The sexual avoidance cycle is common.

Despite the common belief that “sex is supposed to be fun, easy, and natural,” a surprising number of people struggle with it. If you are having problems in your sex life, you are not alone. In my practice, I have seen young couples who haven’t consummated their marriage, who struggle with sexual pain, or who argue about their different levels of sexual interest. I’ve seen middle-aged people who are dealing with stress and responsibilities overtaking their relationship, who have lost interest in sex, or who have gotten complacent and bored in their sex life. There are older couples who struggle with sexual dysfunction, are feeling the effects of disease and its treatment, or are just now beginning to talk about what they want out of their sex life. This isn’t a complete list, of course. This is just a sample of the kinds of sexual concerns experienced by so many people. People like you. People like me. And people who don’t realize that problems with sex are commonplace.

How sexual struggles lead to sexual avoidance

Struggles in your sex life can make you sad and anxious—especially if they happen often. If you aren’t having sex, or at least not as much as you want, you may feel inadequate, as well as disappointed. If sex doesn’t seem to go well when you do have it, the result leads to feelings of disappointment, or worse, failure.

And because it is human nature to avoid difficult and anxiety-provoking feelings, you may find yourself avoiding sex altogether: having it, talking about it, and doing anything to change it.

In general, once you start to avoid something, your anxiety about it gets worse. It becomes harder and harder to approach whatever it is that you’re avoiding. You start to feel pressure building up and bearing down on you. This compounding pressure only adds to the anxiety, creating a downward spiral of deeper and more ingrained sexual issues. Feelings of disappointment, failure, and inadequacy lead to avoidance. Avoidance creates increased anxiety and pressure. Heightened pressure just makes it harder to have a fulfilling sexual encounter, creating more feelings of disappointment, failure and inadequacy.

sexual avoidance cycle

Disappointment. Avoidance. Pressure. This is the Sexual Avoidance Cycle, and it is a vicious one, so it’s important to discuss each of these experiences separately.

Sex feels disappointing.

Feelings of disappointment are the most common cause of the Avoidance Cycle; they kick off the whole process. Different couples will tolerate sexual struggles to different degrees, but it’s common to start avoiding sex when bad feelings about it occur more frequently.

Sex can feel disappointing for many different reasons. You may have unrealistic expectations (although you may not realize they’re unrealistic), leaving you sad and afraid when reality isn’t living up to your ideal. You may have the unfounded idea that sex should be spontaneous, that men should last a long time, that women should orgasm through penetrative sex, or that penetration is the only sex that counts. These are a few common errant expectations, and there are many more. Every time you have sex that falls short of your expectations, it can feel like a failure, diminishing your confidence for the next time. Sex can feel disappointing because of what is happening instead of what isn’t. You may see things about yourself or your partner that dishearten you. No matter where the disappointment originates, it leads you to feel more sad and anxious. It reaches the point where every sexual encounter holds the weight of the world, because each time is a test you expect to fail. Eventually, the survival of your relationship seems to hang in the balance. It feels like you are risking everything each time you have sex, depending on what happens during and afterward.

If sex isn’t easy or natural, you may assume there is something wrong with you, your partner, or your relationship. You may worry that you’re with the wrong person or that you are broken. Worries consume your thoughts, and you begin to question everything. The worries don’t go away during sex. In fact, the worries tend to magnify during sex, leaving you unable to be present with your partner. Inevitably, you wonder if your relationship is doomed.

When you’re having sexual problems, it is common to worry about how your partner is feeling, both while having sex and in general. You may feel guilty about your sexual struggles because you want your partner to be happy. During sex, you spend time on your partner’s “side of the court,” trying to read whether they are pleased and what they want. For the most part, you are not allowing yourself to think about or pursue what you want because sex feels fragile and fraught with tension. You are vigilant during sex instead of getting to enjoy it. “Is this one of the times that will go pretty well, and I get to feel relief?” “Can the two of us ‘check off the box’ and feel like we’re off the hook for a while before the pressure mounts again?”

The walls seem to close in. The space around sex gets smaller and tighter, constricting until it feels like there is no room to move or change.

