Sex is a big factor in any relationship, and having too much of it, too little, or just the right number differs for everyone. What everyone wants though, is to have an amazing sex life without the pressure. Certified sex therapist and couples’ counselorJessa Zimmerman shares some strategies that gets things going, starting from the very beginning of how to start talking about sex with your partner. She clarifies the vague and elusive term “sexless relationship,” and talks about the importance of making sex about connection instead of using it to make yourself feel better. She also tackles the myths and norms that people have misinterpreted about sex drives and desires.
Listen to the podcast here:
How To Have An Amazing Sex Life Without The Pressure With Jessa Zimmerman
I hope you’re having a wonderful day and everything is great. We are going to get down and dirty with my favorite topic of all time which you know is sex. I’m thrilled because I have one of my favorites, this is it, it’s a sex therapist in the house. Everybody knows who you are, because I was lucky enough to find you on a podcast website that we both share and we both know each other from this. Jessa Zimmerman is a certified sex therapist and couple’s counselor. She specializes in helping couples who have a good relationship, but who are avoiding sex because it’s become stressful, negative, disappointing or pressured. She educates coaches and supports people as they go through her nine-phase process that allows them real-world practice in changing the relationship with their sex life. She’s the author of Sex Without Stress and the host of The Better Sex Podcast. She’s regularly featured, expert in the media, including Refinery29, Business Leader Insider, MindBodyGreen and Marriage.com. Hi Jessa, how are you?
I’m glad you’re here.
Thank you so much for having me.
I love this topic, it’s my favorite because I feel people are stressed out about sex and they shouldn’t have to be.
It’s a common problem.
Tell me what you do, what you’re all about and what’s your favorite thing to talk about?
Sex is my favorite thing to talk about. I have a private practice in Seattle where I live. I work almost exclusively with couples who are struggling with sex. I do a little bit of individual work around sex therapy too, but mostly couples. I have such a passion for helping people who are finding sex stressful when they don’t have to and especially when the rest of their relationship is working well. This is what trips them up.
Isn’t that crazy?
I might have thought it was crazy until I realized how incredibly common it is.
You have this nine-step phase. Explain that to me. It’s different than your typical everyday sex therapy.
I’m sure the aspects of what I’m talking about are part of sex therapy with all therapists, it’s was my way of organizing how I think about the trouble people are getting into and what’s important for them to address. Some of it has to start first with some mindset changes, almost myth-busting. People are getting caught in what I’ve come to term the sexual avoidance cycle. That’s where when people have sex that doesn’t live up to their expectations somehow. If that happens once or twice, it’s not too big a deal, but if this is a recurring problem and when they have sex, they almost feel worse than when they started.
Amazing Sex Life: Once people start to take their partner’s lack of interest personally, over time, sex takes on a different meaning.
It starts to reinforce this idea that something must be wrong or broken. Sex starts to be negative. It’s human nature to avoid things that make us feel bad, so the couples will start to avoid having sex or talking about it. Gone are the days where they’re looking forward to it, it’s almost like a gauntlet they have to run or something. The problem is when we avoid something, the anxiety about it gets worse and the pressure starts to build, which only makes it that much harder to engage in a way that feels good. It becomes a cycle of disappointment, avoidance and pressure.
Sometimes my ex and I will be like, “I didn’t want to do it. I knew he didn’t want to do it.” We’d both be lying there and I’m like, “Please don’t touch me.” Are we going to ignore the elephant in the room? Sometimes we would do it and we’d be like, “That was great, why don’t we do it more?” It’s the pressure of getting there.
Much of it is about our expectations and many of those are unrealistic. We buy into these ideas that sex is supposed to be easy, you’re supposed to want it without any work or that we shouldn’t have to communicate with each other, we should just know.
It’s hard because we don’t know. There are times that we have to talk about it but no one wants to have that conversation.
Especially if it’s starting to go bad. Many people worry that they’re broken. Either that their relationship is doomed or that one of them is damaged or inadequate. That causes almost a shame or self-consciousness. It makes it especially hard to talk about.
They ask me, “How do I even get to that conversation? How do you start to have it? Do you sit down over dinner or do you go to the bedroom?” I have friends that we don’t even know where to start. I have many friends, we get together as girls and we’re like, “He won’t talk to me,” or “He won’t touch me, he doesn’t want me.” I find it hard to believe that we’re not wanted. I’m sure they’d want us, but we don’t feel wanted. How do we go about it?
