Our sexuality is an important part of our identity. Feeling acknowledged as a sexual person contributes significantly to our sense of well-being. Although actual time spent having sex makes up a small amount of our time in a relationship, if the sexual contact between partners is absent or unsatisfying, it has a major impact on how we feel about the relationship, our partner, and, most importantly, ourselves.
Despite the importance of our sexuality, research has found that in many relationships, sex seems to be on the back burner. According to The Kinsey Institute, 13 percent of married couples in the United States report having sex only a few times per year. An Australian study of more than 6,000 people in relationships showed that “only 46 percent of men and 58 percent of women were satisfied with their current frequency of sex.” Those who felt dissatisfied were also more likely to feel lower sexual and relationship satisfaction. For those who are not feeling satisfied—not having sex as much as they’d like or finding themselves making excuses to avoid sex—it may be time to ask why.
Why are so many people really giving up on their sexuality?
The world offers ceaseless distractions—careers, kids, errands, social engagements, and endless technologies. And when we do slow down, it’s often to retire into generally mindless activities like sleeping, watching TV, or browsing online. What gets lost in the flurry of “to do’s” can be moments of actual connection with a partner, and, for that matter, with ourselves. One of the most unfortunate casualties in this scenario is sex. The more we clutter our lives, the more we seem to lose touch with or disregard our sexuality.
Though sex may feel like a small part of our experience, it has a major effect on how we feel. When couples stop having sex, as many do, they frequently grow apart. Instead of seeing sex as an enjoyable and important part of their well-being, they view it as a duty or task that just doesn’t make the cut on an otherwise busy day. The truth is that sex is a lively, invigorating part of our lives that can actually reenergize us. It’s something to enjoy, a unique way to connect to another person and a precious opportunity to express affection. Yet, for so many people, the flame dwindles as excuses roll in.
Here are 5 common excuses it may be time to forego in order to reconnect with your sexuality:
1. “I don’t feel close to my partner.”
If you feel like you’re drifting away from your partner, that isn’t necessarily reason to cut off your physical relationship. I’m not suggesting that people who don’t feel attracted to each other force themselves to be intimate, nor am I claiming that sex solves all problems. However, loving actions can breed loving feelings. Studies have shown sexual frequency to be positively and significantly associated with sexual satisfaction, and in turn, with marital satisfaction and stability. This isn’t only true for married couples. It’s been reported that low sexual frequency between unmarried couples that live together is associated with higher rates of breakups.
But why do once-happy couples start to feel distant from each other? After a period of time together, many couples enter into a fantasy bond, an illusion of connection that takes the place of real relating. They begin to function as a “we” instead of a “you” and “me,” which can kill off physical attraction. They start to see their partners as their right arm and stop acknowledging them for the separate and unique people they are. The problem is, they soon find themselves about as attracted to their partners as they are to their right arm. Additionally, a fantasy bond can lead couples to get nitpicky. They may get easily turned off by traits they didn’t used to mind or that they even liked in their partner.
To maintain relationship satisfaction, couples are better off avoiding a fantasy connection and continuing to respect their partners as separate people. If you no longer feel physically drawn to someone you once strongly desired, it’s important to ask if perhaps you’ve created this type of bond. Think about why you’re avoiding intimacy, and be open to the possibility that the reasons aren’t necessarily good ones. For example, a petty argument over taking out the trash may not be worth giving up a vital act of affection that could very well reestablish your loving feelings.
2. “I don’t feel sexy.”
It’s no great surprise that low self-esteem can serve as a barrier in the bedroom. A recent study showed that wives’ perceptions of their sexual attractiveness were affirmatively associated with both their and their spouse’s feelings of marital satisfaction. The better women felt about themselves physically, the healthier they felt in their sex lives, and in their relationships in general. Though this particular study found this issue to be more significant among women, self-esteem has a huge impact on both sexes, particularly when it comes to sex.
