Your feelings about sexuality can change a lot throughout your lifetime. They can even change during a single relationship. Some of these changes can be for the better; others can at least feel like they're for the worse. But if and when these changes do occur, many men and women tend to take the wrong course of action—shutting up or shutting down. They may shy away from talking to their partner or pull away from a physical relationship they valued. They might lose interest in sex altogether, or turn against themselves and their bodies. But when people face these challenges, they can find that talking about them, while uncomfortable at first, can be the key to maintaining a healthy sex life and a positive sense of their own sexuality.
So what are some of the changes that impact a person's sex life? These shifts can be physical or psychological.
Physical changes relating to sexuality often reflect the natural shifts that our bodies go through over time, or can be caused by medications that strongly affect one's sexual feelings and performance. People tend to view them as embarrassing, or something to be kept secret. But the opposite is true: Talking about these changes with your partner, a friend, or your doctor can lead to more understanding and self-compassion, and allow you to maintain a satisfying sex life. You can choose to take a healthy approach to physical changes without turning on yourself and giving in to your critical inner voices by allowing them to tear you down or make you feel insecure. It's important not to listen to what your inner critic tells you about these changes or to allow yourself to shut the door on your sexuality.
In addition to physical adjustments, people of all ages often face an onslaught of psychological influences that can affect their sexuality. These can have a lot to do with those critical inner voices, which every person possesses. When it comes to sexuality, a person's inner critic often comments on their performance, their bodies, or what their partner is feeling or not feeling. This "voice" keeps people in their heads during sex, instead of in their bodies.
When it comes to sexual activity, many people feel there are a lot of "supposed to's," as if they are supposed to perform this way or feel that way during any sexual encounter. These expectations are fueled by the critical inner voice and can lead people to feel self-conscious, insecure, or disconnected when trying to be physically affectionate. Many people can also be critical of their appearance, viewing themselves as too old, fat, unattractive, or uncomfortable for sex. With all its input, the inner critic can negatively influence your sexual relationships and eventually prove the false notion that passionate relationships can't last long-term.
The truth is that intimate relationships don't have to lose their excitement. However, as people get closer to each other, they may struggle with maintaining an alive, satisfying sexual relationship. Many people find it difficult to combine emotional intimacy and deep loving feelings with passionate sexuality. This can occur, albeit mostly unconsciously, because old issues from their past resurface and become experienced as critical inner voices about their sexuality that hold familiar themes from their past. For example, if you were hurt or rejected by the people who cared for you, you may have grown up feeling there is something wrong with you on a bodily level. You may experience thoughts like, "You are so unattractive, she (or he) is repulsed by you." If you felt a lack of affection as a child, you may feel desperate for affection as an adult, experiencing thoughts like, "You need to be aggressive. He (or she) is not going to come toward you." If you felt intruded on when you were young, you may have a tendency to pull away whenever someone gets close, thinking. "He (or she) is so hungry toward you; you don't really want this."
When people start to get into their heads during sex, they lose a sense of connectedness to their partner. Feeling this distance, the sexual experience can feel less satisfying or worthwhile. With their head flooded with self-critiques or attacks on their partner, they may start to think about just getting through the sexual situation, instead of relishing it. Emotional closeness remains the most important aspect of physical intimacy. That's why it's so important to bring your emotional struggles to light and talk about what's going on.
When you experience change, physical or emotional, you need to be aware that your response can also affect your partner's feelings about himself or herself. It may trigger critical inner voices in them. They may feel that you have become bored with them or that they're no longer unattractive to you. Talking to your partner and exposing the destructive attitudes of your critical inner voices can bring you both back to yourselves and reestablish your connection. Closeness, self-esteem and open communication are essential to lasting, healthy sexuality. They are also the biggest factors in sexual satisfaction.
When you open up to your partner about what's going on in your mind with regard to your sexuality, you allow him or her to know you on a deeper level. In a sense, this conversation can be foreplay, as it allows a couple to feel for each other and get closer. It may feel awkward or unnatural at first, but often when people do open up and talk about it, it can lead to major, surprising shifts in a sexual relationship.
However, people can let years pass without having a conversation about their sexuality. In addition to talking to your partner (or to prepare to talk your partner), you can confide in a close friend or therapist. It's all too easy to feel alone in your struggles, but you'd be surprised at how many people relate to exactly what you're going through. Staying silent allows critical inner voices to fester and that will make you feel worse, or even like giving up on your sexuality. The more you talk, the better you are likely to feel, and the quieter the noise in your head should become.
When it comes to sex, the optimal experience involves feeling emotionally close to your partner, in touch with your body, and present in the moment. I have found that by identifying and challenging destructive thought processes or critical inner voices that interfere with closeness and optimal sexual function, people can learn to combine love and sexuality and achieve that special combination so desirable in an intimate relationship.
Taking a chance and talking to your partner is the first step to achieving this goal.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org
Dr. Lisa Firestone will be presenting a weekend workshop on "Creating a Loving Relationship" Nov. 8-10 in Ojai, CA. The event is open to individuals and couples. Learn more here.
Read Dr. Lisa Firestone's book, Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships.