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June 5, 2020

4 Common Sex Obstacles and How to Overcome Them

It’s almost impossible think about romantic relationships without thinking of sex. Sex is indeed a fundamental part of intimate relationships: it’s fun and often satisfying, it emotionally connects us to our partner, it can help bolster relationship commitment, and it even has some serious health benefits (decades of research indicates that it can reduce stress, burn calories, improve cardiovascular health, and extend our overall life expectancy!). That seems like enough to convince you that sex is unquestionably a major positive for your relationship, right?

Well, would you believe that married couples these days seem to be having it less and less? I don’t mean that as your relationship progresses, you and your partner do it less often. I mean that all married couples in the United States—across gender, race, geographic region, and education level—are having less sex per year than married couples did in the 90’s, 2000’s, and 2010’s. So much for all the progress we made for sexual freedom and expression, 2020!

So, if sex is so great, why aren’t married people having more of it?

Finding the Time in your Busy Day

It may not come as a surprise to know that one of the primary reasons people in relationships report having sex less frequently than they’d like is because of time. When we finally fall into bed at night, sometimes we’re too exhausted to muster up the energy for anything other than sleeping. Here are a just a few reasons why…

When we look at statistics, it turns out we are actually spending more time at work and more time parenting our children than in generations past. If you think about it, it makes sense. It is more normal than ever before in history for women to have a job or career outside the home, so it is increasingly rare for one member of the household to be a homemaker (which, by the way, is a job all in its own!). As job markets get more competitive and businesses look to save money, the demands at work increase exponentially. If you put that together, not only are you and your partner likely to have less time at home, you’ll like have more chores to take care of when you finally do get home.

With parenting, we can also understand the recent increase in demand. The hours your grandparents spent raising your parents was likely limited to cooking and cleaning. School was less competitive; there was no “screen time” to manage and patrol; playtime was spent freely outdoors. Thanks to the rise of technology and the increased emphasis on wellbeing and safety, we spend hours each day making sure our kids finish their homework, eat enough nutritious foods, have fun and organized playdates, and are engaged in and safety transported to and from their afterschool activities. This is, of course, on top of the shopping, cooking, and cleaning. I’m tired just thinking about it all…

Where are we getting these extra hours in the day? Well, of course. We’re taking it out of our relationships. We have less alone time, less time to have meaningful and intimate conversation, and less time to physically connect.

It is easy to let sex slide from your routine. While there is no easy solution, having a better understanding of and empathy for where your time is being spent can be a good first step. It is okay to be too tired. Allow that to relieve some of the pressure to get it on. A second step is to talk about it with your partner. Come up with a signal or keyword when you each find a brief period of alone time. Don’t expect to find hours of your week that can be devoted to sex. Got hours? Great! Got minutes? Sometimes a “quickie” here and there is enough to spark some serious excitement and bring some fun and spontaneity back to the relationship.

The Division of Household Chores in your Relationship

In opposite-sex relationships, household chores tend to fall disproportionately on women. Once upon a time, this was actually beneficial for couples’ physical intimacy. In the 1980’s and even 1990’s, couples who divided household chores based on traditional gender roles (women: shopping, cooking, cleaning; men: paying bills, driving, lawn maintenance) actually reported having more frequent sex.

Thankfully, times have changed. In the 2000’s, 2010’s, and now in 2020, we have seemed to more or less blurred the lines between “male” and “female” chores. We may feel more equal to our opposite-sex partners and, as a result, we feel that the division of labor in the relationship is more fairly split. And wouldn’t you know—when we experience more equality in our relationships, we feel more connected to our partners, more sexually attracted to our partners, and are more sexually active.

Take a look at the division of household chores in your relationship. It could explain why you’ve been feeling your sex life slow down.

Pornography Use in your Relationship

Pornography—any type of media featuring nudity or behavior that is intended to cause sexual arousal—has always been a part of human history. But the internet has made it easily accessible, immediately available, free, and even mainstream. There is a lot of ongoing research about the effects of porn use on relationship wellbeing. In short, it has its benefits and its consequences.

Let’s start with the consequences. With frequent pornography use, our expectations for what “normal sex” looks like are prone to shift. It is all too easy to forget that the people you see on your screen represent unrealistic beauty standards, are heavily-edited and choreographed, and are performing for the camera. If we don’t keep those important facts in mind, watching pornography can make intimacy with your partner feel lackluster. Through research, we know that straight men who watch porn more frequently tend to report lower relationship satisfaction with their female partners compared to men who watch porn less frequently. And across genders, frequent individual porn use can make us feel less committed to our partners as we visualize ourselves with other people in fantasy. Don’t panic—the old adage still applies here: everything in moderation will not harm you.

Now, what are the benefits? A lot of the negatives of porn use are focused on individual consumption—that is, porn that is viewed alone without one’s partner. We happen to know that couples who use porn together in their relationships report more satisfaction with their sex lives than partners who use porn on their own. We tend to see that couples who are open to using pornography together in their relationships are more likely to communicate openly about their sexual desires, wishes, needs, and interests. Better sexual communication = more satisfying sex, and more satisfying sex = increased desire.

Keep in mind that pornography is not for everyone. If you or your partner are uncomfortable about using porn, that does not mean your sexual enjoyment is doomed. Viewing porn together will only help if it is something you are both interested in experiencing together.

Communicating our Needs

The final obstacle is in communicating our sexual needs. Some couples have no problem openly sharing their needs and desires in bed; other couples may find it absolutely terrifying to talk about. “What will my partner think?” “Will they judge me?” We have been taught in American society that talking about sex and intimacy is embarrassing and maybe even wrong. Maybe some don’t even feel like we deserve to have our needs met.

It is inevitable that you and your partner—no matter how sexually compatible—will have moments where only one of you is aroused or interested in engaging. Or maybe the type of sexual activity your partner is interested in is just not doing it for you right now. That’s perfectly normal. We all have different needs and desires at different times.

When this happens—when one partner wants to engage in sexual activity and the other does not—we have the freedom of choice. We can choose to engage despite our lack of initial interest—maybe to avoid hurting our partner’s feelings or maybe in the hopes that engaging will awaken our own desire. Or we can choose to honor our own needs and reject our partner’s sexual advance. It can be difficult to find the right way to “reject” an advance with our partner. If you’re concerned about hurting your partner’s feelings or inciting conflict in the relationship, try “positive rejection strategies” such as telling your partner that you love them and are attracted to them, but are just not in the mood. By reassuring our partners in the moment, we can both honor our own needs and avoid hurting our partners’ feelings. There’s even been research to show that positive sexual rejections in relationships can lead to improved sexual satisfaction!

If you are experiencing coercion in your relationship—that is, if you feel you are being or have been manipulated verbally or physically into sexual activity with your partner—it may be especially difficult to navigate communication around sex. Your desires and needs are important and you deserve to feel sexually safe in your relationship. If you are experiencing any distress as a result of sexual coercion in your relationship, we recommend the following resource for 24/7 phone, text, or chat-based services: www.thehotline.org.

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