Nothing kills arousal like anxiety. Whether you’re worrying about the argument you had over breakfast, listening for sounds of trouble from the kids downstairs, or mulling over a big project at work or school, it’s hard to think about sex when you’re pumped full of nervous energy.
These anxieties may be well-founded, and good reasons not to have sex in this moment. You can always decide that this is the not the time, not the situation, or not the person for you. If something in particular about this situation is pinging your anxiety radar, listen to your gut and do what feels right for you.
But what about regular, day-to-day free-floating anxiety? Type A worries, or “being wound too tight?” Any kind of anxiety can get in the way of desire, but this latter type can last for years. Assuming you might want to experience desire even before becoming a less anxious person, mindfulness is the ticket.
Learning strategies to quiet your mind and settle into a place of awareness is key. You can begin to build this ability in literally countless ways but here are a few:
- You might practice tuning in and being present when you’re doing the dishes. Slow down. Breathe. Notice the sensations in your body. Don’t rush. Just be with it.
- Be present in your body and notice the sensations of being in the shower. Check in with all of your senses; what do you smell? Hear? Are there different textures? Can you feel your feet where they touch the floor?
- Notice the sweet moments in the day. The sun on your cheek, a moment of quiet, or any other moment you experience as pleasant. Instead of letting it pass in a millisecond, be with it and see if you can stay with it for maybe 3 seconds. Then you can expand to not just lovely moments, but just any moment. Take a look around and take a breath. That’s being in the moment.
- Take a few minutes to sit or stand still and pay attention to your breathing, to the in and out flow of air. Just notice it, don’t try to change it. See if you can stay with your body and your breath for 5 breaths. Don’t try to control your breathing, and don’t worry about your mind wandering, just be there.
- If you WANT to control your breathing, put some very light attention on lengthening your exhale in a really relaxed way. Don’t worry about the inhale at all; it will happen automatically. Aim for your exhale to be twice as long as your inhale.
Aside from lowering anxiety, reducing stress hormones in your body, and about a million other positive effects, being present in the moment and in your body can make the difference between ok sex and great sex. You can practice mindfulness alone, and you can also practice being present in the moment, and in your body, with your partner.
- Next time you’re holding hands, notice what it feels like in the place where your hands meet.
- Next time you’re making out, see if you can be right there with your whole self. When you find your mind wandering, just refocus; look right at your partner, and say “hi”. Notice that connection, and stretch it out a little longer, just like the sun on your cheek.
- When you experience arousal, don’t reach for a goal, even if that goal is orgasm. Stay with your body sensations, and try floating in that space for a little while. Sex can be a perfect distraction from anxiety, and is great for your body and mind. But it might take practice not to hurry, not to reach, not to pressure yourself. Just enjoy it. Start with just a few minutes; work your way up. Soon you can enjoy an hour or an afternoon of lovely, embodied, spa-like sex.
When you feel yourself tensing up during a sexual encounter, or feel your mind spinning out into an obsessive worry when you want to be focusing on your or your partner’s experience of pleasure, with practice, it will feel intuitive to draw on that practice of mindfulness, to take a moment, feel what you are feeling, and come back to the present.
Note: you can’t do mindfulness wrong!! Don’t make this another thing to worry about. Practice being in the present moment, which might be quite “imperfect” with all its thoughts and sensations and feelings. It’s all ok. It’s all your life, and this isn’t about changing it. It would be too bad if you missed it because you didn’t take a moment here and there to notice it, though. Take a moment here and there. It’s worth it.
My last two posts were about dealing with the effects of birth on your body and your mind. This week, it’s all about teamwork. It’s about finding that connection that brought you and your partner together in the first place–and rebuilding it stronger than ever.
When you or your partner are experiencing low desire postpartum, how can you increase intimacy and closeness, reduce frustration, and get the teamwork feeling back in your relationship?
In order to encourage arousal, you need to be able to relax and let go of your worries and calm the “mama lion” protective instinct for a short time. Can you leave your baby with a deeply trusted friend or relative? Is there a hotel near your home? Could you and your partner connect during nap time? Planning intimacy may not feel romantic, but think of it as planning a mini-vacation–a time to escape your anxiety and really connect.
Performance pressure will not help, so don’t put too many expectations on your mini-vacations. Focus on enjoying one another, on pleasurable touch and emotional connection, rather than on meeting specific expectations.
Couples I see often report that they can’t connect because their lives are too busy. I have news for you: no matter how busy you are, the remedy for “not enough time” is not something you need to pay a therapist for. If you can’t find time to listen, talk, connect, and enjoy one another, your marriage will suffer until you do. Eventually it will suffer beyond repair. You absolutely must find at least a little time to give one another undivided attention. Why not commit to do that starting with 10 minutes today?
If one or both of you are emotionally exhausted, you may need to reconnect with a sense of self before intimacy can bloom. Make it a priority to nurture yourself and your interests, even if only by listening to an audiobook that ignites your imagination while driving or rocking the baby. Although this may seem an indirect route to closeness with one another, it will nurture your loving connection and create an environment where desire can emerge.
One of the most important (and most difficult) ways to nurture yourself is by trying to love and appreciate your body the way it is right now. Self-consciousness about your body is a common experience postpartum. Try thinking about it like this: if there is one moment in your life to feel PROUD of your body, it’s now! Your body created a miracle, without conscious effort on your part! And if there’s one time in your life when your body deserves all the love and support you can give it, it’s now. If you catch yourself in negative self-talk about how your body looks, take a moment to appreciate all the amazing things your body can do. No matter what, it’s a miracle. Your body is perfect exactly as it is, and if there is one time in your life you should be certain about that, it is postpartum.
A big key to staying intimately connected during times of great change is flexibility. This looks a little different for every couple. For instance, it can look like:
- Adjusting your expectations of how interested you have to be in order to begin intimate touching, and maybe taking willingness as your starting place.
- Scheduling intimacy so you can connect during naptime.
- Agreeing not to pressure one another, so that you both can initiate physical affection without either of you feeling obligated to follow through in any particular way. This also gives you both the experience of feeling wanted rather than pushed away.
- Adding self-pleasure to your couple intimacy repertoire.
- Expressing your love and attraction in non-physical, non-pressuring ways, in order to remind one another that you look forward to returning to increased feelings of desire in the future.
- Whatever activities you engage in, can you make connection the primary goal and help one another stay curious, engaged, and loving even if some intimate interactions don’t go as planned? I don’t know what flexibility will look like for you, but I know it’s an extremely powerful tool for maintaining desire with changing health, hormones, and bodies. Over a lifetime, you will have many chances to use the flexibility skills you develop now.
If you think frequent disagreements are part of the desire problem, things may improve if you feel like your partner hears and cares about your feelings and the challenges you are facing, even if they can’t entirely relate. Here’s the hitch: this goes both ways. You also need to validate your partner’s experience, express empathy even if you can’t entirely relate, and accept that you have different and equally valid challenges right now. This can feel like a big hurdle; nonetheless, it is a necessary step towards emotional closeness. Accepting your differences and loving one another despite (and for) them is one of the building blocks for keeping things spicy in a long term relationship.
All of these skills will serve you, your long term relationship, and your intimate life in multiple circumstances, not just now. The time you spend building these skills will really pay off. You are building a strong, intimate relationship where you each feel loved and valued for your whole self.