relationships

What to Do When Trauma or Shame Interferes With Sex in Your Relationship

What one partner assumes the other is feeling or thinking isn’t always accurate.

by Penda N'Diaye
18 October 2019, 4:56am

Photo by Walter Zerla via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

In romantic relationships where sex has dropped off, the standard advice to “communicate" or "spice it up” (as if...there's anything to spice up to begin with) has literally never felt like enough, especially if there are broader dynamics contributing to a lack of sex, like trauma, shame, or evolving identity issues. The pattern of going without sex in a relationship is more difficult to break the longer it persists, in part because the more serious a relationship gets, the more serious partners can become about what their sex life means to who they are both individually and together.

When previous difficulties in a person's life surface, or who they are outside of a bedroom begins to change, it’s not always clear how to adjust your sexual relationship with someone you love. Sometimes breaking up is the best solution in the case of incompatibility, but what can be done if the cause of a sexless period is more nuanced, and both partners would rather stay together and work through those issues?

“If someone is not feeling truly connected and loved by their partner, that can have an impact on the sex and being able to break the cycle,” said psychiatrist Courtney Howard. She explained that, as a relationship progresses and becomes more serious, it's only normal that, like the rest of our feelings and behaviors—and even our unfolding identities—our sexual urges and expectations ebb and flow. It's worth accounting for those changes so partners can address what's going on behind the scenes of a dead bedroom.

Sexual shame rooted in a partner's longstanding cultural or religious identity outside of a relationship is sometimes the culprit behind periods of sexlessness. Brian, a 27-year-old living in Brooklyn, first remembers experiencing religious shame while masturbating; as he did it, he felt “relief, excitement, disgust and confusion.” Growing up with evangelical Christian beliefs and community made him feel unequipped to learn about his body or nurture himself and his partners. Penetrative sex was taboo: "As long as you weren’t inside of a woman sexually, you would be forgiven," he said. When he entered his first sexual relationship, despite being attracted to his partner, he was unable to maintain an erection because of shame, which added to his anxiety about sex. By internalizing his surroundings, he felt undeserving of a fulfilling sex life or a partner who understood his ingrained notions around sex.

In a clinical psychological dissertation, Dr. Noel Clark of Seattle Pacific University explained, “Sexual shame [...] can be internalized, but also manifests in interpersonal relationships, having a negative impact on trust, communication, and physical and emotional intimacy.” That was true for Brian, so he talked to his partner about ways to connect that felt safer. As he learns how to engage sexually beyond penetrative sex, he focuses on oral pleasure, which he feels more confident about. He hopes that, over time, that kind of intimacy will help dispel the shame he associates with penetration. It can be helpful for partners to expand their ideas of what qualifies as pleasurable—like penetration, orgasm isn't everything, and not every sexual experience will be the same. A good partner will understand that shit happens, and that it's not a letdown if a body doesn’t perform exactly as its owner intends.

In other cases, sexual trauma can compound with other anxieties around sex to complicate sexual connection in relationships. Josh, whose name has been changed for privacy, is a 40-year-old man living in New Jersey who experienced a yearlong sexless period in his 19-year-long relationship. Josh said it was “heartbreaking to be in love and not being able to be intimate with his partner and express love physically.” He admits that his ego and ideals around affection caused him to internalize the sexless period as her not wanting him. Similarly, his wife had given birth not long before the decline in their sex life and had an altered sense of body image that made her feel undesirable.

Josh and his partner tried getting her estrogen levels checked and seeing a therapist. Things changed when they figured out that unrealized trauma from an incident of sexual assault Josh's partner had experienced when she was young made her disassociate from her body, making her feel undesirable and uninterested in sex. Even though they’d been together for quite some time, the lack of sex came with resentment on both sides, which bled into other aspects of their relationship. In hindsight, Josh recognizes that he could’ve been more supportive regardless of their sexual disconnect.

Continued therapy for both of them has helped get their sex life on track. Carolanne Marcantonio, LMSW and sex therapist, explained that this can be really helpful in dealing with sexual trauma and triggers. “Therapy will help reveal which trauma responses and triggers come up during sex. Identifying these triggers can bring a person back into their bodies and establish healthy boundaries for themselves and their partner.”

In any situation where a lack of sex is coming from identity, shame, or trauma issues, having sex for the first time after a significant amount of time has passed can be intimidating. According to sex therapist Michael Aaron, “Creating quality experiences requires foresight and planning, right down to negotiating specific sex acts.” That means that planning to have sex can, and in some cases should, go beyond setting a designated time or day, and extends to settling on which physical acts everyone desires and/or consents to participate in. When boundaries are established in advance, it can make people feel safer and less anxious about what they're doing and make sex feel less fraught in general.

To engage in less structured intimacy when you feel ready, try taking turns initiating sexual contact. If the lower-libido partner is able to approach the other for sex, it's a step towards acknowledging their partner’s needs and taking pressure off of everyone. Marcantonio suggests identifying the differences between interpretation and clarification: What one partner assumes the other is feeling or thinking isn’t always accurate. Try asking yes or no questions—even in alternative methods of physically reconnecting, like long eye contact, holding hands, and kissing. Getting closer in those ways can help you understand your partner better and expand your understanding of what sex can be—and how to be more present for a partner not just sexually, but on the whole.

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