Ask Us Anything: Sexuality in the Beginning of a Relationship

Ask Us Anything
I only feel comfortable and open sexually when I don’t know someone very well. Why is it difficult to be sexually open after I get into a relationship?

It is not uncommon for some women to report that they can be sexually and emotionally open and vulnerable only at the beginning of a relationship but then find it difficult to sustain that emotional intensity and sexual openness after the relationship has developed past the infatuation stage. Some women report that once they start to get to know someone, they shut down emotionally and find sexual intimacy very difficult. This can happen despite wanting to be in a long-term relationship or caring about your partner.

At the beginning of a relationship, before people know each other well, it is easier to enter into a fantasy dynamic, where the intensity of the connection is based on the newness of the relationship. This built-in distance can create a false sense of safety for those who are not comfortable with being too close, thus the “first 20 dates” often feel like a time of greater freedom and closeness for some. After time passes, the things that make a relationship new—more emotional intimacy and sharing more of your true self—can be difficult or even impossible to sustain in some cases. For some, this feels too risky and painful because of negative experiences, or trauma, that they have had in the past in being close to others, in particular early childhood caregivers.

This trauma could be in the form of emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse. Trauma can also result in an attachment disorder. Those individuals who are securely attached find comfort and seek connection and closeness with another person. These people have had a history of positive experiences with important caregivers in their lives. However, there are many who either formed an inconsistent or  abusive connection with a primary caregiver or lacked a meaningful connection to a caregiver all together, and now they avoid or feel anxiety or fear about establishing a closer connection to others. You may benefit from learning more about your attachment style.

For some women, this inability to form close relationships, coupled with a desire to have them, can manifest into a set of symptoms related to acting out sexually by having numerous sexual partners as a form of coping with the symptoms of trauma. In more extreme cases, sexual acting out can lead to self-harm or harm to others.

Our ability to be close to others, as well as how we find that connection, is on a continuum that ranges from secure and healthy attachment and the ability to be sexually open and vulnerable in a long-term relationship to fearful avoidance with an inability to form a meaningful relationship. Despite the cause, if you are someone who has trouble maintaining an emotional or sexual connection past “the first 20 dates,” it is possible to heal and find connection on date 21 and beyond.

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