As a clinician who specializes in working with the LGBTQ+ community, I often have conversations around healthy sex. Growing up, many of us had the “birds and the bees” talk, but not many had “birds and birds” or “bees and bees” talks.
Like we all know, healthy sex can be an incredibly emotional event, and it can be an experience of pure physical pleasure. In my office, however, one of the most frequent conversations I have is around unhealthy sex lives. After specializing in the field for nearly 10 years, I have identified four common signs that your sex life may be unhealthy.
1. Obligation & Guilt
Many clients, who are looking for love and so hopeful they’ll find it, tell me that they are fierce in their flirtation. After creating too much emotional momentum and hinting at things they only wanted in their fantasies, my clients often feel guilty for luring someone with tempting words. They can’t shut down the sexual momentum, even when things start to feel uncomfortable, because they feel responsible for creating it in the first place. Whatever the context, whether it be a game of flirtation, a long-standing relationship, or a short-term hookup, going through with a sexual act out of obligation will lead to guilt at least and shame at most, for you and your sexual partner(s).
A major component of creating a healthy sex life is presenting the authentic self and being willing to say, “No.” Speak honestly about what you really want and don’t want right from the beginning. This will set a tone of honesty and authenticity for your relationships.
For many of us, sex and emotional intimacy are deeply tied. In fact, the same neural system that houses the sexual orgasm also hosts anxiety, anger, aggression, and trauma. In other words, relational pain and resentment towards your partner can override your neural system, making sensuality, sex, and the sexual orgasm nearly impossible.
Resentment builds when we bottle up feelings of being unsatisfied, isolated, unimportant, or when we tolerate unfairness for too long. These relational pain points will grow into full-blown resentment, and this, in my opinion, is the number one agent that will shut down anybody’s sex life. So, whatever your pain may be, your one job is to talk about it constructively with your partner(s). Then and only then will your sex life have the option of returning to hot passion. I always tell my clients, “You have to protect your relationship from your resentment,” and I mean it.
3. The silent transaction
Being held, feeling valued, and getting affirmation during sex can often mimic true safety. In the heated moments of sexual passion, we tell ourselves that our sexual partner will forever be the one who will provide relational security. In fact, hormones are released and areas in the brain are activated during sex specifically to deliver the message of belonging to the body, but because many of us perpetually crave to feel connected, we may prematurely ‘give’ our sense of belonging, security, and value to our sexual partner(s) in a silent transaction that happens [unknowingly] during sex.
If this transaction has happened in an unhealthy way, it leaves one partner feeling too tied, too needy, or too dependent. Their partner won’t engage emotionally at the same depth or intensity, because they have no clue that they now hold the other’s safety and security. As a result, many wonder why sex “always ruins the relationship.” To avoid the unhealthy passing of your emotional stability, It doesn’t mean you need to be monogamous, committed, or married; it just means you need to understand the emotional depths to which all people involved are ready and wanting to go. Before you hand over your heart, make sure your partner(s) are ready to hold it.
4. Self-esteem booster
Sex is often a nice little elixir that medicates our loneliness or insecurities. And many of us feel a whoosh of self-esteem when we can get someone ‘like that’ to sleep with us. Placing emphasis on sex, we often confuse sexual acceptance for relational belonging. The confusion will leave us hunting for sex because it helps us believe we are truly worthy. For many of us, this hunt persists for years. It can even be our default setting if gone unchecked. We may have a glorious and adventurous sex life, capturing the trophy types and the model-esque, and yet we can remain confused as to why we can’t find true, long-lasting love.
But when we start by cultivating self-esteem, we don’t need others in the same way; we know how beautiful we are and what we’re worth without needing someone to prove it to us.
Obviously, sex is a beautiful thing—but it can very easily ruin relationships. Let sex be something that adds joy and satisfaction to your relationship, not the pillar that sustains you or your self-esteem.