You begin avoiding sex.

When sex seems to fail, when you feel disappointed afterward, when it ends in tears…sex begins to feel risky and negative. Sex is not the positive, enjoyable experience you hoped for, or that you may have shared with your partner in the past. Before you have any sexual problems, it’s hard to imagine that having sex will ever seem negative or difficult. But now sex has become an increasingly negative experience: the more disappointing sex is, the more you end up avoiding it.

One of you is probably adept at missing the opportunities to have, or even to talk about, sex. It’s common to make yourself busy in the evening or to fall asleep earlier than your partner. Perhaps you say, “I’m exhausted” at bedtime almost every night to signal that sex is off the table.

One or both of you may deflect any comments about sex or any bid to have sex. You may act like you’re oblivious to the comments or actions—going on as if they never happened or that they mean something else. Or you use humor to respond to a genuine attempt to deal with the subject, effectively telling your partner that you’re not going to take it seriously.

Perhaps you or your partner take those attempts to address sex and steer towards a fight, instead. You put the focus on your partner’s level of sexual desire, high or low, or how sex is initiated, instead of addressing the fact that you’re not having it. Or maybe you maneuver any mention of your sex life into a fight about a completely different topic, driving the conversation even further away from the subject of sex.

These techniques enable you to avoid addressing what’s happening (or not happening) in your sex life. Indeed, there may be real issues to “fight” about—concerns about your relationship that need to be dealt with—before you’re going to want to have sex with your partner. Those topics will need to be addressed. However, if you stage these fights instead of having a conversation about sex, you are creating even more problems. These are diversion tactics, a way to avoid saying, “I know we’re not having sex, and I have some good reasons that have to be addressed so that we can make progress on our sex life.”

The pressure mounts.

Avoiding your sexual problems doesn’t make them go away. You might experience a brief respite once the subject of sex seems to be off the table. But unless you and your partner are both content in a sexless, sex-limited, or sexually problematic relationship, you can’t escape the knowledge that at least one of you is unhappy. Even if you manage to put it out of your mind for a while because your partner isn’t bringing it up, sex is right back at center stage as soon as you have your next heart-to-heart (or fight) about it. Even if there are no outward signs that either of you are thinking about sex, you think about it. A lot. More and more as time goes by. The thoughts start to monopolize your mental energy.

Avoidance creates pressure. Pressure comes from the belief that you should be having sex more often than you do. It comes from one person wanting sex while the other doesn’t. It comes from the energy it takes to avoid the subject. Additionally, once your frequency of sex decreases due to avoidance, there is more and more pressure that the encounters you do have should go well. And when sex doesn’t go well again (and again), the whole cycle amplifies. This is when you wonder if things will ever get better.

The pressure is becoming an ever-increasing presence in your relationship. You end up with that elephant in the room—suffocating any chance you have to enjoy sex together, to ever feel like it’s successful. You are stuck in your head the whole time. You’re certainly not connecting with your partner. This pressure can also manifest itself in other ways, like sexual dysfunction. It’s not surprising that it’s difficult to get aroused in such a state, much less reach an orgasm. Things are getting worse and you are getting…desperate? Resigned? Devastated?

So, this is where you are. Your expectations aren’t met. You feel disappointed. You start to avoid sex. Your sense of pressure increases. You have a harder time enjoying sex. And round and round you go. Once you’re trapped in this cycle, it’s hard to see any way out.

Fear and anxiety keep you trapped in the sexual avoidance cycle.

Fear can keep you from moving forward. Anxiety and avoidance rob you of the chance to improve your partnership and your sex life. Don’t let the cycle consume you any longer. Your paralysis in the face of fear is what feeds the cycle. You’re caught in the vortex of swirling feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, failure, hopelessness, pressure, and anxiety. As long as you stand still in the middle of all that, you can’t escape to the other side, where it’s light, playful, relaxing, and free. Instead of avoiding the things that scare you, you need to confront these issues, so you can move past them. This is what I’ll tackle in upcoming posts.

Read more:

When sex feels disappointing

Why sex therapy is so powerful

What is sex therapy

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