Sex and Stress

Mar 26, 2024
Sex and Stress

How chronic overwhelm affects our partnered connection

Stress is very hard on sexual desire. We tend to get through tough times by putting one foot in front of the other, focusing on what has to happen to get through the day. From a physiological standpoint, stress can block arousal, as the arousal nerves are part of the parasympathetic branch of the central nervous system, which can’t be easily accessed when we’re stressed out. And when stress becomes chronic, it can have a significant impact on your experience of arousal and desire long-term. 

The weight of history in long-term relationships

In long-term relationships, partners will often have taken on a lot of responsibilities together – like parenting, taking care of a home, financial planning, managing medical issues, caring for one another’s parents, and more. These significant stressors can leave you spending much of your time together in crisis-management mode.

Parenthood, for instance, is a very common long-term stressor. It carries its fair share of joys and rewards, of course, but it also comes with multiple associated losses and adds a lot of complexity to people’s lives. Anything that requires one or both partners to make an enormous adjustment — and then keeps delivering an ever-evolving menu of stresses over a period of years — exhausts emotional and physical resources and, in turn, puts a lot of stress on relationships.

A word about stressful circumstances

Stressors come in all shapes and sizes, including daily annoyances, eras of challenge (such as raising a child, divorce, illness, pregnancy loss, job loss, or injury), and ongoing endangerments (like marginalization or threats to self/culture/personhood as a result of sociopolitical developments, natural disasters, and war).

Of course, each stressor is unique, and each person experiences stress in their own way. Multiple axes of identity can overlap and create unique experiences of marginalization, each with its own particular stressors. (I’m drawing here on legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality.) Nor do all stressors have clear beginnings and endings. Marginalization and discrimination aren’t likely to resolve any time soon, and intergenerational trauma, by definition, extends far beyond one lifetime. 

If your clients are experiencing extremely profound stresses or stress over long periods of time, I might start by asking them what place they want eroticism to have in their life, and why. Then I would listen carefully to their answers, and support a conversation between partners about it. 

Not every client wants to experience more desire, and not every era is an era for expanding eroticism. And yet, many people find eroticism to be protective or healing in times of stress. Wherever your clients fall, a conversation that acknowledges the reality and complexity of their experience while including the topics of sex and sexuality will be an important start.

Stress and desire discrepancy: where did the disconnect start?

When I’m conceptualizing a case involving a desire discrepancy, I’m interested — for multiple reasons — in the role stress has played in the disconnect between partners. There are a whole lot of dimensions to consider:

  • Stress is shaped by our sociopolitical realities.
  • Stress affects the whole relationship ecosystem. Its impacts are an essential piece of the relationship's history.
  • Stress can affect sex in a wide variety of ways, and partners are unique individuals with unique viewpoints. Often, each partner is having a totally different experience and has no understanding of the other’s viewpoint.
  • Whatever difficulties you and your partner have with handling your differences, stress is likely to push those to the fore.
  • Bouncing back from a period of stress doesn’t happen automatically. It takes some intentionality.
  • Under a cascade of stressors, people often abandon important aspects of themselves or let go of things they enjoy, just to get through the current crisis. In time, being disconnected from yourself can mean having less to share with a partner.
  • Stress tends to lead us to stress-relieving patterns of behavior. That can include some very poor decisions — think substance overuse and affairs, just to start. 

What happened to the juice?

In my experience, one of the most common challenges relational therapists report is relationships that simply feel flat, where partners have turned into roommates over time. When you dig into that dynamic, it often emerges that significant stressors are a big part of the story. As partners contend with a crisis, they (understandably) become increasingly focused on what might go wrong. They lose their connection to their bodies, especially if they don’t have good strategies to help, like daily practices of accessing relaxation. Focusing on just getting through the day-to-day, they let go of parts of themselves that bring them joy. 

As a result, they have less to share with each other and less interest in life generally. They’re simply worn out and exhausted. Where is the juice when most of the time you feel like a dried-up husk? How are you supposed to experience desire, yearning, and pleasure when everything already feels like too much? 

Finding juiciness again

Here are some practical ideas for contending with the impact of stress and increasing the experience of juiciness in your life and in your relationship:

Cultivate the ability to access the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s possible to get better at accessing your “rest, relax, restore” nervous system, and building that skill can make a huge difference. One strategy can be developing a mindfulness practice that involves awareness of body sensation, or trying out guided meditation with inspiring and relaxing imagery. When you’re able to access a parasympathetic state, a lot of things that may feel impossible now will start to seem more doable. It’s much easier to stretch when you’re able to relax.

Identify the habits you created to get through ‘crisis mode,’ and figure out which are serving you and which are not. Are you really attending to one another when you’re together, or are you still on alert, thinking about what you need to do next or what might go wrong? Or are you in escape mode, scrolling on social media rather than braving a face-to-face conversation? Early attempts at being present with one another are likely to bring up a lot of vulnerability, so expect bumpy progress and be kind to yourself; celebrate all your successes, even if they feel small.

Begin to imagine a more pleasurable life. If you were to write a great big giant list of fun things to do alone, what would be on it? What about a great big giant list of fun things to do with your partner? Try it out, and push yourself to write more than 30 ideas for each list. Get silly and playful with it! Reawakening your curiosity and getting in touch with your interests will bring some juiciness back into your life and give you more to share with your partner.

Originally published on Psychology Today.

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