Could a sex therapist help you to have better relationships and a more satisfying sex life?
If you’ve struggled with sex and physical intimacy in past relationships, or if sexual dysfunction has caused the end of one or more of your relationships, sex therapy may provide answers and resolution.
How do you know if sex therapy is right for you? Can a sex therapist help you to have a healthier and more satisfying relationship with your next partner?
While sex is only one part of a romantic, loving relationship, it’s an important one. A healthy sex life can provide numerous benefits including improved heart health, stress relief, and a lower divorce rate. For many couples, sex and physical intimacy are critical for long-term happiness and satisfaction within the relationship.
Communication and sexual compatibility
One common challenge is couples who disagree about how often to have sex. According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, there’s no “normal” or “abnormal” frequency for sex. Relationship success is not about how often you have sex, it’s about both partners having compatible drives and developing intimacy that works for both (or all) people in the relationship.
That said, one study of married couples’ sexual activity and frequency from 2016-2018 revealed that the majority of married couples (about 60%) have sex at least once a week or more, and about one-third of couples have sex 1-3 times per month. Only about 7% of married couples have sex less than once a month. Additionally, married or cohabitating couples typically have sex more frequently than people who are single, divorced, or widowed, according to Medical News Today.
Frequency of sexual activity is only one factor contributing to a satisfying sex life. There are many other potential psychological factors, sexual dysfunctions, or social pressures that may cause challenges with intimacy in relationships. Therefore, consulting with an expert may be necessary to help you to identify the issue(s) and provide solutions and strategies for improvement.
When to seek help from a sex therapist
“Breakups are a good time for some reflection,” said Amy Howard, MS, LMFT, CST, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist based in Atlanta, GA. In her experience, she’s found that it can be helpful to “look back and see what went wrong, what your partner contributed to the demise of the relationship, and what you contributed.” Considering what you could have done differently, even if it may not have saved the relationship, can be helpful for identifying patterns that may require adjustments for more healthy relationships in the future.
Sex therapy can help identify issues and ways to communicate more effectively with a partner, Howard said. “If you’re dealing with a sexual issue, be it concerns with sexual functioning (early or delayed ejaculation, difficulty getting or maintaining an erection, painful intercourse, orgasm difficulty), apprehension talking with a partner about your kinks, fetishes, or sexual wants, or desires to change your relationship agreement (monogamy, open relationship, polyamory, etc.) sex therapy can be a great way to deepen the dialogue with your partner and help you understand without feeling ashamed or embarrassed.”
A huge key to sexual satisfaction is communication, Howard explained. “A sex therapist can help open the dialogue between partners that can pave the way for improved communication and thus an improved sex life. Your partner can’t read your mind even if you’ve been with that person [for many years.]” she said. “People change, their preferences may change, bodies definitely change, circumstances change, so it’s crucial for partners to maintain an open dialogue about their sexual relationship in order to feel close, connected, and satisfied.”
What to expect from a session with a sex therapist
“A sex therapist asks about the problem you’re experiencing, what you’ve done to address it, and then works with you to set some goals,” said Howard. This includes taking a detailed sexual history and providing some feedback, including suggestions and recommendations. “A sex therapist knows the current research and findings on sex, sexuality, and human behavior, and utilizes best practices and treatment protocols for any given sexual functioning concern,” she added. For comprehensive care, a sex therapist collaborates with other medical professionals as needed, such as gynecologists, urologists, pelvic floor therapists, psychiatrists, massage therapists, etc., to create a holistic approach to sexual healing and wellness.
Single people can benefit from sex therapy
Sex therapy is effective for people in relationships and also for single people who want to work on their approaches to sex and intimacy. “Research is clear that when someone is experiencing sexual problems within a relationship, outcomes are much better when both partners are involved in the therapy process. People don’t have sex in a vacuum, so sexual problems that occur in the context of a relationship require both partners to participate in the conversation.”
Single people can benefit from sex therapy by learning more about causes of any issues, and strategies for future relationships. “We can work together in individual therapy to get some clarity on what’s happening for the client before, during, and after any given sexual scenario that’s causing a problem for them,” Howard explained.
Your sex therapist may also assign homework, activities, or exercises to try at home and then follow up on the results on your next session. “Sex therapy provides treatment once the problem has been identified and conceptualized. Sex therapy treatment may include examining unhealthy messages received during formative years that no longer serve your relationships, understanding one’s high or low libido from a biopsychosocial perspective (biological factors, psychological factors, and social factors at play), identifying and reframing cognitive distortions, and building comfort with one’s body and pathways to pleasure.”
What issues are often addressed in sex therapy?
Unsurprisingly, one of the top issues sex therapists like Howard see in their practices are related to ‘desire discrepancy,’ when “one partner has a higher sex drive than the other.” Howard said it’s common for “two people with two different backgrounds, physiologies, and life experiences to have a different level of desire.” The good news is that this doesn’t mean anything is wrong with either partner or the relationship. “It does mean that the couple will need to navigate these differences and find ways for both partners to get their needs met as much as possible.”
Physiological issues can cause sexual functioning concerns such as unreliable erections, early or delayed ejaculation, painful intercourse such as vulvodynia, vaginismus, or dyspareunia, and orgasm difficulty, according to Howard. “If left unaddressed, these problems can create relationship distress, anxiety, and depression and can snowball into more entrenched concerns that may lead to substance abuse or other problematic coping strategies,” she explained.
Additionally, infidelity sometimes brings couples to sex therapy. Howard sees many clients for “affair recovery work, after one partner in a committed relationship becomes involved with another person either online or in-person.”
There are myriad factors, such as physiological, psychological, social, or even religious, that contribute to sexual dysfunction, highlighting the need for a detailed sexual history and assessment before treatment, according to Howard. “Sex therapists utilize a biopsychosocial model when assessing and treating a sexual problem,” she explained, including learning what biological or physical factors are present regarding overall physical health, sleep and exercise habits. All personal health information is important to know for sex therapy to be most effective. This may include the impact from pregnancy and breastfeeding, cancer treatments, or any other medications that could cause side effects, etc.
Your personal history
Perspectives about sex developed throughout childhood, via parents or caregivers and religious leaders can play a role in how one views sexuality, intimacy, and sex. “How one feels about their body, their genitals, their sexual orientation, their gender expression…all of these factors play a role in sexual functioning,” Howard said. A sex therapist will ask questions to learn about your history, habits, and patterns related to sex, including family of origin relationships and dynamics, attitudes learned about sex, religious upbringing, self-exploration and masturbation practices, relationship to online sexual imagery (i.e. pornography), sexual firsts such as first orgasm with a partner, first intercourse experience, relationship chronology, current relationship dynamics if currently in a relationship, and more.
“Social factors such as relationship satisfaction and ability to communicate wants and desires or dislikes to a partner; any kind of sexual abuse or sexual exploration in childhood can effect one’s sexual behaviors and patterns in adulthood,” Howard explained.
Will sex therapy work for you?
People with a willingness to make changes in their lives to learn and grow tend to benefit the most from sex therapy, according to Howard. Sex therapy is talk therapy focused on sexual health and intimacy, with a licensed professional who specializes in marriage, relationships, intimacy, and sex. Howard advises selecting a professional therapist with credentials as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Certified Sex Therapist (CST). Look beyond the title – some people bill themselves as Sex Therapists or Sex Coaches without proper credentials.
Sex therapy is primarily about helping you get comfortable communicating with sexual partners. “The goal of sex therapy is to help people move past physical and emotional challenges to have a satisfying relationship and pleasurable sex life,” Howard concluded.