• Many couples struggle with intimacy and sexual issues

  • Richard Chambers explores how therapy and mindfulness can help 

  • If you are looking for a couples counsellor or therapist, you can find one here

Almost without exception, people who turn up for therapy to address sexual problems do so due to address issues with intimacy. There’s nothing like having sex with someone to bring up all of our unresolved emotional stuff.

This tends to activate our fight/flight responses, which hijacks our brain and behaviour. This tends to result in decreased desire for sex and diminished arousal while having it.

Colleen, aged 45, came for therapy frustrated that her sex life with husband Rob was almost non-existent. She felt she had lost the passion and energy she once had. She had started contemplating divorce, although really didn’t want to do this. She didn’t want to be alone and was worried about disrupting the family in this way. She came to couples therapy reluctantly as she felt intimidated by what it might take to reveal herself in that space. Through being able to have a series of conversations with Rob in therapy she was able to see how, after a number of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate change with him, she had given up on herself and her desires. She realised that her previous attempts to ask for change had been done in a critical way, which Rob reacted to defensively. They had become caught in a cycle of blame and withdrawal. Once this happened, sex was out of the question.

Instead, they both withdrew and shut each other out. Intimacy was completely closed down and at their worst they stopped even speaking to each other.

Through therapy, Colleen learnt to breathe into her experience, sitting with it long enough that she could see what was going on more clearly. She then took an even deeper breath and started sharing this with Rob. She was able to be vulnerable rather than demanding and critical and she learnt to stand up for what she wanted regardless of the response Rob had.

This required a great deal of self-compassion, which then naturally extended out towards Rob. By taking the lead in standing up for what she wanted and signalling to Rob that she was responsible for herself, he began to feel less defensive. He became more comfortable listening and being present for her, as he was no longer feeling so blamed and criticised. When they saw clearly how their relational patterns outside the bedroom led to a loss of intimacy, they were able to generate friendship and healing which led to more willingness to be vulnerable and open to each other in the bedroom.

Exercise: Slowing down and connecting during sex

Next time you are making love, focus on foreplay. Not necessarily the kind of foreplay that first springs to mind! Instead, we are suggesting you take time to sense your way into your body, getting in touch with your physical and emotional state. You might even like to spend some time meditating (perhaps with your partner) beforehand.

Maintain awareness of your breath. Feel your body against your partner’s, really savouring the warmth and softness of the contact. Notice the effect this has on your own body, and see if you can sense the activation of your tend-and-befriend circuits and the release of oxytocin. If you notice any tension or fight/flight reactivity, focus on breathing and relaxing. You might lose touch with your partner for a moment while you do this but simply reconnect again when you start to feel more relaxed. Keep coming back, over and over, as you would with any mindfulness practice.

If you want to take this way of making love to the next level you can even experiment with looking into your partner’s eyes during lovemaking. At first this can be confronting and in some cases even lead to dissociation (where you suddenly feel numb or ‘out of your body’). If this happens, you can close your eyes or avert your gaze.

But keep coming back to this and develop the ability to maintain eye contact while in close proximity. When you master this you will open up the possibility of extremely intimate — and explosive — sex.

Any time during sex you notice that you are reacting, closing down or tuning out, slow down (or even stop) and bring your attention back to your body. Tune in to your physical sensations, let go of any tension and notice your breath. Then, when you are ready, tune back in to your partner once again — feeling their body touching yours, looking at them (as well as into their eyes) as well as smelling, tasting and hearing them. In this way, lovemaking itself becomes a mindfulness practice.

This mindful strategy works for many people and you might find that they very quickly improve your sex life. Simply being more present and relaxed could be all you need.

However, if you (or your partner) have sexual or intimacy problems that don’t improve even after trying some of these strategies, you might like to explore therapy as an option. Both individual and couples counselling with a good therapist can be very beneficial.

Richard Chambers is the co-author of Mindful RelationshipsCreating Genuine Connection With Ourselves and Others 

Further reading

Talking to a sex therapist

How might ideas of gender affect our sex lives?

Sex in the therapy room

Has lockdown changed your sex life?