There’s so much to this topic. It’s interesting that you ask, “How do we even start this conversation?” I finished a guide to talking about sex as a couple, it’s for free on my website, that’s there with all these steps. To answer your question, don’t talk about it in the bedroom. We should not have to dissect the sex that you’ve had or talk about those problems in the same space or in the same time when you’re trying to be intimate with each other. I also don’t know if it’s okay to bring it up at the dinner table. It depends on your relationship, but it’s best to ask to have some time and do this more intentionally, and it’s crucial that you approach the topic from a positive place. This is not about blame. It’s not about getting reactive or upset, it’s about saying, “I want us to have the best relationship that we can. Likely, we both know something’s off here.”
We get it, we’re not having it. Here’s my other question for you, because I have so many questions. I’ve read all of this and especially when I was researching for my own book, what do you define is sexless? Everyone says to me, “We haven’t had sex in six months,” or “We haven’t had sex in ten weeks.” What is a sexless marriage? What is a sexless relationship? How do you define that?
The cultural knowledge out there is it’s defined as sexless if it’s less than ten times a year. What does that mean? The thing is there’s not the right amount of sex to have. I would say that a sexless marriage is defined by the people in it. Two people could be happily married and happily not having sex. Technically that’s a sexless marriage, but it’s not a problem because there’s no subjective suffering or dissatisfaction in it. If one or both of you are unhappy with the status quo, then that’s where it needs to get addressed. My work is trying to get two people working as allies on the same team to figure out how to make an engaging sex life that’s going to work for both of them.
When you say to people that neither of them are okay with not having sex, do you think that’s a true statement that they’re both okay with it or do you think that they’re just not?
Both cases exist, there are people that for whatever reason are happy not having sex, and no judgment. There’s no amount of sex that’s correct or normal. Sometimes that’s the case, but those are not the people I see in my office or that I’m talking to. The people I’m working with, they’re trying to improve their sex life because at least one person isn’t happy.
They wouldn’t come to if they weren’t. I feel like a lot of people I work with, my friends are always like, “It’s the kids.” I’m like, “Is it the kids? What else?”
Do you mean in terms of the reason they’re not having sex?
Kids are one of many complicating factors. We have this myth that sex is easy, it is natural and it’s going to happen, but there are many things that get in the way. Children are a legitimate complicating factor, because you’re busy. There’s a lack of privacy, energy and all that stuff. It is true but so is sexual dysfunction, traumas and body image concerns.
There are many things. There are days that I’m exhausted. I’m so tired I can’t even think about it and then things are in my head and there are pressures from work and medications, I feel that there’s a list.
In my book, I do have a whole list and I’m sure it’s not everything but it’s almost when you start to think about all the things that can get in the way, it’s amazing that any of us are having sex at all.
It’s true. Seriously it’s like, “How could you possibly with this list of things? How do we get there?”
It takes attention and effort.
It does, like everything else in a marriage. Marriage is work and the relationship is hard, it’s difficult. I feel like with people that I’m working with too, is that people are like, “Our sex life is awful, I’ve got to get out of this marriage.” I say, “Really?” It takes work. That’s not a reason to throw away a marriage if you can work on that. Isn’t that something that they see you?
Absolutely. Because people have these expectations that aren’t realistic, they may conclude there’s no hope for this. It’s supposed to be natural or we’re supposed to have spontaneous desire for sex or we’re supposed to want the same amount of sex. Unless they realize a lot of that is faulty thinking, they may not realize there’s something they can do about this.
I didn’t and I’ll be perfectly honest, when I wrote about it in my book, I had no clue. When I was younger, we were younger and we were married ten years and I thought, “There’s something wrong with me, there’s something wrong with us. He doesn’t want me. I’m not desirable. I don’t feel good about myself.” It was like the chicken and the egg. “He doesn’t want me, so there’s something wrong with me. My marriage is over.” That’s a common thing that women feel.
Men too, any partners may feel that. That’s part of why I have my podcasts and why I’ve written the book. I’m trying to get more word out there that it’s not hopeless.
I’m glad that you’re doing this because it is not hopeless. That’s why I wrote my book, Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda. I wish I would have known then what I know now. All of this information is good and necessary. I wish I would’ve had your podcast or your book then because I may not have gotten divorced. I would have maybe worked harder knowing that there is a successful outcome. It makes me sad.
I shared my own story in my book too in the beginning. I had the same thing thinking it was hopeless and letting it die before we even tried to get help.