In my own research, I have found that countless, common negative thoughts or “critical inner voices” can cloud the minds of men and women when they have sex. This can be a great distraction—it can even prevent some couples from being sexual in the first place. It is important not to let your critical inner voice dictate any part of your life—and certainly not rob you of intimacy with your partner. When that voice inside your head is critiquing your appearance or sexual performance, it’s like having a third party in your bed.
Avoiding sex is not the way to cope with this critic. Instead, do the opposite: Pursue sex when you want it. Disregard the inhibitions enforced by that mean inner voice. Turn on the lights or throw off the covers if you have to, because countering this critic through tangible actions, like being freer in your sexuality, will help to eventually quiet that voice. Plus, it feels good to be acknowledged by your partner as a sexual person. Allowing him or her to express attraction toward you will naturally refute any critical inner voice. (It also feels great to acknowledge your partner in this same way.)
3. “I’m too tired; I'm just too busy.”
One of the symptoms of a fantasy bond is a lack of energy toward your partner. The more we fall into a routine, the less likely we are to feel excited or motivated to connect with ourselves, our partner, or our feelings of attraction. Sure, there will be times you are fatigued, or your schedule is really packed, but once you fall into a routine of making excuses, you may start to miss out not only on sex but on other moments of affection or acknowledgment. Kissing your partner goodbye, making eye contact when you talk, sending a flirtatious text, holding hands or hugging while watching a movie—these are all little acts that can go a long way. Each is a way to maintain your personal sense of yourself as a sexual person.
Our sexuality isn’t something we have to pack away and set aside, and then go out of our way to uncover. It's something we can carry with us, that helps make us feel alive. Taking time for sex shouldn’t be looked at as an indulgence or an inconvenience. It can be a way to reenergize or relax, to reconnect or reestablish feelings of excitement toward a relationship.
4. “I’m just not in the mood.”
Of course, there are times when we will naturally want sex more than others. No one should ever feel pressured to have sex when they don’t want to; there must always be mutual consent and desire. However, the feeling of not being in the mood could be a warning sign that something else is going on, and that something may be doing you a disservice. Cutting yourself off from feelings of desire can be a defense that keeps you from experiencing closeness, vulnerability, or intimacy. Every person has different reasons for shutting down, but it is important not to refrain from your sexuality when it's a part of who you are and what makes you happy.
If you notice that you’re turning your partner down more, or failing to connect with your own feelings of desire, shying away from sex entirely is probably not the answer. In most relationships, one partner will be more sexual than the other; that doesn’t mean that both partners won’t get something important out of being together. A study published this month reported that people who are motivated to meet a romantic partner’s sexual needs not only have partners who are more satisfied with, and committed to, their relationships over time, but they themselves are better able to sustain their own sexual desire long-term. In other words, being attuned and responsive to your partner’s needs can help keep the spark alive, both between you and your partner and within yourself.
5. “I’m too old.”
Data collected from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project showed that 29 percent of married people between age 57 and 85 hadn’t had sex in at least a year. As people age, there may be physical issues that interfere with one's sex life, but it is rarely necessary to give up this part of one's life altogether. Too often, society tells us that at a certain age, certain activities or interests are no longer "appropriate," but it’s important that each of us decide for ourselves what is and isn't important. If you still enjoy sex, at any age, you should do it, and not talk yourself out of what you feel.
In the film Something’s Gotta Give, Diane Keaton's character falls in love and sleeps with a man for the first time in decades, exclaiming afterward, with surprise, “I do like sex!” before adding, “I really thought I was sorta closed for business. Just never expected this.” Her character shows us (men and women) that it’s important not to just let go of any part of ourselves because of a negative self-concept that tells us we are too old or too anything to have what we want. Don’t let your critical inner voice convince you that you’re done with anything before you truly are.
At the end of the day, sex isn’t just about sex, although it is, in itself, a pleasurable and significant part of life. It’s also about making real contact—a genuine give and take between two people. It ignites an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy. It is one more way to uphold the quality of romance and sense of companionship that makes relationships worthwhile—a means of making connection and keeping feelings alive in real time, face-to-face, without distraction.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org