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10 Obstacles to a Healthy Sex Life—and How to Overcome Them

Keep your sex life healthy with a dose of perspective from a sex therapist and tips for overcoming obstacles.

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How to have a healthy sex life

Although it’s not always taught in school, everyone can learn and expand their sexual knowledge. So Stephen Snyder, MD, a sex and relationship therapist, psychiatrist, and writer in New York City, and the author of the new book, Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, shares in his own words below how to have a healthy sex life and overcome obstacles. 

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Putting up with bad sex

Good sex makes you feel good about yourself. Bad sex has the opposite effect. Simple, huh? You’d be surprised.

As a sex therapist, I hear from lots of people who keep having sex even though the sex they’re having isn’t making them feel good about themselves. Most often, they’re just relieved that all the body mechanics are still working. They forget that sex is supposed to make you happy.

Believe it or not, there are ways to turn bad sex into better sex—sex that actually leaves you feeling good. But for now, let’s just say the most important thing you can do to cultivate good sex is to say “no” to sex that’s just not worth your time or energy.

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Having sex when you’re not ready

Too many people have sex despite not being very turned on. It’s a little sex mistake you might not realize you’re making. People might be physically aroused, but that’s not the kind of arousal that counts. What counts is psychological arousal.

When you’re psychologically aroused, you become more infantile, more in-the-moment. If all goes well, your IQ drops and you become a bit more immature. Good love-making recalls our attachment to the first people who held us, rocked us, and told us we were wonderful. Hey, who wouldn’t want to go back there? Most adults get to be infantile like that only when they’re having sex. So make sure you lose some IQ points in bed. Otherwise, why bother? 

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Not being selfish enough during lovemaking

We’re all reminded these days to make sure we pleasure our partners in bed. But some people overdo that part. The result is a lot of very boring sex. Sexual generosity that’s not accompanied by a certain kind of selfishness just isn’t very erotic. Plus, it’s one of the sex problems marriage counselors hear about all the time.

Think about it: No hero in a romance novel ever rips off the heroine’s clothes and says, “Now tell me how you like to be touched.” No, he just consumes her, like a delicious pastry. There’s a kind of selfishness at the heart of most sexual passion. Ideally, you want to feel “selfishly connected” to your partner. That frees your partner to feel selfishly connected to you.

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Sex feels too much like work

Remember, sex is infantile. To an infant, the word “work” has no meaning.

Some people try too hard to be good lovers. They spend too much time thinking about technique. That’s the source of a lot of boring sex. Good technique is fine—and certainly better than bad technique. But technique has very little to do with great lovemaking.

The best sex has no goal in mind. Don’t worry about trying to turn your partner on. Instead, just enjoy your partner. Selfishly, because it feels good. That’s usually the best recipe for great sex. (Here’s what you should never do in bed.)

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Thinking that sex is all about the climax

A good sexual climax should be like dessert at the end of a good meal. Memorable, perhaps. But not really the reason you went out to dinner. The couples who have the best sex are the ones who don’t set orgasm as a goal.

It’s usually best to focus on turn-ons instead. Then, after you’ve eaten and enjoyed everything on your plate, suddenly the dessert tray appears and you realize, “OMG, I forgot! There’s gonna be dessert!” Dessert is a sweet ending but by no means the whole show. That said, difficulty orgasming is a sex problem you should take seriously.

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Saving intimacy for the bedroom

Many couples get aroused together only when they’re going to have sex, as if arousal was an unhappy state of mind that they’d rather avoid. But the happiest couples make a point to enjoy small moments of excitement even when sex isn’t on the menu.

In sex therapy, we call this “simmering”: Taking a moment to enjoy feeling excited together, before leaving for work in the morning —or before falling asleep together at night. In a long-term happy relationship, it’s often the simmering more than the sex that keeps you erotically bonded.

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Criticizing yourself in bed

We all have limitations in bed. That’s normal. But it’s impossible to have good sex while feeling bad about your body or your skills. Most of us tend to be hard on ourselves. Our minds generate so-called “Automatic Negative Thoughts,” a term I like because its initials spell the word “ANTs.” ANTs can spoil lovemaking, just like real ants can spoil a picnic. The best way to handle negative ANTs is not to take them too seriously. As the Buddhists say, “let your thoughts come into your home, but don’t serve them tea.” Stop giving your ANTs so much attention, and they’ll often get bored and go away.

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Not standing your ground  

Many people feel that a good relationship is where two people “become one.” But that’s seldom a good idea. It often leads people to deny their differences, to force themselves to be what their partner wants, or to be unable to “stand their ground” when conflicts arise. That often leads people in relationships to feel anxious and overwhelmed, and to end up avoiding each other.

The happiest relationships are where two people acknowledge one another as fundamentally different. Then each person in the couple can feel comfortable asserting his or her needs, even when those needs are potentially in conflict. In the short run, that can be challenging. But in the long run, it’s often actually more erotic.

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Not taking responsibility for your own needs 

Ultimately you’re the one responsible for your own arousal. Even for your own orgasms. Yes, I know this is different from most sex advice you’ve heard. Most sex experts suggest that you should take responsibility for each other’s sexual pleasure. The problem with that approach is that ultimately you end up just servicing each other—not so passionate.

It’s a good rule to absolutely avoid doing anything in bed that you don’t like. Don’t just do it because it pleases your partner. Instead, find something else that you like to do, that your partner likes too. Whatever it is, make sure it makes both of you happy. Otherwise, in the long run, no one’s going to be happy.

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Believing you can program desire  

Desire comes and goes many times over the course of a long-term erotic relationship. During times when you don’t feel desire for your partner, the most important thing to remember is not to freak out. You can’t control desire any more than you can control the whims of a child. The secret to good sex in a long-lasting relationship is to sanctify the erotic moment by paying attention to it in all its variety, without judgment.

Desire is seldom all-or-none. Sometimes you will feel highly aroused together, and sometimes your arousal may be no more than a faint whisper. Sometimes it’s a matter of nurturing that whisper until it’s a healthy shout. Next, check out the questions sex therapists get asked the most.

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