Amazing Sex Life: Our culture thinks that sex drive and libido is about being spontaneously interested and wanting to make sex happen, and if we don’t, that must mean it’s broken.
I need to read your book, I’m excited for that because I feel that misery loves company, that’s not what I mean but it is nice to know that other women feel the same way that I did. I was struggling, I felt unwanted, and everyone says, “You’re beautiful and you’re charismatic.” It doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s the feeling that you have and he didn’t know. He felt the same way. He felt I didn’t want him. I love what you’re doing. Thank you. Tell me some other things that you think my readers would love to learn.
One of the things you’re touching on about is does my partner want me? That ties into one of the biggest pieces of misinformation that exists. It’s something I talk about with all of my clients. There are two different ways to have sexual desire. The first one I call proactive which is if you think about sex, you get spontaneously interested, horny, it’s on your mind and you’d like to make it happen. That’s what our culture thinks of a sex drive and libido, that this is spontaneous. We want it and if we don’t, that must be broken but it isn’t.
There’s another way of having a sexual drive, which is what I call reactive. These are people that maybe never think about sex or rarely don’t get spontaneously interested. You’re busy, your life is full, it’s not on your mind and you’re not in touch with any sense of sexual desire. If things are good in your relationship and you start, you kiss, you talk, you massage, you gradually start to respond to that and you keep going. You’re getting turned on, it’s like, “Now I’d like sex.”
There are lots of us and it’s true.
People will come with that experience and say, “I have no sex drive.” I say, “No, you have the reactive sex drive.” There’s nothing broken with that.
That’s important, I agree with that.
Many people think that’s broken. This is not just women, men have this too. It’s not like we’re one or the other, it switches in life. We all tend to get more reactive as we get older, stressed, overwhelmed and all kinds of factors.
There are certain days that I don’t think about it all day long, but I know if my boyfriend starts loving up on me, I’m like, “I’m into it now.”
It’s also not true that you’re always going to end up wanting sex. If you’ve got a reactive desire, it’s not like there are some magic formula and every single time you end up with sex drive but some of the time, you will.
It’s true because sometimes I’ll start with him and he’s like, “I’m not into it.” It depends.
If both people can understand first nothing is broken, you’ve just got to start. You’ve got to approach it with an attitude of almost playfulness. Enjoy what you do, don’t have expectations, don’t have a goal, it’s okay to stop anytime. All of a sudden, more of the time you’re going to end up wanting it than you would have if you didn’t do it.
I also feel it’s okay to not have your feelings hurt because there are some times he’s like, “Do you want to?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” He’s like, “It’s no big deal if you don’t want to, it’s okay.” We laugh about it. We don’t get mad at each other if we don’t want to do anything. I remember being angry when my husband didn’t want anything for me or didn’t want to hook up or didn’t want to have sex and I’d be put off. It’s not like that anymore, we chuckle and laugh and go about it. Does that make sense?
Yeah, because you fell into the trap of taking it personally. People start to take their partner’s lack of interest personally as if it’s about their desirability or their importance. If you think about that over time, sex starts to take on a different meaning, it’s about making you feel better about yourself, it’s not about connecting. That makes the other person want it less. It’s not sexy if I’m supposed to have sex with you so you feel good about yourself.
You’re right because it is about connection and if you think about it, connecting with the person at the end of the day or wherever you are in the middle of the day. That’s great information because if you think about it that way, it changes the sex, it makes it positive.
It changes the meaning of the sex you’re having, which makes it harder for someone to get engaged in it. There are these common traps that people fall into and one of them is taking it personally.
I learned that too, now with my relationship and we don’t take it personally. We laugh it off and we can joke about it like, “Not now, honey.” Back when I was married, I was mad. I remember being like, “I can’t believe he doesn’t want me again,” or “I’m not going to give it,” and then we used to do, which is awful, is I used to withhold sex because I was mad that he wouldn’t do it the night before. Thinking about that now, it just came up in my head, I’m like, “Who does that?” I was mad.
A lot of people do that.
They do? I don’t so feel bad. It’s true confessions here.
Once you’re not working as a team, it’s supposed to be a little adversarial, people do all kinds of stuff and it’s hard to want to have sex if you have hard feelings.
I didn’t want to, I was mad. I resented him, it was awful. We were mean and I was bitchy. I was bitchy the rest of the week because I was mad at what happened in the bedroom.
