Resilience: A Key Skill for Long-Term Sexual Connection

Jul 28, 2022

There’s something wrong with the way most of us are taught to think about sex. Our expectations are skewed, and we have lots of misinformation about what is normal and expectable in a sexual interaction. This causes no end of mischief. 

Here’s what I see in my practice: After some amount of time in a relationship, partners settle on a sexual routine in which one activity leads into another, and then into another, in a sequence we tend to repeat. For instance, you might start with kissing, then take each other’s clothes off, then proceed to oral sex, and finish off with penetrative sex, followed by orgasm. If all goes according to plan, then you know you’ve done sex “right,” and you can both feel good about the interaction. 

But if something goes “wrong”, by which I mean “not according to plan or expectation”, it’s another story. Say, for instance, one partner’s body (or mind) is not cooperating with the routine today, for whatever reason. Feelings arise, usually in both partners. Stories to explain the feelings follow. Some examples of these feelings and stories include:

  •  Feeling embarrassed, leading to a story that something’s wrong with you
  •  Feeling arousal ebb and flow, leading to a story that your partner will be hurt or upset if you’re not turned on enough
  • Feeling anxious about some aspect of sexual function, leading to a story that you’re not a good lover, or something is wrong with your body
  • Feeling tired or ambivalent, leading to a story that your relationship is doomed because the hotness is gone and will never return

Here’s the point: When something doesn’t go according to plan with our sexual routine, we tend to make a whole lot of negative meaning about it. Some of that meaning is about ourselves, some about our partner, and some about our future. 

All of these fears and the meaning we make from them get in the way of the connection between partners, which is tragic, because it is so unnecessary. Sex sometimes goes as planned, but very often it does not. This is normal, expectable, predictable, and extremely common. What if we told ourselves different things when sex doesn’t go as planned?

When feelings emerge, you don’t have to tell yourself the negative story! Ask yourself: in this moment, what would I like to believe? You do actually have a choice, and there might be an alternative narrative that would lead to a much better experience for you and your partner. 

Let me give you some examples of things you might tell yourself when sex doesn’t go according to plan. 

  • “Okay, I’m feeling some feelings about my appearance right now. That’s ok, but I don’t have to tell myself a negative story about my looks right now. I can take a deep breath and focus on what feels good right now. If I want to, I can ask my partner to tell me some things they love about how I look. Or I can ignore my thoughts, and really focus on what my body is experiencing, and let the experience of pleasure take over.” 
  • “It’s natural for arousal to ebb and flow over the course of a sexual encounter. I can take a deep breath and focus on the sensations I’m experiencing.” 
  • “Okay, this activity isn’t working with my body right now. That’s alright; there’s lots of other fun things my partner and I can do together. I can suggest a switch or ask my partner for an idea.”
  • “I’m tired, and stressed, and having difficulty focusing on my body and the sensations that I’m experiencing. Maybe a nap would be a good idea; I can let my partner know what I’m experiencing without catastrophizing, and I’m sure when I feel rested and less stressed, things will be different.”

Yes, disengaging from our well-practiced and familiar negative stories can be challenging. But the more you practice, the more natural it will feel–especially when it results in better sex for you and your partner. 

Cultivating resiliency in sexual situations is one of the very best things you can do for yourself and your partner in the long-term. Rather than planning for everything to go perfectly (which I can promise you won’t happen every time), why not plan to become truly skillful at bouncing back, no matter what happens in the moment? 

When you’re not distracted by upsetting narratives, you’ll probably find it easier to focus on the sensations you’re experiencing, and really inhabit your body and your experience of pleasure, as well as the energy moving between you and your partner. 

When you don’t make negative meaning about your unique experience in the moment, it will be easier to switch it up, improvising and discovering what feels good in the moment. As you build your resilience, you and your partner will find it easier to communicate openly about what works for you both, support one another with managing the feelings that arise during sex, and move towards pleasure and connection together, as a team.

Originally published on Psychology Today.

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