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Sexual Intimacy Issues

If you feel confused and lost about what it means to be a sexual person in this culture, you are not alone.

Our culture gives contradictory messages around sexuality and intimacy.  On the one hand, the media uses images of sex everywhere: from billboards to magazine covers to all over the internet. This gives us the message that sexuality is something powerful, alluring, and wonderful.

And yet, on the other hand, our culture also gives us the message that sexuality is something that should be hidden, that it is wrong, and that is something you should be ashamed of it.  Consequently, many couples struggle to feel fulfillment and satisfaction in their sexual connection.

At Family Ties Counseling Center, we see intimate relationships thrive when sexual connection happens alongside emotional vulnerability.


No Intimacy Marriage

There are two kinds of intimacy: one is emotional closeness and the other is sexual connection. In a thriving marriage, emotional closeness and sexual connection go hand in hand; they are like two sides of the same coin.

Sexual connection without emotional openness is not very sustaining nor is it fulfilling for the heart. Emotional connection without sexual expression renders the marriage a platonic friendship much like a roommate situation. Each person knows deep down that something essential is missing, something that used to be there.

One of the most painful things that can happen to a marriage is having the sexual intimacy evaporate. Men and women both suffer from this loss; sexual intimacy is a basic need for men and for women. When this need goes unfulfilled, then it can often feel like a void in the relationship.

This sexual void can be especially painful when it is contrasted to the beginning part of a relationship, where often sexual satisfaction is quite high for couples.


Surviving without sexual intimacy in marriage

There are many ways that couples survive without intimacy in their marriage.  Whatever the strategy is, one thing is for sure: over time, your relationship will erode without sexual intimacy. You may:

  • pretend you don’t need it
  • turn to pornography
  • start overeating (or under eating)
  • suffer in silence and never to speak about it openly
  • obsessively think about the loss
  • have an affair
  • devote all your energy to work

What is healthy sexual intimacy in marriage

What is healthy sexual intimacy in marriage

The basis of satisfying sexual intimacy in marriage lies in the safety of the emotional connection between partners. At the very minimum, for example, it’s important that both partners share their day with each other and how it impacted them emotionally.

Also, married partners need to learn how to know and then share their own unique emotional experience to each other, especially about the relationship itself.  This is called “meta-communication.”

To have healthy sexual intimacy in your marriage, it’s also important that you both develop an ability to openly and comfortably talk about your sexual connection.  It’s crucial that you can share your fears, your desires, your turn-offs without being judged or belittled.

Having a healthy sexual connection with your spouse means that you each prioritize connection with each other over having sexual release.  Not to say that sexual release isn’t important. It absolutely is.  However, the connection that you share and maintain needs to be strong enough to hold whatever experience you each have about your sexual connection.

How physical intimacy issues can interfere with your relationship & what to do about it

How physical intimacy issues can interfere with your relationship and what to do about it

Common sexual issues women face:

  • inhibited sexual desire
  • inability to become aroused
  • Lack of orgasm (anorgasmia)
  • painful intercourse
  • low libido

Common sexual issues men face:

  • erectile dysfunction
  • Premature ejaculation
  • low libido
  • disordered orgasm
  • sexual pain

There are a variety of physical issues that can obstruct sexual intimacy for both men and women.   If you struggle with a physical intimacy issue, it is normal to have lots of different feelings about it, such as fear, embarrassment, grief, or even anger.

It can feel quite scary to have your body respond in a way that you don’t understand and also can’t control.  It can feel embarrassing for your partner to see you struggling with this issue, even if they say they love and support you.  And grief can easily show up around the loss of “normal” sexual functioning.

Often, all these these feelings and responses lead you to having more anxiety about your problem happening, which then interferes with your sexual connection.  This anxiety can then exasperate the effects of your problem. This sets up a painful cycle into motion where the intimacy issue is reinforced by the strained and stressful sexual connection that it causes with your partner.

The next stage that often results is that you both might start actively avoiding sex so you don’t have to feel all these uncomfortable emotions.  This can be frustrating for the one who struggles with the physical problem because you know that you are a sexual person who longs to connect sexually. And not being sexual can leaving you feeling like something important is missing from your life.

A common experience is that it starts to feel like it’s your fault that the sexual connection with your partner is struggling. Based on what your partner says or does or based on your own thoughts, you might start to believe that you’re the messed up one.

Ultimately, you’d like to feel some relief around knowing that your partner is contributing to your sexual challenges and the reinforcing cycle just as much as you.  Deep down, you’d like to have reassurance that your sexual difficulty isn’t your fault but a result of a pattern in your relationship.

It’s also important to remember that it can be normal for your partner to have their own emotional struggles in this process.  They may be experiencing embarrassment and shame because a part of them might be blaming themselves for your physical challenge.  They might be thinking that they’re not attractive enough for you or not performing right for you.


What you can do about sexual/physical challenges

The most important thing you can do is to stay connected with your partner through this.  Practicing empathetic listening and sharing vulnerably about your inner emotional experience are both vital to staying connected as a team.

