Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Improve Your
Sexual Harmony

Learn and Resolve
 the Real Problems

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

colorbar.gif (1095 bytes)

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/mates/sex.htm

Updated  02-08-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of the articles in self-improvement Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. The article focuses on resolving sexual problems between committed partners. Related articles focus on reducing sexual stress between ex mates, stepparents and stepkids, and stepsiblings. The article offers...

  • Basic premises - "Sex 101"

  • A "status check" on your sexual beliefs and situation

  • Typical factors affecting mutually-satisfying sex

  • Six primary problems

  • Options for reducing these problems

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4  (or 7, if you're in a stepfamily)

  • options for analyzing and resolving relationship problems

  • options for improving marital intimacy

  • Q&A about sexual satisfaction

      I am a veteran family-systems therapist, but am not an expert on sexual satisfaction. From 77years on Earth, 40+ years' study of communication skills and human behavior, and 30 years' learnings about personal recovery from early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse ("trauma"), I feel qualified to offer the ideas in this article.

      I assume you're reading this because you and a partner have a "sex problem." If so, take a moment to define what you need specifically, and say it out loud. Then keep this need in mind as you read...

colorbutton.gif Basic Premises - Sex 101

      This brief YouTube video proposes requisites for a mutually-satisfying relationship. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

      “Marital sex” is too complex for this short article to offer a meaningful roadmap to total bliss. The article offers basic perspectives that can help you identify probable primary problems, and options for resolving them together.

      Your “sex problem" may be a symptom of other unmet primary needs. Identifying and focusing on them together raises your odds of getting your mutual sensual and sexual (and other) needs satisfied well enough.

      Your sexual satisfaction is based on your basic attitudes and beliefs about gender, sensuality, sexuality, and morality. See how many of these ideas you agree with individually and as a couple:

      Sexual tension, desire, or need is a mix of physical + psychological + and spiritual discomforts. They’re caused by involuntary neuro-chemical cycles, which are shaped by environmental factors, attitudes, and beliefs that you’ve grown since early childhood. - e.g. “Masturbating is unhealthy, sinful, and disgusting!"

      Your need to periodically release sexual tensions is instinctive. It is no more shameful than digesting, burping, or urinating. The related urge to procreate is primal and beyond moral judgment.

      The way you fill your sexual and procreation needs can be judged between nurturing (mutually satisfying and healthy) to harmful, based on many things. There are three or more judges to please:

  • your ruling subselves (e.g. your Inner Critic, Idealist / Optimist, Pleaser, and Perfectionist),

  • your mate’s ruling subselves, and...

  • other people whose approval you value.

Psychological, biological, and environmental conditions can inhibit natural female and male sexual needs and responses. Odds of improving your sexual satisfaction rise with looking honestly at all three domains.

      Typical female sexual-gratification has a different "profile" (arousal, buildup, orgasm/s, post-release) than average male satisfaction. In "non-casual" sex, females' wholistic enjoyment often increases when their partner's genuine focus is on love (intimacy, tenderness, patience, sensuality, romance, communion, empathy, passion...), vs. mindless mechanical lust, conquest, intercourse, and orgasm. .

      Some males need to feel powerful, potent, and dominant, which manifests as sexual aggression. Some females have a complementary need to be dominated, or vice versa. Research suggests that typical female brains need...

  • more foreplay than males to reach full climax;

  • need sexual release somewhat less often, and...

  • can experience more sequential orgasms than average male brains and bodies.

      More "Sex 101" premises...

      The dividing line between sensuality and sexuality can be hard to define. Sensuality is a combination of sensory experiences (touch, smell, taste, sound, sights) that may promote sexual arousal and (possibly) intercourse. Sexuality overlaps sensuality and includes mental and genital stimulation and perhaps orgasm ." How does this compare with your definition?

      Adults who suffered sexual trauma (like abuse) in childhood seem more likely to have significant sexual (and other) problems than those who didn't. Typically, the greater the trauma, the more likely the survivor will have developed false selves and protective memory distortions or blocks about it 

       Adult symptoms of early sexual trauma are clear, and effective healing therapies are available. In my clinical experience, most average men and women suffered significant traumas in their early years. A common one is being shamed and/or guilt-tripped for feeling and expressing natural sensuality, sexuality, and normal curiosity about those.

      Our ancestral Christian and Victorian attitudes cast natural sexual desires and behaviors as shameful ("dirty"). To satisfy consumer demand, our profit-minded media engine ceaselessly barrages us with unrealistic and exaggerated focus on...

