journey:

At the end of the day, a great sex life is not an easy thing to achieve. Great sex hinges on an ongoing quest in each partner to push ahead in their own personal development and spiritual quest to become their fullest sexual self. This quest is about confronting personal barriers to fully trusting another human being with ones sensitive needs, longings, and wishes. It requires a journey both to accept these needs, longings, and wishes within oneself, and to allow them to be seen and expressed in relation to someone else.

Because this journey toward greater sexual awareness and expression is often a frightening or fragile process, it is no wonder that the biggest obstacle to a great sex life is the deterioration of trust in one’s relationship. Nothing can kill a great sex life like the feeling of rejection, the feeling of not being wanted, or the feeling of not being good enough as you are.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples work through issues that get in the way of having a trusting and fulfilling relationship. Visit my website to learn more about my approach to couples therapy.