Despite being surrounded by popular notions about sex, it can be difficult to decipher healthy sexuality from dysfunction and differentiate between appropriate sexual behaviors and unrealistic expectations that can tarnish our love lives or cause us to feel inadequate.
Sexuality is much more than the act of sex — it is an emotional bonding experience for couples and leads to a multitude of psychological, mental, physical, and marital benefits. Sex has been linked to immune system boosts, happier moods, decreased depression, and lower levels of stress, as well as pain relief (thanks to the release of endorphins and oxytocin). Couples who maintain a sexual relationship also benefit from increased intimacy.
Unfortunately, surveys find that men and women commonly have concerns about sexual health. They wonder what is normal and how their sex lives compare to others.
Research also finds that 50-55% of married couples experience sexual problems. Anger, shame, tension, secrecy, and anxiety can easily inhibit sexual desire in relationships and create sexual dysfunction. Sex becomes unhealthy when there is high anxiety and heightened avoidance, embarrassment, and frustration. Guilt and blame also interfere with sexual satisfaction in relationships.
Unrealistic expectations set forth by society also diminish the quality of sexual experiences. For instance, many men struggle with performance anxiety and pressure because they believe that they should be instantly ready for sex. This is a huge misconception, which results in men questioning their manhood and women expecting their partners to be ready for sex at all times.
While sexuality and related expectations may differ based on your religious beliefs, personality, and cultural background, here are five key indicators of healthy sexual experiences for real-life couples.
1. Sex is described as much more than the act itself, and involves physical touch, affection, intimacy, playfulness, desire, and pleasure. While many define sex as intercourse only, this ultimately creates a barrier to other satisfying sexual experiences and causes some couples to have intercourse or nothing at all.
2. Both partners are willing to initiate sexual experiences and feel desired. Although it is unrealistic to assume that both partners will achieve an orgasm in each sexual experience, sex is generally viewed as a positive experience and is mutually wanted. While sex might not be desired on a daily basis, it is not avoided and is well integrated into the relationship in spontaneous and satisfying ways.
3. Both partners have the right to say no to sex and are comfortable openly verbalizing sexual preferences. Desires and fantasies are explored and discussed. There is no judgment about specific needs and preferences and each partner feels validated.
4. Affection and physical touch are valued inside and outside of the bedroom. Cuddling, back rubs, massages, kissing, holding hands, and other displays of affection occur regularly without the added pressure of sex and are not purely linked to higher arousing sexual events.
5. A satisfying sex life leads to increased libido and more satisfying sexual experiences in the future. Couples are willing to confront and work though any issues that interfere with a healthy sex life without playing the blame game. Physical ailments, medical or mental health issues, and aging concerns influencing healthy sexual functioning are acknowledged. Couples are able to rely on fun and creative ways to make sex manageable and rewarding. They understand that other relationship milestones, decisions, and transitions (such as having a baby) may strain or change their sexual relationship, but both partners do not give up on sex and remain open to rekindling sexual desire.