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A Guide For Partners When Sexual Problems Happen

Lorraine Benuto, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

As mentioned throughout our discussion on sexual dysfunction, it is not uncommon for a couple come to a professional and be eagerly seeking a quick fix to their sexual difficulties. Many men come in alone, without ever having discussed their quest for treatment with their partner. They often return frustrated, as the quick fix to the sexual problems did not resolve their relationship conflicts. It is important to be aware that while there is an individual component to sexuality, for most people there is also a partnered component. Because of this, sexual problems or concerns are best approached from a "couple's" perspective as it affects both people in the relationship.

two hearts linked Wincze, Bach, and Barlow (2008) discuss several risk factors for the development of sexual dysfunction and certainly these risk factors can contribute to the maintenance or worsening of sexual symptoms. These factors include:

  • couple distress
  • poor communication
  • lack of physical attraction
  • restricted sexual repertoire

It may be useful to think of these factors as being in a circle, instead of on a line. The presence of sexual dysfunction can negatively impact a couple's relationship by causing distress and poor communication. But the opposite is also true: couple distress and poor communication can lead to sexual problems.

Sexual problems may result from couple distress within the relationship. Oftentimes couples seeking help will say that their primary issue is a sexual one. Upon further investigation, it becomes clear that there are a many relationship difficulties and that the sexual concern is just one expression of those relationship difficulties. If you and your partner are experiencing sexual problems, ask yourselves if there are other problems within the relationship that might be contributing to the sexual problem. Explore how these other issues may be impacting the sexual aspect of your relationship. On the other hand, experiencing a sexual dysfunction can certainly cause distress within the relationship. Sexual dysfunction can cause frustration and feelings of failure within the individual and the partner. It is not uncommon for some tension to be present when a sexual disorder surfaces.

Poor communication can create big problems in the relationship overall, and certainly the sexual aspect of the relationship can also be impacted. People who cannot effectively communicate their feelings may feel angry, resentful, or hostile. Negative feelings can interfere with sexual functioning. If the communication difficulties are general and not specific to sexual issues, it may be helpful to review your communication style or attend couple's therapy with your partner to develop better communication skills. Assertiveness is a necessary component for effective communication. Assertiveness happens when both people communicate their own thoughts and feelings while showing mutual respect for their partner's thoughts and feelings. This is particularly important when differences come up.

Another important aspect of communication is empathy, which is being able to put yourself in another's shoes. You can show empathy by expressing compassion and understanding toward your partner. Many times, when we feel attacked, we immediately go on the defensive. The problem with is that it does not allow us to listen. Effective communication is about being able to express ourselves and being able to listen. An excellent communication exercise is to focus on what your partner is saying and then repeat it back to them. For example, "It sounds as though you are saying…." Avoid interpreting what they are saying, or defining what you think they meant to say. Instead, simply try to repeat what it is that they are saying. While this exercise seems incredibly simple, it is quite difficult and many couples take a long time to master it.

When the difficulty with communication is specifically related to sex, it may be helpful for you to think about why it is difficult to communicate about sex. Many of us live in a fairly conservative society where talking about sexuality is still somewhat taboo. Because of this, it is not a complete surprise that some couples have a hard time talking about sex. If you are having trouble talking to your partner about sex, you may want to ask yourself if it is because you are uncomfortable with the topic or are afraid of hurting your partner's feelings. In either case, couple's therapy can be helpful as it provides a safe place to practice effective communication about a sensitive topic. Previously we described an exercise called sensate focus. Sensate focus is another technique that may assist couples to become more comfortable about discussing their sexual relationship in general.