Of the many obstacles couples face while creating a fulfilling and satisfying sexual life, anxiety is a large one. Sex is regarded as a physical experience, but in sex, our emotions play an even larger role than our bodies. Among our many emotions, anxiety features large on our emotional stage. It has been said that all negative emotions are related to fear. Anxiety is fear’s close, but smaller sibling.
Our success in life depends on how we manage fear. And for many people, the closeness and vulnerability that sex demands, produces a fear that for many lovers represents a large and heavy door separating them from sexual pleasure. When facing a large change in one's life, people speak about simultaneously feeling scared and excited. These two emotions represent the dual nature of anxiety in sex as well. Lovers are often split between these two feelings; where each individual’s sexual response is imprinted with one of these two forms of anxiety.
We live in a culture of anxiety where anxiety disorders and dysfunctional reactions to the unhealthy environment, are common. Anxiety problems cause people to shut down emotionally and physically. Sex is an arena in which this probably will occur. A person feeling anxious about any aspect of sexual activity, such as fearing closeness, poor sexual performance, the partner’s criticism, the body looking unattractive, reacts to this fear by becoming sexually-disabled due to emotional causes. Anxiety interferes with the person’s ability to physically or emotionally function, causing the person to reflexively retreat inwardly.
These sexual partners feel more comfortable with a sexual environment that feels safe and not challenging. Routine sex in which the partner knows which activity will happen when, what is expected, when and how stimulation will be given or received, and an exact recipe for orgasmic success contribute to a sense of safety, and ultimately an ability to relax. Assured privacy, emotional safety, and a sense of acceptance are high on this partner's list of requirements to make sex a pleasant experience.
And then there is the second side of anxiety; one that is about excitement. For the second kind of partner, safety and routine lead to boredom. Instead of creating a shutting-down reaction, anxiety creates excitement. Trying new sexual activities and taking risks produces an anxiety, which feels nourishing and alive, leading to a heightened level of sexual excitement. The eroticism for this partner probably includes a thirst for breaking through barriers and challenging authority. He or she thrives on adventurousness and possesses a thirst for new sexual experiences, which provide a sense of sexual freedom. Such a person may suggest being sexual in a risky location where the possibility of being discovered is real. He or she may require the sex life to include a wide assortment of positions for intercourse because novelty adds to excitement.
When partners join, if each partner represents one pole in this dual nature of anxiety, the sexual relationship is primed for tension and conflict. The partner who requires safety must push his or her limits and accept that new experiences can also mean growth. The partner who craves excitement must also recognize that patience and love mean taking it slow, because sex is nothing if it is not paired with love. Andrew Aaron, LICSW, AASECT is a love relationship and sex therapist who practices in the New Bedford Seaport.