We highly recommend getting medical support in addition to counseling support if you struggle with a physical intimacy issue. The more support the better. And the earlier you get this support the better. Individual counseling can be helpful to provide a safe place to talk about all contributing factors to your physical issue, without having to worry about how it effects your partner.

At some point, couples counseling is essential so that you both can reconnect and work through this issue as a team. Having a team attitude makes all the difference in working through these potentially shame-filled challenges.

When the past is present: How past sexual abuse gets in the way of fulfilling sexual intimacy

When the past is present: How past sexual abuse gets in the way of fulfilling sexual intimacy


If either one or both partners have experienced sexual abuse in the past, then the sexual intimacy in the marriage can sometimes feel like a mine-field where reactivity can happen very fast.  This is because of the past effects of trauma. (Please see the trauma & recovery page for more information). When someone has been violated sexually in the past, then the flight/fight/freeze part of their nervous system is setup to be activated by certain unique circumstances around sexual connection.

This activation (also called “triggering”) happens outside the thinking/rational cerebral cortex, so it can leave both partners highly confused and disoriented. Everyone wants sexual intimacy in their marriage to feel safe and close as well as satisfying and relaxing. However, when there is sexual abuse looming in one or both partner’s past, there can easily be seemingly insurmountable roadblocks to that intimacy in the present.

If this past trauma response isn’t brought into the light of awareness, then the partner of the person who has been sexually abused can easily feel like they have caused this response.  And in fact, the traumatized partner, in his/her state of fight/flight/freeze might, at times, even blame their partner.  This is because in those moment of activation, they are falsely experiencing their partner as a threat and not as the safe and loving person that they actually are.

Trauma can cause people to momentarily live in the past through the eyes of their reptile brain, which is designed to assess everything as a threat in the world. Without education or awareness about the negative effects of past trauma, the sexual relationship can turn into a scary place where each partner ends up confused, feeling bad about themselves, and quite scared.  Then sex becomes something to avoid because it induces such fear and shame.

This negative pattern of interaction is so tragic because the marriage looses the potential for sexual intimacy to be a healing resource for both the relationship as well as for the partner with the history of abuse. Instead, sex becomes ridden with apprehension and avoidance, judgement and distance, and ultimately emotional disconnection in the marriage.

There is hope. Both individual and couples therapy can help you get through these challenges.  Your sexual connection is a vital piece of your well-being in the world and therefore deserves attention, support and care.

Watch TED talk about how internet pornography effects mental health

Click here to learn more

3 Mindfulness partner exercises to bring physical closeness & enhance intimacy


Back to back 3-Part Breath with Partner

Sit comfortably with your partner back to back.  If you’re on the floor, you may either have your legs crossed or out in front of you.  If you’re in a chair, then turn the back of the chair so it is in front of you.  Lean back into your partner and find a comfortable balance between leaning and supporting. This in itself is an exercise.  Does one of you feel more supportive than the other?  Both of you can follow the 3-part breath, but this time you’re imaging that you are sharing the same body.  With the lower breath, you image that you share one balloon between the two of you. With the middle breath, imagine that the belt is wrapping around both of you.  And with the chest breath, imagine that you share the same pair of lungs.  Develop sensitivity with your partner using your body awareness. Where does there breath seem to be happening in your partner’s body? Can you match their breath wherever you sense it?  Can the expansion of both of your breaths help you two breathe deeper and more full? When you exhale and pause, are you both able to rest in that stillness? What emotions arise in the still place between breaths?Through listening carefully with your body, can you sync your inhalations to start at the same time?Notice without judgment what comes up for you when you do this? Can you share your observations and ask for what you need?


Back to Back Stretching & Moving with Partner

Moving: Continuing from the previous exercise, allow some movement to start to happen with your partner. Imagine your spines to be linked as if you shared one spine.  Allow whatever movement wants to happen to happen.  Try allowing one partner to be leader while the other follows. Switch leader and follower. And then have no leader or follower and see what movement wants to happen.  Allow for big movements or small movements.

Stretching: This movement can turn into some basic easy stretches where one person is folding forward and the other is back-bending and opening up their chest.  Make sure that both of you are comfortable with the level of stretch you choose. If you’re on the floor, you could even go into a side-stretch with one hand on the floor next to you and your other arm and hand intertwined with your partner’s arm and hand, reaching upward and outward away from both your torsos. Have fun and see where and how your bodies want to move and what creative stretches you can find together. See if you can find a balanced of supporting, leaning, opening, resting, moving, and stretching.  Allow your dance to unfold.


Melting Hug with 3-Part Breath

A melting hug is done standing.  You and your partner can embrace with a comfortable stance.  Allow your whole front side to connect here.  Get cozy, even though you’re standing.  Feel yourselves melt into each other.  Initiate the 3-Part Breath in this more open and connecting position.  Notice how it feels different front to front compared to back to back.  Similar to the Back to Back 3-Part Breath, visualize your breath and the structures your breathing into to be united into one unit

→ Couples Counseling can help you strengthen your sexual connection Call 503-349-2281 to make an appointment Email us