  • youth, attractiveness (“Six days to more flattering abs, whiter teeth, and an alluring tan!”), and sexual desirability; and...

  • superficial sexual adventure, titillation, and gratification.

Decades of exposure to this can hinder some mates from having realistic marital sexual expectations and experiences. Reality check: who do you compare your sexual attitudes and behaviors to? Do you have sexual hero/ines?

      More "Sex 101" premises...

      Psychologically-wounded partners enduring ceaseless inner pain can be addicted to self-medicating via sexual fantasies (e.g. pornography), arousal, and orgasm (masturbation). Like other addictions, these cravings are obsessive (thoughts) and/or compulsions (actions).

      They’re beyond logic or willful control because of the underlying primal need to mute relentless shame, guilt, and emotional/spiritual emptiness. A related addiction is to “sex and love.” I believe any addiction is a clear symptom of major childhood neglect (nurturance-deprivation) and significant psychological wounds.

      Individual subselves in each partner have their own values, needs and priorities about sensuality and sexuality. These may be based on inaccurate information, experiential learnings, and ancestral inhibitions or prohibitions. (e.g. “A proper wife must want to submit to her husband’s sexual needs, and not assert her own.”)

      When these are too conflictual, a partner can experience hormonal imbalance (“low sexual drive”) and/or enough distraction to block their natural sexual responses. That can manifest in many ways, like vaginismis (prolonged contraction or spasm) and impotence.

      Sexual preference appears to be largely developmental and hormonal, rarely learned or chosen. As such, there is nothing inherently immoral or shameful about consensual bisexuality or homosexuality. If you’re curious, skeptical, outraged, or disagree, I recommend that you read “Brain Sex,” by Anne Moir and David Jessel.

      "Good sex" consistently ranks fifth or lower in thoughtful surveys of marital-satisfaction factors. Respect, honesty, companionship, empathy, and emotional/spiritual intimacy usually rank higher, at least with typical women. What are your priorities?

       From 36 years' study, I believe U.S. divorce is epidemic partly because many partners commit to the wrong people, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. One wrong reason is “to socially and morally legitimize and satisfy my sexual desire for you.”

      Premise: typical “sexual problems” are symptoms of major psychological wounds and unawareness + ineffective communications + toxic attitudes + ignorance of sexual and relationship realities. Once identified, each of these can be reduced. From this view, there is no such thing as a "sexual" problem, other than organic dysfunction like hormonal imbalances. Even those may be affected by psychological deficits.

      You mates can improve your sensual and sexual satisfaction any time you commit to...

  • helping each other identify and reduce any significant psychological wounds (Lesson 1);

  • raising your knowledge and awarenesses;

  • improving your communication effectiveness (Lesson 2); and...

  • risking new attitudes and behaviors (be “more vulnerable.”)

Lasting improvement is most likely when you each feel "This is our project," vs. "This is your problem: you must change and learn how to satisfy me (insulting implication: "my needs and dignity outrank yours").

Status check: See where you stand with what you just read: T = true, F =  false, and ? = "I'm not sure," or "It depends on ____"

I agree with each of the premises above; or if not, I’m clear on what I do believe. (T  F ?)

My sexual beliefs and values are my own, not someone else’s - like a religion’s, my ancestors', my mate’s, or the media’s. (T  F ?)

I know all I need to know about (a) healthy human sexual functioning and behavior and (b) my personal sensual and sexual needs. (T  F ?)

I can clearly (a) name the major differences between male and female sexual needs and responses, and (b) describe how those differences affect my and my mate’s recent sexual satisfactions or frustrations. (T  F ?)

My needs for sensuality and sexuality (a) have been satisfied well enough recently, (b) in ways that enhance (vs. stress) our relationship and our self and mutual respect. (T  F ?)

I believe that any “sex problem” my mate and I are experiencing is a symptom of deeper personal and relationship problems. (T  F ?)

I can separate my and my mate’s needs for psychological and spiritual intimacy from our respective needs for physical (sensual/sexual) pleasure. (T  F ?)

I consistently rank my partner’s worth and psychological, spiritual, and physical needs as equal in importance to mine. (T  F ?)

My partner would answer each of these items as “True” now. (T  F ?)

I (a) want to discuss these items with my partner now, and I (b) feel totally safe doing so. (T  F ?)

My true Self is clearly leading my other subselves right now - or if not, I know which subself is leading. (T  F ?)

