Does the subject of sex bring about tension, uncertainty, or arguments between you and your partner? Does your sex life feel stuck or disconnected? If so, you are not alone. Every couple faces disconnection with emotional and physical intimacy at some point in their relationship. Just as couples commonly experience negative cycles (or patterns) of emotional disconnection, couples also fall into cycles of sexual disconnection.
Although these patterns are common and often very distressing, we can learn to understand them better and change them together. Let’s see what we can learn from Mark and Lee below.
One couple’s story of sexual disconnection
Mark and Lee started struggling with sexual intimacy six months into their relationship. They care for one another, but the issue of sex has created increased tension over time. At the beginning of the relationship, physical intimacy felt easy and great. But as time progressed, Lee experienced decreased desire and struggled to feel engaged during sex. Even when she would go along with it, the excitement just wasn’t there, and she didn’t understand why.
Mark could sense Lee’s lack of interest, and understandably, it bothered him. He felt confused, hurt, worried, and frustrated whenever he saw her lack of interest during foreplay. Mark would ask what was wrong, but Lee could never quite explain. All Lee knew was that she wasn’t feeling as aroused or engaged anymore. In those disconnected moments, Mark would say something sharp, like “I guess I shouldn’t expect anything from you tonight,” and then withdraw, rolling over in bed with a huff.
Lee’s sense of inadequacy and anxiety grew as a reaction to Mark’s frustration. It was stressful to watch the pattern of disconnection continue. Lee couldn’t explain what was wrong, and this only seemed to trigger Mark’s frustration further. Lee began avoiding sex by going to bed early or making excuses about not feeling well. These excuses were her best attempt to avoid further damaging their connection. Lee kept thinking, “Something must be wrong with me — I keep letting him down.” As Lee’s avoidance continued, Mark’s frustration only increased. He kept thinking, “I must not be enough to interest her anymore. I miss feeling desired by her.” His perception that Lee was uninterested in him triggered frustration, hurt, and worry, but he didn’t know exactly how to tell her. Both partners inadvertently continued triggering one another, and the pattern (or cycle) of disconnection pushed them further apart.
Mark and Lee have yet to understand that the problem does not lie in their lack of care and love for one another. Rather, the real issue is the dynamic they unconsciously created out of their hurt and fear of losing intimacy. Mark has fallen into a pattern of criticizing, and Lee has fallen into a pattern of avoidance. They both accidentally continue triggering each other, and ultimately, they both withdraw. This is their cycle of disconnection.
4 steps to break the cycle of sexual disconnection
Do you resonate with any part of Mark and Lee’s cycle of disconnection? If so, you are not alone; most couples will experience a pattern of sexual disconnection at some point in their relationship. Fortunately, we can do something about it! Keep reading for four steps to change the cycle and reconnect with your partner.
Step 1: Evaluate your emotional reasons for your behaviors in the cycle
Take time to identify the good emotional reasons you might be criticizing or withdrawing regarding sex. Often, we experience some hurt when we are disconnected. Sadness, fear, and shame are often present beneath frustration or anger.
Step 2: Gain a different perspective on your partner’s emotional reasons for their behaviors in the cycle
Can you get curious about your partner’s good emotional reasons (e.g., sadness, fear, shame) behind their moves? Our partner’s moves are often a reflection of their internal negative view of self rather than a negative statement about us. There is typically a sense of unmet longing for closeness and to feel desired and adequate for one another.
Step 3: Empathize and validate each other’s experience
When you hear about your partner’s vulnerability, let it pull you in with softness and compassion. Compassion creates emotional safety, and partners usually feel much calmer due to feeling understood and loved.
Step 4: Make changes together
Once you have a more nuanced understanding of each other’s experience, begin discussing what might help. How can you work together to stay calm in the bedroom, feel adequate for each other, have fun, and remain patient? Sometimes couples need new techniques to feel engaged in sex. Troubleshooting is easier when you and your partner feel emotionally safe together.
Good communication is a fundamental aspect of sexual intimacy. As you and your partner gain confidence to change your negative sexual cycle, you should also take a moment to acknowledge that it could reappear. Rest assured, cycles of sexual disconnection are entirely normal, and every couple experiences them at one point or another. Remember to return to the above steps for ongoing repair as needed.
How to break the cycle of sexual disconnection
Mark and Lee begin to change their negative cycle around sex firstly by slowing down the conversation. They notice how they feel when the topic of sex arises.
Lee identifies feelings of anxiety and fear around poor performance. She also notices her fear of disappointing Mark and worry of frustrating him. The way Mark withdraws emotionally and physically makes Lee really sad. Lee identifies that she feels stuck as she doesn’t know how to fix the problem and guilty because she sees it as her fault. Lee realizes that avoidance has been her default move to handle this distress.
Mark also gets present with his emotions in their cycle of disconnection. He identifies frustration, of course, but also a deep sadness about not feeling physically connected with Lee. Mark also explores his fear that perhaps Lee is less attracted to him than she used to be. Mark also senses shame that tells him he is no longer good enough to be desired or wanted by the woman he loves the most. Mark realizes that criticism and withdrawal are his typical moves when overwhelmed with all this underlying pain.
Lee and Mark take the risk of being vulnerable with each other. They help one another make sense of the behaviors they witness in the negative cycle. Gradually, both of them gain a different perspective on why they have been doing what they have been doing. They see their partner struggling with more shame and fear than they realized. Mark and Lee naturally feel more compassion towards one another in their vulnerability, and very soon, the conversation begins to feel much safer.
Now they are at the point where they can figure out how to change the dynamic. Mark begins to reflect on how he can help Lee to feel more comfortable during sex. He commits to being more open and curious about her experience in the bedroom. He also promises to try to stay calm during sex and to maintain optimism that they will find a path to intimate connection again. Lee reflects on how she can help Mark to feel more wanted and desired by her. The truth is, Lee hopes they can create a meaningful, relaxed, and intimate sex life together.
Therapy can help address cycles of sexual disconnection
Sometimes our best attempt at addressing sexual disconnection feels overwhelming. A trained, compassionate therapist can be an excellent guide to help a couple find their way. If you could use professional guidance and are ready to make an appointment, contact us to get started.
We offer services for those who live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas.