The way sex is portrayed in society, you’d think that sexual desire and arousal are mostly spontaneous; that sexual pleasure is easy to figure out; an orgasm defines sexual pleasure; and that issues with sexual intimacy are not “normal.”
Well, the good news is that these are all common misunderstandings about sex. The “bad” news is that we have a lot of unlearning to do in terms of understanding holistic, accurate, and nuanced information about sexual intimacy and pleasure.
As a sexual health educator who has predominately worked in faith-based spaces, I’ve supported individuals navigate a myriad of questions about sex and intimacy, including those who are married.
“I feel no desire for sex – or for my spouse – what is going on?”
“It’s really challenging for me to become aroused now but when we got married, it was easy…”
“I’m having pain with sexual intercourse, and don’t feel like having sex anymore – what do I do?”
“I don’t have energy for sex…it seems like so much work!”
“Sex is boring, we do the same thing all the time…”
If you can relate to any of these statements, you’re not alone and you’re not broken. If anything, these issues and other ones demonstrate that you’re a healthy, normal, functional sexual being who is encountering one of many common sexual issues in marriage!
Unfortunately, many of us fail to be taught that sexual intimacy and pleasure in long-term relationships such as marriage require constant work and tune-ups, much like marriage itself.
Physical, emotional, and sexual contexts during marriage change – they’re not static. Therefore, what may be helpful on your journey to address sexual issues in your marriage is to first learn about factors that could be contributing to them. Let’s dive into exploring a few of these factors and how they might impact sexual intimacy.
(For holistic purposes, the term “sexual intimacy” will be used to refer to all forms of sexual pleasure within marriage, including but not limited to sexual intercourse)
Our Physical Health
Many of us may not realize that there are many physical factors that impact sexual intimacy. For example, hormones play a large role in sexual functioning (i.e. especially with libido/desire), especially testosterone, and estrogen is implicated in vaginal lubrication.
For those who are experiencing pain during or after sexual intercourse, there may be hormonal, neural, or muscular issues that you’re not aware of. Overall, to rule out any physical and/or medical factors that may be impacting sexual intimacy, it may be helpful to have a physical check-up for overall wellness; blood work; a pap smear or prostate exam; and a pelvic exam by an ob/gyn or urologist.
If pain during or after sexual intercourse is present, then a pelvic floor physical therapist may help gain further insights into any pelvic floor issues that may be present. Overall, exploring your physical health ensures that there’s nothing medically contributing to the sexual issues that you’re facing.
Our Emotional State
Let’s be real – our state of mind, and the presence of being in our body, have a huge impact on our desire, arousal, and pleasure. Mindfulness, for example, is a prerequisite for sexual pleasure – if we’re not fully present during sexual intimacy, then how can we fully experience sexual pleasure with our spouse?
Stress, additionally, has been shown to press on our sexual brakes, effectively shutting down our sexual response, and any arousal we may feel. At the same time, sexual shame, troubled body image, trauma, grief, and many more emotional factors can greatly impact sexual intimacy in marriage by preventing our sexual response from accelerating towards desire.
In order to address any emotional factors, we first need to gain insights about what specifically we’re feeling and why. I often recommend that folks create intentional time and space to reflect on their thoughts and feelings.
Asking yourself questions such as -what runs through your mind during sexual intimacy with your spouse? Are you comfortable being vulnerable and communicating with your spouse about your shared sexual intimacy? Are you able to stay present during shared sexual intimacy? Do you carry shame about your body and sexual intimacy? Are you worried about sexual performance? What thoughts do you have about their own body and sexuality? Is there trauma that is being triggered during sexual intimacy? What is weighing more heavily on your mind than sexual intimacy?
Journaling is one way to gain clarity about our thoughts; as is seeing a therapist. Gentle breathing and mindfulness to tune into your five senses can support grounding of your nervous system, and to deal with any challenging emotions that may arise.
Many married couples share that sexual intimacy early on in marriage was much more pleasurable and “fun” than down the road into their relationship. This is not to say that all spouses feel this same way since many feel that sexual intimacy is more pleasurable and vulnerable after a few years of marriage.
Either way, the time that we spend living and interacting with our spouse can impact sexual intimacy. For example, the more comfortable and familiar you become with your spouse; or if children are introduced into the picture; additional family or work responsibilities; or fertility issues – any one of these by themselves will impact sexual desire, arousal, and/or pleasure.
Perhaps the initial “excitement” you felt when initially married and being sexually intimate (thanks to strong surges of dopamine!) – otherwise known as “limerence” – eventually fades away after a maximum of two years, and is replaced by the hormones of attachment, such as oxytocin.
In this case, we may need to work harder to try original sexual contexts with our spouses, to create excitement and curiosity. Spouses may want to think about when and where they share sexual intimacy in their house, and whether new environments and contexts may help, or perhaps sexual fantasies about your spouse is used to foster arousal and desire.
Some spouses, especially those struggling with orgasm, may want to explore vibrators to incorporate sexual intimacy; and some may explore role-playing, using multi-sensory factors such as massage oils, music, sexual toys, different types of sensual touch, and food; or a combination of these to stimulate the senses in new ways. The bottom line is that curiosity, open-mindedness, and self-awareness are critical when exploring sexual contexts with your spouse.
These factors are by no means inclusive of all those that impact sexual intimacy, and serve to provide a glimpse into its complexity. After considering these factors towards the sexual issues you’re experiencing in marriage, the following reflection questions may help formulate a plan of action:
- Have my spouse and I had recent comprehensive, physical health check-ups? Have either of us experienced physical health changes?
- How are we doing overall as a couple? Any there any new stressors or considerations that may be impacting our emotional wellbeing? How are we doing during the ongoing COVID pandemic? Are any marital issues contributing to challenges with sexual intimacy?
- How would we describe our sexual intimacy? Do we both hold sexual curiosity? How would each of us describe the sexual pleasure we experience? Does any aspect of sexual intimacy – arousal, desire, or pleasure – seem more challenging?
In addition to these reflection questions, the books below are resources that have been known to be quite helpful. And remember, you don’t need to walk through this journey alone!
Sex therapists, marriage counselors, sexual health educators, and others are just a few professionals available to support you and your spouse with your sexual intimacy journey.
- Come As You Are – Emily Nagoski
- Sex Points – Bat Sheva Marcus
- Better Sex Through Mindfulness – Lori Brotto
- Beyond Shame – Matthias Roberts
- The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman
Kiss & Tell Magazine discusses sexual health and wellness as well as many other topics important to women. Support us by becoming a subscriber, subscribers get their voices heard by guiding our content.
Help us grow in the social media world…click one of the buttons below or copy the link.