Marty Klein, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist in Palo Alto, California. He is the author of seven books, including most recently Sexual Intelligence: What We Really Want from Sex and How to Get It.
Are you sexually satisfied? For so many people, sex is more a source of anxiety than pleasure. Instead of bringing them closer to their partners, sex often makes them feel inadequate, perhaps due to concerns about their aging bodies. They look back nostalgically to a time when sex was satisfying and give a sigh, thinking that it’s just something else you lose as the years pass.
But things could be very different. What really helps is a bit of intelligence—sexual intelligence.
Here’s what that means…
On TV and the Internet and in magazines and movies, we are surrounded by youthful, sexy people. Sex is portrayed as mind-blowing, athletic and amazing. We’re conditioned to think that’s the way all sex is supposed to be.
But as we grow older, our bodies—and our lives—change. Also, factors such as medication use, chronic pain, familiarity with your partner and accumulated resentments can reduce libido during this phase of life.
So it makes sense that sex will be different during middle age and beyond. It may be difficult to adjust expectations, but the way to change your sex life is to change your ideas about sex.
It’s a given that most people want pleasure and closeness from sex. But many focus on other things altogether…
How am I doing? It is very easy to equate sex with performance. This can mean constant self-evaluation. Is my erection as firm as it should be? Will it last? Am I attractive or skillful enough?
Is this normal? People may think, I like this, but is it morally acceptable? Unlike most activities they do for enjoyment, they may worry that their tastes in sex show them to be bad or wrong.
With all these anxieties, how much pleasure and closeness are people likely to experience when having sex?
To have satisfying sexual experiences, you don’t need to be a hotshot in bed. You need a combination of emotional skills and physical awareness, both of which are essential to sexual intelligence.
Partners must be patient and sensitive to each other’s feelings and keep any disappointment in perspective.
Physical awareness includes understanding how your own body and your partner’s body have changed over time. What are your bodies still capable of doing, and what can’t they do anymore? It means knowing what makes you and your partner feel good—where you both like to be touched, how you both enjoy being kissed, what aids are preferred. Sexual intelligence means accommodating these preferences, whenever possible, with good humor.
Important: Remember that emotional skills and physical awareness typically are more central to good sex than sexual technique.
Many people get into the habit of having sex while thinking about something else entirely. This undermines pleasure and intimacy.
Much better: Focus on the physical sensations. What specifically are you feeling in your arms, legs, genitals, fingertips? What do you smell and taste?
Soak up the emotional experience, too. Feel the pleasure, relaxation, excitement and fun. Also feel the closeness to your partner. If you’re anxious, worried or rushed, notice that, too, but don’t judge or analyze the feeling then. Set it aside to think about or talk about later. Bringing your attention back to the moment is helpful when you start to worry about your performance or appearance or what your partner is thinking. More self-acceptance and less self-criticism often enhances libido.
For better communication, you must view the person you have sex with as a partner rather than as a critic or judge. Since this person is your partner, you shouldn’t feel reluctant to ask for what you would like in bed. Even better: Show your partner how you would like to be touched. And if something feels good, say so (and do it with a whisper—it’s sexier).
Take time to discuss your sexual relationship. It may feel awkward at first, but talking about performance anxiety is the best way to get past it. Also, this is the time to discuss with your partner anything new that you would like to try. And, if there is anything that you definitely don’t want to do again, make this clear. During this discussion, work out details, such as preferred time for sex (some people like the morning, others the night), place and even room temperature. Since initiating sex is a problem for many couples, discuss signals to use when one of you could be in the mood.
Most people consider “sex” to be intercourse. This thinking is unfortunate. There are drawbacks to intercourse that can make it inconvenient, ill-advised or even impossible. It requires an erect penis and lubricated vagina…it’s difficult for people with various physical problems…chronic pain can make it uncomfortable…and it’s not an effective way to have an orgasm for many women.
Speaking of orgasms—they probably get a good deal more attention than they merit. An orgasm is quite pleasant, but it lasts maybe five seconds during a sexual encounter that might be 20 minutes or more.
Consider that sex can be satisfying without intercourse and without orgasm. A broader range of physically and emotionally gratifying activities—oral sex, manual stimulation of body parts you may have ignored, watching each other masturbate, etc.—are all options.
In fact, you can think of sex in the same way you would think of other things you do with your partner. Was it enjoyable? Did you feel close to each other? How can you make it even better next time? In this spirit, you’re less likely to worry about success or failure and more likely to appreciate the rich range of experiences sex has to offer.
A couple should consider seeing a sex therapist if either or both have trouble discussing a sexual issue. To find a sex therapist, check with your doctor or consult the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.