NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, April 8, 2023

Keeping Sex Alive in Your Relationship is a Team Effort Between You and Your Partner

In her book, Sex Talks, Sex Therapist Vanessa Marin describes sex as a team sport in a relationship--meaning that both people are responsible for their sex life.

This is similar to how Barry McCarthy describes successful sexual dynamics in a relationship in his book Rekindling Desire, which he also says is a team effort between the two people in the relationship (see my article: Keeping the Spark Alive in Your Relationship).

Keeping Sex Alive in Your Relationship is a Team Sport

In other words, it's not up to just one person to keep things going sexually.  

For instance, in a heterosexual couple it's not just up to the woman to get dressed up in a sexy night gown to seduce the man.  Similarly, it's not just up to the man to always initiate sex, which is based on the fallacy that men always want sex.  

How Do Both People in a Relationship Take Responsibility For Keeping Sex Alive
In Sex Educator Dr. Emily Nagoski's book, Come As You Are, she discusses "turning on the ons and turning off the offs."  

What Does "Turning On the Ons and Turning Off the Offs" Mean?
To put it succinctly, it means knowing your own and your partner's sexual turn-ons and turn-offs and working on reducing what turns each of you off and increasing what turns each of you on.

Dr. Nagoksi recommends starting with focusing on the turn-offs first because it's often easier for people to identify what they don't like before they can identify what they like.  

In an earlier article, I discussed the Dual Control Model of sexual brakes and accelerators (see my article: Getting to Know Your Own and Your Partner's Sexual Accelerators and Brakes).

To recap briefly: Sexual brakes are things or situations that turn you off. Conversely, sexual accelerators are things or situations that turn you on.

Common Sexual Brakes
Some of the common sexual brakes referred to in the prior article:
Common Sexual Accelerators
Some common sexual accelerators referred in the prior article include:
Focusing on eliminating or reducing sexual brakes is the place to start for most couples, as per Dr. Nagoksi.

You can't completely eliminate every stressor in your life, but you can take steps to develop healthy coping strategies to reduce your stress: 
Clinical Scenario
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many cases to protect confidentiality, illustrates how sex therapy can help a couple to come together as a sexual team to improve their sex life.

Bob and June
After 10 years of marriage, Bob and June sought help in sex therapy because they basically stopped having sex.  In the last 12 months leading up to sex therapy they had sex twice (a no sex couple is considered a couple who has had sex less than 10 times in the prior 12 months).

Keeping Sex Alive in Your Relationship is a Team Sport

Both of them felt sad and frustrated about their sex life, but whenever they tried to talk about it on their own, their discussion ended in an argument, so they weren't getting anywhere on their own.

Bob was the one who contacted the sex therapist because he was at his wit's end.  Initially, June was opposed to the idea of seeing a sex therapist because she felt self conscious about talking to a stranger about their sex life.

Their sex therapist normalized their experience and told them that the dynamic in their relationship wasn't unusual for a long term relationship. 

So, after a few sex therapy sessions, they both felt more comfortable talking about sex with each other in the sex therapy sessions and with their sex therapist.

When they discussed their sexual accelerators and brakes, Bob said he wasn't aware of any sexual brakes. For him, it didn't matter if he was relaxed or stressed, whether they had complete privacy (in fact, he was turned on by the possibility of being observed by neighbors if he and June didn't complete pull down the bedroom shade) and he wasn't concerned about sexual performance.

June said she couldn't get sexually turned on if she was under more stress than usual.  She also felt self conscious that she had gained 15 pounds over the last few years, so she had a negative body image that interfered with her libido.  

In addition, on those rare occasions when they had sex, she was self conscious about whether she was taking too long to have an orgasm which created anxiety for her and became an obstacle to enjoying sex.

So, like many couples, June and Bob were very different with regard to their sexual accelerators and brakes.

It also became clear to the sex therapist that Bob was the pursuer when it came to sex and June was the withdrawer.  And, in terms of their emotional relationship, June was the pursuer and Bob was the withdrawer.

According to Bob, whenever he attempted to have sex with June, he felt rejected by her. And according to June, whenever she tried to strengthen their emotional connection, she felt rejected by Bob.  

When Bob heard June talk about trying to strengthen their emotional connection, he said, "In order for me to feel an emotional connection with you, I need to have sex first."

Hearing this, June said, "But in order for me to feel sexually connected to you, I need to feel an emotional connection first."

