Stress isn’t all bad. Can you envision a life without any challenges? However, too much stress or, more likely, an inability to handle a reasonable amount of stress, can have a negative effect on libido and sexual performance.
The primary sources of stress are money, jobs, the responsibilities of parenthood, household chores, health issues, extended families, and unresolved issues in marriages or other intimate relationships. During periods of unusual stress in these areas, even loving couples with a good sex life may experience a lack of desire.
“My husband completely lost interest in sex while his construction business was going into bankruptcy,” says Sharon. “We didn’t make love for six months. At first, I was understanding, then irritable, then really worried. I wanted him to see a counselor but he wouldn’t. Eventually, he found a job and began putting his entrepreneurial failure behind him, and we had sex again. He didn’t tell me until long after the fact that he hadn’t wanted to make love to me because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to perform. I wish I’d known that at the time.”
Couples who are too stressed to make love only add to their stress level through the habit of erotic avoidance. They may feel guilty for not making love. Unresolved and perhaps unrecognized sexual tensions begin to mount. Without lovemaking to smooth the rough edges of the relationship, they find each other more irritating and annoying as the days go by. The stress level increases again.
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid that slide.
What Couples Can Do to Avoid Making it Worse
1. Don’t put sexual pressure on a spouse who is under extraordinary stress. Death of a parent, loss of a job, and other major life traumas almost inevitably take a sexual toll. Be patient and understanding. Offer affection without strings.
2. If sex has become a chore, suspend performance criteria. Forget intercourse. Don’t count orgasms. Agree to touch, stroke, caress, and fondle—with no goal in sight. Touching can be as satisfying as intercourse and will often lead there without the pressure of the goal.
3. Reduce some of the tension in your life. Do you chronically overschedule free time? Make too many outside commitments and promises to family and friends? Cut back. Consider relaxing your housekeeping standards or hiring occasional help if you don’t already have it. Simplify meal preparation with smarter shopping, easier menus, and family participation. Divide household responsibilities equitably among family members.
4. Make it possible for your partner to move toward you, not away from you. Stressful events can bring couples closer together, but stress can also trigger two distancing responses: withdrawal and smothering. The stressed partner may withdraw, leaving the other feeling rejected, or the partner under stress can feel smothered by the other’s solicitousness. Be supportive without smothering, and don’t respond to withdrawal by pulling back. It’s not a matter of all or nothing.
6 Sexy Stress Busters
You’re not without resources until your stress is under control. To rekindle your sexual connection, consider the following strategies.
1. Practice erotic touching. Touch your partner everywhere and anywhere except the genitals, from shoulder kneading to full-body massage. Too many couples touch only when they are signaling their intent to have sex.
2. Take regular joy breaks—brief sensual and/or sexual interludes. Plan a joy break at least once a week. Don’t be inhibited by fear of looking foolish. Joy breaks include a candlelit bubble bath, dancing together in the living room, and having breakfast in bed.
3. Practice deep-breathing exercises. Get into a comfortable position, perhaps facing each other. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Relax your body. Repeat as necessary. Look for books on meditation for more varied and advanced breathing exercises.
4. Do something physical. Plan a shared physical activity, such as biking, hiking, or swimming, at least once a week. Exercise is a natural tension reducer.
5. Do something spiritual. You need not attend organized religious services. For example, some people find a nature walk to be a spiritual experience.
6. Take turns letting each other off the hook. Everyone needs a day, a night, even a few hours free of obligations. Give each other regular mini-vacations during which one partner handles all the chores, calls, and family demands.
Bear in mind: Not letting the inevitable stress of life come between you and your partner is a powerful accomplishment that will empower your relationship.