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
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:
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.