Physical Changes and Sex
Along with issues of performance and loss, issues related to changes in our bodies and lives are common sources of sexual avoidance. Let’s examine a few of them.
Issues Due to Aging
As you get older, your body changes. You know this, but it will probably still surprise and upset you when it starts to happen. When those changes show up in your sex life, it can be especially upsetting.
One common change is that you need more stimulation in order to reach the same level of arousal. As Dr. David Schnarch describes in his work, you need a certain amount of stimulation (a combination of physical and mental) to get physically aroused (to get lubricated or erect), and then a higher level of stimulation to reach an orgasm. You can think of these as thresholds—like a bar you need to get over to physically respond the way you want to. As you get older, those bars get higher. You need more stimulation to achieve the same result you got more easily when you were younger.
In addition, you may have other changes that occur with age. Women (here I am talking about female-bodied people with a vagina, uterus, ovaries, and vulva) generally go through menopause, during and after which it can become more difficult to lubricate, and there can be some discomfort or pain with sex. Some women will report libido changes. Vaginal tissue often gets thinner and more prone to damage. Not all women experience the same changes, but it’s common to experience at least some change in one of these ways.
Men’s bodies change with age, too (here I am talking about male bodied people with a penis and testicles). Erectile dysfunction gets more common and tends to get worse with other medical conditions, too. Libido can drop. The refractory period (how long it takes to be able to have sex again) generally gets longer.
Even if you don’t have the anatomy referred to above or don’t experience the changes described, there are other effects of aging that will impact your sex life. You tend toward a bit more pain in your body, less range of motion in your joints, and lowering stamina. Age brings medical problems that can have sexual repercussions. Certain necessary medications have sexual side effects. All of this can have an impact on your sex life.
If you or your partner is experiencing age-related changes in your sex life, this may be a reason you’ve been more prone to avoid sex. It’s hard to feel like you are meeting sexual expectations when your body is functioning differently than it used to.
Issues Related to Having Children
Research shows that marital satisfaction drops with the arrival of children, and it doesn’t go up again significantly until after they leave the house. Maybe if someone told you this ahead of time, you’d rethink your decision to have kids! As much as they can be a joy and the light of our lives, having children often affects the relationship and sex life between partners.
If you have young children, you know that privacy, free time, and energy are in short supply. The needs of the kids seem ever-present and (mostly) of highest priority. It’s common to put your marriage on the back burner—even if you didn’t mean to. Some couples use a tag-team model, where you trade off the kids, so one can get some other things done, leaving minimal time for you to connect as a couple. Parenting can cause some serious issues between partners, too, and cause more discord and tension than in the past.
As the kids get a little older you may have more time to yourselves, but the parenting challenges often get bigger. You may be dealing with some serious behavioral or other issues with your older children. If nothing else, parents are often swamped with activities, carpooling, and sporting events.
If your sex life is being impacted by the fact that you have children, you’ve got to factor that into your understanding of what’s happening (or not) in the bedroom.
Issues Related to Trauma
I wrote about trauma when I asked you to reflect on your sexual history. Trauma, whether it’s “Big T” or “small t” trauma, can have an impact on your sex life. If you or your partner find yourself emotionally triggered by sex or by certain activities, it is hard to be present and engaged in your body. These triggers make it difficult to relax and trust. You may struggle to know what you like or to get aroused. If you’ve had some sort of trauma, and it is affecting your sex life, you need to allow extra time and space to work through the trauma and its emotional effects. Again, consider a therapist or specialist to help you move past it, but at the very least you need to be gentle with yourself and work as a team with your partner as you reclaim your sexuality. It’s important to understand what your triggers are so you can work to defuse them (where possible), and work around them (if necessary).
Issues Related to Illness and Disability
If either of you has a disease, especially a chronic condition, it is likely to impact your sex life. Some illnesses have specific sexual side effects. Heart disease and diabetes can both affect your ability to get physically aroused. Some medical treatments and medications create sexual side effects. Plenty of diseases just make you feel lousy: affecting your energy level, your ability to be present, and your interest in being sexual at all. If your condition is temporary, you may be able to just wait it out. But if you or your partner is dealing with something chronic or long term, you’ll have to find a way to adapt your sex life to accommodate the condition.
If you or your partner is disabled, that will likely have an impact on your sexual functioning. You’ll have to consider exactly what is different for you—in terms of sensation and movement—and determine what is available to compensate for this difference. The human body has an incredible way of compensating for losses, so use the whole body when exploring what’s pleasurable and possible. If you focus on pleasure and connection with your partner, you’ll find ways to share a sexual experience together.