Caught In The Sexual Avoidance Cycle? Here's How To Break Free
It's common to think that sex should be easy and that it should happen naturally if you are in a good relationship. For many people, their sex life does start that way. Early in a relationship, it can be easy to find desire, and sex can be fun and spontaneous. However, as time goes by and as life throws you curveballs, sex often becomes more complicated and difficult.
If you're having sexual problems in your relationship, you are not alone. Some experts say 15 to 20 percent of married couples are currently in a sexless marriage. Many more have sex infrequently. Once sex becomes stressful or problematic, you may very well find yourself trapped in what I call the sexual avoidance cycle: an endless loop of disappointment, avoidance, and pressure.
The sexual avoidance cycle.
1. Sex feels disappointing.
The cycle starts when sex doesn't live up to your expectations. You have ideas about what sex should be like, how it should go, or how you and your partner should feel about it. When those ideas aren't met, you may feel inadequate, broken, worried, or sad. If you have believed the myth that sex should be spontaneous, that both of you should want the same amount of sex, or if one of you is struggling with any sexual dysfunction, sex can leave you feeling worse afterward instead of better. It can become fraught with anxiety, like a test that you expect to fail.
2. Bad feelings lead to avoidance.
It's human nature to avoid things that make us feel bad and that create anxiety. Of course you aren't eager for sex when one of you feels lousy afterward. You may end up avoiding sex as much as possible, and you likely avoid talking about it, too. This is the stage where sex becomes the elephant in the room. Both of you know something's wrong and that sex isn't going well, but you don't know how to talk about it or what to do to change the situation.
3. The pressure builds.
Unfortunately, avoiding something only makes it worse. The pressure around sex starts to build. Some of the pressure comes from the idea that you "should" be having sex. Some of it comes from knowing that your partner is unhappy. There is also much more pressure on any sex you do have since it's happening less frequently; it feels like there is much more at stake each time the two of you are intimate. Of course, all this pressure makes it harder for sex to seem to go well, thereby perpetuating the cycle. This pressure can also manifest itself in other ways, like sexual dysfunction. It's not surprising that it's difficult to get aroused in such a state, much less reach an orgasm. So you end up with disappointment, avoidance, and pressure. Rinse and repeat.
How to tackle each part of the cycle.
If this is where you are, it feels inescapable. But there is a way out. The solution involves tackling each of the elements to create a sex life that you can enjoy—and one where you can't fail. You need to take the stress out of sex in three steps: Challenge your expectations, communicate effectively with your partner, and take the pressure off by using new physical experiences.
1. Change your mindset about sex.
Transforming disappointment involves challenging your ideas about sex and correcting the unrealistic expectations you have about it. Many of the ideas we're taught about sex are wrong or unhelpful, based on inaccurate or misguided information about how sex works. Inform yourself about the real truth, science, and psychology of sex. Read a good book about it (The Guide to Getting It On or a sexuality textbook). Do some online research, find qualified experts, and seek out resources. Consider seeing an AASECT-certified sex therapist if you need information or support in changing your expectations.
You can disrupt your disappointment if you broaden your definition of what sex is and what it's for. If you believe that sex is defined by doing certain things with certain body parts, or if it's focused on outcomes and orgasms, you have created limits to what will feel like success. Pleasure and connection are what matter in sex, not specific acts or results. If you take this looser and more playful approach to what "counts" as sex, you set up a scenario in which you cannot fail.
2. Approach rather than avoid.
Tackling the avoidance means you need to communicate openly and honestly with your partner. You can step into those difficult conversations rather than deflecting or avoiding them. I recommend that you come from a positive place, making it clear that you're interested in creating your best possible relationship. Express how you've been feeling about the cycle you're in and specifically acknowledge your own contribution, in thought and in deed, to keeping the two of you stuck. Be honest about your role in the avoidance and deflection, your anxiety or negative feelings associated with your sex life, and your response to the pressure you feel. Agree to work together as allies to recreate your sex life and maintain openness as you proceed.
3. Take the pressure off by doing things differently.
Lastly, you can use physical experiences to change how you interact and to overcome the challenges you face. By adjusting your expectations and communicating with your partner, you have already reduced some of the pressure you feel. Now, set up a regular time to be physically intimate in some way without having any goal or outcome in mind. The idea is to take the pressure off and just learn to show up, be present, and feel some connection with your partner. You can give each other sensual massages, take turns asking for exactly what kind of touch you'd like, or spend time touching everything but your sexual body parts. This type of exploration can be playful and relaxed, at least with practice. It may take repetition to let go of the idea that you should be responding in a certain way or that certain things should be happening. Once this kind of touch is comfortable, you can move on to more sexual touch while still letting go of any expectation about what should happen.
Sexual avoidance happens to many couples over a life together. If you've been feeling stuck in that cycle of disappointment, avoidance, and pressure, there is a way to escape that again and reinvigorate your sex life. You can work together with your partner to challenge your ideas about sex, to communicate openly about what's happening and what you want, and to share new physical experiences that lead you to connection and pleasure.
Jessa Zimmerman, M.A. is an AASECT-certified sex therapist, licensed couples’ counselor, author of Sex Without Stress, and the host of the Better Sex Podcast. She holds a bachelor's from Cornell University, a master’s in Psychology from Saybrook University, and has completed a certificate in Sex Therapy from the University of Michigan. She specializes in helping couples who have a good relationship but are avoiding sex because it’s become stressful, negative, disappointing, or pressured. She educates, coaches, and supports people as they go through her nine-phase experiential process which gives them real world practice in changing their relationship and sex life.