      If you learned anything important here, what is it? If you didn’t learn anything, what does that mean?

      colorbutton.gif Typical Surface Sexual Problems

      Women and men’s sexual anxieties and frustrations sound the same in any family situation:

"Too seldom (or too often)!"

"Too fast (or slow)!"

"Not enough romance!"

"Too little time!"

“I feel used!”

"I don't feel desired (or desirable)!"

"I (you) have little sexual desire"

"Too little (or too much) foreplay!"

"You compare me to ______ "

"I have an (old) infection that..."

“The kids will hear us…”

"You've, uh, lost your sexy body..."

"You fall asleep right away, and I..."


"You don't know what I like!"

"You won't do what I like!"

“I don’t do things like that.”

"Too many interruptions"

"I'm (or you're) too tired, too often!"

"You only do that because I ask, instead of wanting to..."

"I just want to cuddle, and you want orgasm.'"

"I’m scared that we'll conceive, despite..."

"It's your duty as a spouse to..."

"(Some authority) says..."

"I'm ashamed and guilty that I can't please you"

"I'm afraid that I can't please you..."

"You have a big (sexual) problem..."

"You won't tell me what pleases you."

"I have to initiate sex all the time."

      Add to these a collage of "mechanical" problems with erection and penetration; lubrication; hygiene; premature, mismatching, or interrupted orgasms (or none); timing conflicts ("I like it best in the morning, but Burt's a night man");...

      Any bells ringing here? These are surface problems which can combine to cause major personal and mutual hurts, resentments, frustrations, and doubts. These can be amplified by many other family and life stressors. .

      I propose that every one of these common surface problems is caused by a mix of...

colorbutton.gif Six Primary Sexual Problems

      One or both of you...

are unaware of being psychologically wounded and controlled by well-intentioned false selves; and/or...

can't communicate effectively about sexual (and other) issues; and/or...

have distorted information and/or unrealistic expectations about sexuality; and/or you...

are denying a chemical and/or relationship addiction which inhibits sexual responses; and/or you...

are denying or minimizing a treatable medical condition,

      and/or one or both of you...

made up to three unwise courtship-commitment choices which can't be undone.

Perspective on These Six Problems

      1) Most non-organic surface sexual problems may be symptoms of inherited psychological wounds + unawareness. Common symptoms of this are...

  • excessive sexual (or general) shame and guilt

  • numbed or excessive desire

  • sexual obsessions and compulsions

  • excessive need for control

  • associating sex with pain (masochism)

  • excessive sexual anxieties  (inhibitions)

  • devaluing or ignoring your personal rights, and/or your sexual needs, preferences, and boundaries.

  • not spontaneously making undistracted time for physical intimacy.

  • “perversions” (according to someone)

  • restrictive attitudes about healthy sensuality or sexuality

  • needing chemicals to free sexual desire

  • inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia)

  • excessive jealousy (distrust)

  • addiction to sexual arousal and release via pornography and/or a partner

  • promiscuity and/or affairs

  • over-sexualizing relationships and/or situations

  • various reality distortions (“All men really want is your body.”)

  • a distorted sexual identity (“I’m not a person who needs or enjoys sex.”)

  • devaluing your mate’s rights, needs, and your relationship (“My sons will always come first, Pat.”)

  • approach-avoid relationship ambivalence

  • sexual double messages ("You turn me on! / Go away.")

      Enjoyable sex requires being fully in the physical/emotional moment. Alternatives are being "in your head," numb, and/or distracted. Significant physical discomfort (fatigue, hunger, pain,...) and/or subselves' excessive distrusts and fear of emotional overwhelm can make spontaneously being "in the moment" impossible until in real (vs. pseudo) wound-reduction. For more perspective and wound-reduction options, study Lesson 1 in this Web site.

      And it's also probable that…

      2)  you two can’t communicate effectively with yourself (clear thinking) and/or with your mate about your sensual and sexual needs, limits, pleasures, fantasies, anxieties, and conflicts. Typical symptoms:

  • avoiding sex or “sex talk,”

  • bickering, arguing, debating, blaming, or fighting "about sex," vs. win-win problem-solving;

  • controlling and/or manipulating your partner, and denying or justifying that;

  • criticizing, blaming, and name-calling yourself or your partner;

  • withholding something, and/or withdrawing emotionally or physically,

  • punishing (“You’re sleeping on the couch tonight”); and/or...

  • chronic (a) anger and resentment at, (b) fear of, and/or (c) disrespect (scorn) of, your mate's sexual attitudes, priorities, and/or behaviors.

