That’s right, you heard me: If you think that the quality of your sex life is determined by how you look, you are mistaken.
In 30 years in the therapist chair, I've heard a lot about people’s sex lives. Even if you don’t go to therapy to talk about sex specifically, at some point in therapy, most adults and teenagers focus on it — because it’s important.
One of the most common issues I hear is that girls and women are very focused on their appearance when it comes to the physical aspect of their relationships, and that concern is usually unfounded.
Don’t get me wrong — appearance is often very important at the very beginning of relationships, around the time you meet. Attraction, for both genders, often has a strong visual component. But once you know each other well enough to get naked together, not so much! If you’re having sex but not getting naked, you are way too worried about your appearance.
Here’s the thing I hear all the time: Karen* has been with her partner for a few years and says the frequency of their sex has dropped off — a lot. She is bummed about it, but doesn’t know what to do. She’s gained a few pounds and assumes he’s not into it because of that. She doesn’t want to push the issue, so she doesn’t say anything.
I’ve heard this a million times, so I suggest that maybe she should simply ask him what’s up. When she does, she discovers that he couldn’t care less about the few pounds, didn’t even notice a weight gain. What he did notice was that she seems less interested in him. She doesn’t come onto him like she used to, she doesn’t respond when he makes a move to initiate intimacy with her. In other words, her appearance wasn’t a problem — her anxiety about it was.
If you think this dynamic is limited to straight couples, it’s not. My client, Meg* said that sex had dropped off because she worried her partner wasn’t into her anymore. Ellen* used to dress nicely and do her hair and makeup before Meg got home from work, and she doesn’t bother anymore. My client took this as a sign of disinterest. When she asked about it, she got to know it was a sign of Ellen's deep comfort with the relationship. Ellen had never really liked all the primping and thought it was no longer necessary. She felt relaxed and happy and looked forward to Meg’s homecoming while wearing her sweatpants. The couple laughed together when they talked about it and realized the misunderstanding.
What’s the theme that unites these concerns? We are all terribly self-conscious and vulnerable about sex! The longer we are in a relationship, the worse this gets. I know that sounds contradictory... shouldn’t we get more comfortable with time? The answer is yes, theoretically. But the longer we are together, the more important we become to each other. Couples build a life together, buy homes and have children. The partners become enormously important to one another — it gets very real and very scary to think about something going wrong.
Now don’t get me wrong, many women — maybe even the majority of women — have issues with body image. But our concerns about appearance gets tangled up with a more fundamental issue: fear about being wanted. We all worry about rejection. We worry about it so much, we see it when it’s not there and we cause it to happen by being worried. We get so preoccupied about whether our partner is attracted to us that we become the very thing we fear — unappealing. A partner who is worried about the size of her breasts, the shininess of her hair or the fat on her inner thighs is no fun — she is unappealing!
Think about it: Do you care very much how your partner looks? He or she is cute, right? Unless that person suddenly gains 100 pounds or stops showering for weeks, it really doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is how he or she responds to you. You kiss him and he melts and sinks into you — time stops and he is all yours. You stroke her skin and she purrs…
David Schnarch, Ph.D., says, “We want to be wanted, but we don’t want to want.” This is so accurate. Worry about appearance is worry about being wanted. And here is the paradox:
If you are interested in great sex and a great relationship, you have to be willing to want. If you want a happy partner, be a happy partner! Stop worrying about whether your partner is interested. Stop worrying about how you look! Kiss him and let yourself melt. Stroke her and purr when she strokes you back.
A partner who is present and who enjoys sex is an appealing partner. Stop worrying about how your body looks. Focus on how it feels. Pay attention to the experience of touching and being touched. Look into your partner’s eyes and let yourself see and be seen. Follow the connection. When you let yourself enjoy the experience of being sensual and sexual, you will get to know that good sex has very little to do with how you look.
*All names have been changed for privacy considerations.
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