Sex Without Stress: A couple’s guide to overcoming disappointment, avoidance & pressure
At some point, you stopped working as a team on it. In the beginning it was probably okay, but then it starts this negative cycle that spins downward.
It’s no good, it was bad. I needed you years ago. That’s the thing, when you realize as a couple that you need some work in this area, you need some sex therapists. What if one partner wants to come to talk to you and the other one is anti? It’s like, “No way, it’s not happening.” What do you do?
There’s not an easy answer to that question. You have to start the conversation, let’s say we’re talking to the person that wants to do something about this. Maybe I’ll take a turn and talk to each one. For the person that wants to do something about this, you need to talk to your partner in a grounded way without any blame. Come from a positive place, “I want our relationship to be good as possible and this is a problem.” You need to be able to stay engaged in advocating for what you need and yet don’t be willing to sweep it under the rug anymore. At a certain point, assuming this is important to you, you may have to take a stand like, “I can’t be in this relationship if we don’t solve this.” It’s not meant as an ultimatum, it’s more like this is a bottom line. We’ll live the whole rest of our life with my partner and I want us to be on the same team.
That person also should have a lot of curiosity for what’s in the way of the other person. They’re thinking something’s wrong with them, you’ve got to figure out why does it make sense that this is not engaging for them? There are real legitimate reasons that they do not want to be sexual. You’ve got to come at this with curiosity rather than blank judgment. For the person that isn’t interested, I know that those people are feeling a ton of pressure, they often feel like something is wrong with them like, “What’s wrong with my libido?” They also need to understand, you’ve got legitimate obstacles in your way that make sense. Trying to figure out what those are and give you space to talk about those, whether your partner wants their ego stroked. Whatever it is, there needs to be space to uncover and change those dynamics so that you can approach sex too, and then figure out what could make sex engaging for you and you speak and have those conversations.
Maybe if they spoke about it, they’d feel better too.
Often, they’ve been made to feel they’re broken or they believe that themselves so they don’t realize, “There’s real stuff here in a way that we can take apart and get out of the way.” It’s not about having sex that I don’t want to have, it’s about helping you want as much sex as I might want.
Some people feel threatened as well. I have some girlfriends that said some things to their partners that probably wasn’t such a good thing like, “If you don’t start having sex with me, I’m going to find someone who will.”
That’s not a collaborative statement, that’s a threat.
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: A Divorce Coach’s Guide to Staying Married
That’s probably not the best thing to say. I joke about that sometimes. It’s not funny, that’s not probably the right thing to say and it puts them on the defense.
It’s a form of coercion. I don’t even quite know how to articulate the difference between that and saying to your partner, “We need to solve our sex life,” or “I don’t know if I can stay in this relationship.” It could be perceived as a threat, but it’s a more solid grounded statement of reality like, “I have a bottom line about this. I’m here to solve it with you, but we need to solve it.”
Work together as a team. This is great information. I’m jealous, I wish I could take a course to be like you and you could teach me. Do you have a course you’d offer for me? This is great. I could talk all day to you. Your book is called Sex Without Stress. Where do we find it? Amazon?
I’m going to buy it. I can’t wait to read it. Your podcast is Better Sex Podcast. Anything else I need to know?
I don’t think so, I’m just starting it will be too late for your readers this go-round. It will come back up in the fall. I have to sign an online course to walk people through the process in the book. I wrote the book to make a do-it-yourself approach to solving this problem. For people that are in good relationships, you need to have enough goodwill and collaboration in general for this to work, to give a system for people to go through to transform their sex life. I know it’s a lot to give people a book and think, “We’re going to get all the way through this all on our own.” I designed the course to create some structure, framework, accountability and even some office hours on how I can help people get through the process. I do have that online course too, but it won’t be offered until the fall.
Also, if I ever do any retreat or something, I’m going to have you come to my retreat and we’ll do this together because you’re awesome.
That would be lovely.
Together we can be a mad force. What’s your website so everyone knows?
The book is called Sex Without Stress. The podcast is called Better Sex Podcast. Jessa, this has been awesome. It’s a great half an hour of awesome sex talk and great information my readers will love me for. I loved having you and I appreciate you coming. Thank you, Jessa, I appreciate you.
To all my readers, you can find me at JenniferHurvitz.com and my new book Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda: A Divorced Coach’s Guide to Staying Married. You can find me everywhere, Instagram, Facebook, wherever it is, and of course follow this podcast, Doing Divorce Right (or Avoiding it Altogether). Thank you. Peace, love and always truth.
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