Both of them agreed that this is where they got stuck each time, and they couldn't see a way to overcome this sexual connection/emotional connection dilemma (see my article: Whereas Women Often Need Emotional Connection to Get Sexually Turned On, Men Often Need Sex to Connect Emotionally).

(As an aside: The dynamic described above for men and women is a generalization. There are many men who need emotional connection to get sexually turned on and many women who need sex to feel emotionally connected.  For instance, in her book, Sex Talks, Vanessa Marin discusses how she needs sex to feel emotionally connected and her husband, Zander, needs emotional connection to feel sexually connected.  So, be aware there are exceptions and whichever way the dynamic goes, it's all normal.)

Since they were both emotionally and sexually disconnected from each other, Bob and June decided that their priority at the start of sex therapy was to feel more emotionally connected first, so they made this their initial goal.

Their sex therapist explained the concept of Senate Focus, which was originally developed by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s and updated by contemporary sex therapists, including Linda Weiner and Constance Avery-Clark in their book, Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy - The Illustrated Manual.

The sex therapist explained to June and Bob that the basic premise of Sensate Focus, which is also called Mindful Touching, is that a couple improve their emotional intimacy and communication through non-sexual touching.  

She advised June and Bob that they start slowly and, in order to focus on emotional connection first, that they not have sex after they practiced Sensate Focus touching--even if they felt sexually turned on.  She explained that by eliminating the expectation of sex while they were engaged in non-sexual touching, they could both relax and focus on becoming more emotionally connected without the pressure of sex.

After practicing Sensate Focus for a few weeks, Bob and June were feeling a lot closer emotionally.  They also both accepted that they were in it together when it came to improving their emotional and sexual connection, so they accepted the idea that it was a team effort between them.

As a next step, once Bob and June were feeling more emotionally connected and June was more open to connecting sexually, they focused on eliminating or reducing June's sexual brakes.  

June worked on developing a more positive body image.  Over time, she gradually learned to accept her body.  And Bob talked to June about how turned on he was by her body--regardless of the fact that she gained weight.  He said he didn't care that she gained weight at all.  He loved her regardless.

To reduce stress, Bob gave June massages to help her to relax. He also took over many of the every day chores that were on June's to do list, so she didn't feel so burdened by so many chores, which allowed her to relax even more.

After they worked on reducing the sexual brakes, they focused on both of their sexual accelerators, including discussing sexual fantasies and their peak erotic experiences from earlier in their relationship.

By then, June and Bob both felt more sexually alive and ready to have sex again on a regular basis.  Bob learned to focus more on June's sexual pleasure at first rather than focusing only his own.  

Based on what he learned in sex therapy, he focused on cunnilingus (oral sex) and fingering June's clitoris instead of relying solely on sexual intercourse. He also assured June that he was not in any hurry for her to have an orgasm, so she could relax.

June also learned not to focus so much on whether or not she had an orgasm.  As a result, without that stress, she was able to relax and she had orgasms more frequently because she didn't feel pressured.

Both Bob and June also learned to focus more on the quality of their sex rather than the quantity.  

Keeping Sex Alive in Your Relationship is a Team Sport

As they continued to work on their sex life together in sex therapy, they told their therapist that they were enjoying sex more than ever.

It's not unusual for couples to go through different sexual and emotional stages in their relationship, especially in long term relationships.

Developing and maintaining a fulfilling sex life is the responsibility of both people in the relationship. 

Even though the particular vignette in this article is about a heterosexual couple, the idea of sex as a team effort is for everyone regardless of age, gender or sexual orientation.

Getting to know and work on each person's sexual accelerators and brakes is an important part of rekindling sexual desire.

Sensate Focus or Mindful Touch is helpful to many couples who need to re-establish an emotional connection before they rekindle sexual desire.  

Getting Help in Sex Therapy
Many individual adults and couples seek help in sex therapy for a variety of reasons to overcome obstacles in their sex life (see my articles:  What is Sex Therapy?  and  What Are Common Issues Discussed in Sex Therapy?)

Sex therapy is a form of talk therapy where there is no physical exam, no nudity or sex during therapy sessions (see my article: What Are Common Misconceptions About Sex Therapy?

Sex therapists usually give homework, like practicing Sensate Focus and other exercises, for couples to work on individually or together between sex therapy sessions.

If you're having sexual problems, rather than struggling on your own, seek help in sex therapy so you can have a more fulfilling sex life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.