      This problem is a mix of unawareness + psychological wounds + fuzzy thinking + ignorance of effective communication skills (Lesson 2) and  relationship basics (Lesson 4). Review these online lessons for options.

      And one or both of you may...

      3)  have distorted information and unrealistic expectations about healthy sexual beliefs, realities, practices, and norms (We must climax at the same time, every time!”) The challenge here is learning what you need to know, and "unlearning" toxic ideas. And/or either of you...

      4)  may be denying a chemical addiction which inhibits sexual responses, If so, the primary problems are (again) significant psychological wounding + ineffective thinking and problem-solving + unawareness of these and/or what to do about them. For more perspective and options, see this article after you finish here.

     And perhaps one or both of you...

      5)  has a treatable medical condition, and you’re (a) denying that and/or what it means, or (b) you're avoiding appropriate treatment. Both of these usually indicate significant psychological wounding (#1 above).

    And/or one or both of you may have...

      6)  made unwise courtship choices - committing to the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time. This can cause a range of interactive secondary problems, sexual and otherwise.

      The bad news: these six primary problems can combine with other surface relationship stressors  to  feel overwhelming. The good news: once you’re aware of your mix of problems (your unfilled needs), you mates can help each other prioritize and resolve them a few at a time, over time. By reading this article, you’ve already begun!

colorbutton.gif Options

      1) Start by reframing the problem. Instead of saying "We have a problem with sex,"  try "We have several personal and relationship problems we need to resolve together." 

      2) Evaluate your attitude: if you each feel "This is our (relationship) problem," then green light. Implication: "To solve our problems, both of us must want to change some important things." Blaming yourself or your partner for "the sex problem" makes successful resolution less likely. Reluctance to adopt shared responsibility suggests well-meaning false selves are running your and/or your mate's life.

      3) Adopt a long-range view, and work patiently at Lesson 1 together: assess for psychological wounds, and help each other reduce any you find. Over time, this keystone work will significantly improve your lives and relationships in many ways.  

      4) Help each other develop the communication skills in Lesson 2.  This will help you each raise your awarenesses, clarify and assert your primary intimacy needs, listen empathically, discuss how you talk about sex, and problem-solve your sexual values and need conflicts. Use these skills to handle these three common stressors,

      Option 5) Check the priority that each of you assigns to your relationship. If it's lower than second place, discuss why - and what that means about consistently satisfying your partnership needs together..

      6) Evaluate your emotional and spiritual intimacies with yourselves (trust among your subselves) and with each other. With stable self and mutual trust, sensual and sexual satisfactions are much more likely. Do you agree? Part of this evaluation is looking honestly at your joint motivation to make undistracted time to share common interests with each other.

      7) Expand your sexual knowledge and vocabulary. Read one or more of the many sexual self-help books available now out loud to each other. Help each other appreciate gender-differences in your desires, attitudes, and priorities. More knowledge will make your expectations more realistic, expand your options, and grow your sexual vocabulary. There are many helpful sources of information on the Web - e.g. SexualHealth.com.

      8) As you progress on the options above, study and discuss Lesson 4  together. Use the resources there to learn how to analyze and resolve any significant relationship problems. This can improve your mutual trust, respect, friendship, and intimacy

      9) If these options don't help enough, hire a qualified sex therapist to help with specific problems. Ideally, such a professional will have experience with the options above or at least be willing to facilitate your using them. Most mental health agencies, hospital outpatient programs, and veteran therapists can recommend qualified local clinicians and programs. Note: if a prospective consultant doesn't advocate working with you and your partner, look elsewhere. If your partner balks at joint sexual counseling, see if this applies.

      Pause and reflect. How do you feel about discussing these options with your partner and trying them together?

colorbutton.gif Recap

      This Lesson-4 article is one of a subseries on improving primary relationships. It focuses on improving mate's sensual and sexual satisfaction. This article’s key premise is that common marital "sexual problems" are symptoms of up to six deeper problems. If partners (a) ignore or minimize the surface problems, or (b) focus on them without reducing the underlying causes, they risk decreasing marital satisfaction and family nurturance over time.

      Two key options are committing to Lesson 1 (assess for psychological wounds and reduce them), and Lesson 2 (build effective communication skills). These two underlie resolution of all relationship problems.

      Pause and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? if so, what do you need to do next? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise true Self, or ''someone else''?

 This article was very helpful  somewhat helpful  not helpful   

Share/Bookmark  Prior page  /  Lesson 4  /  Print page 


 site intro  /  course outline  /  site search  /  definitions  /  chat contact