Posted by Noreen Kavanaugh
Stress can wreak havoc on a couple’s sex life. We are all aware that stress at times interferes with our sleep, our eating habits, and even our health, yet we overlook the impact this stress has on our sex drive and subsequently on our relationship. Stress impacts each of us differently and when one partner approaches the other to be sexually intimate, and the other feels too overwhelmed with stress to be interested, neither person is happy. It’s hard for the initiating partner to be turned down, and it’s hard for the one who is not in the mood to disappoint the other and to feel misunderstood. Both can feel hurt, frustrated and alone. If this happens over and over again, such feelings harden into anger and defensiveness, sadly increasing the distance between the couple.
Much of this could be avoided if couples understood the underlying physiology of stress and its impact on sex.
Simply put, stress is a survival mechanism; when we are stressed we are trying to survive. Sex is about many things, but it is not about survival. Our bodies respond to our modern stressors — raising children, managing careers, dealing with financial pressures and family obligations — precisely the way our ancestors responded to lions and tigers in the jungle. Just as in prehistoric times, stress hormones course through our bodies throwing us into the fight-flight response. Our minds know that day-to-day our lives are not in physical danger, but our bodies do not. Dealing with the source of the stress, be it job pressures or family responsibilities, becomes the utmost priority. At such times, our bodies are not geared toward sex. Touch that feels good when we are relaxed doesn't feel right when we are in this hormone-heightened state. It feels out of place and a distraction from dealing with the critical "threat" at hand.
We cannot "will" the stress hormones away and get our bodies to respond sexually. That's why attempts to just "let it go" don't work. To release these hormones, we need a modern-day equivalent of fighting or fleeing from a tiger. It is a physiological experience that requires a physical response. Physical activity releases the hormones and allows the body to go from its stressed state back to a non-stressed position. Everyone knows the activity that works best for them, whether it’s biking, working out, shopping, getting a massage, spending time on a hobby, anything that allows their body's nervous system to say “Phew, I can relax.” Even the simple act of talking can help (as long as it is with someone wants to listen).
As much as we need to understand how stress can dampen our own desire, we need to realize that if our partner isn’t similarly stressed, it is natural for them to want to connect sexually. It doesn’t mean they are indifferent to our pressures or experience.
Often stress, not lack of love or attraction, is at the root of physical intimacy issues. The stress response causes a bodily state that is incompatible with a good sexual connection. When couples understand this, they can avoid misinterpretations and work to take better care of each other. They can schedule time for the activity/action that allows each partner to reduce their stress and feel safe from threat — even if the "threat" is work emails or crying children.
It is also a good idea to schedule a time for sex. When we make a date to be intimate, it's possible to increase the likelihood that both partners will be relaxed. As unromantic as this may sound at first, it is more likely to lead to a sexually satisfying encounter for both partners. What could be more romantic than that?
Ultimately, learning more about sexuality and stress can lead couples to a deeper understanding of each other and strengthen their overall bond. In turn, this can lead couples to have more of the intimate, love-affirming connection that a loving sexual encounter can bring.
Noreen Kavanauagh, LICSW is an EFT couples therapist. Her focus is on helping couples improve their communication and enhance their intimacy.