Jun 102012

Can we talk about coping skills?

I spend a chunk of time talking about coping in my relationship guide because it turns out that effectively coping with stress is quite possibly the most important thing you can do to improve your sex life.

Some people, when they get stressed, experience a drop in their interest in sex (hand raised over here) and some people experience an INCREASE in their interest in sex. Both are normal and healthy, they’re just different “styles,” if you will, of sexual responsiveness.

The most complex difficulty arises when one partner has the first style and the other partner has the second style. Stress can also be a problem in your sex life if you’re both stressed and you both have that first, “ugh sex” style, and so sex goes away and you look at each other and think, “Where did the sex go?” So. Cope with your stress effectively to improve your sex life, you hear what I’m saying? This post is for the low desire person in those scenarios.

Hang on, let me get a definition straight here: stress management and coping are not the same – at least, not for the purposes of this post. Stress management is all the physical stuff, physical activity, nutrition, sleep, breathing, that stuff. That’s all SUPER IMPORTANT, it’s just not what I’m writing about today.

Coping is also super important. Boiled down as far as possible, there are two effective coping strategies:

(a) When a stressor or life event is CHANGEABLE or CONTROLLABLE (i.e., if you did something about it, you could make things different), you engage in PLANFUL PROBLEM SOLVING. You sit down when you’re in a reasonable calm state and you think through the steps required to create the desired change.

(b) When a stressor or life event is NOT CHANGEABLE, you change your mind instead, by engaging in what they call “positive reappraisal.” Douglas Adams mastered this in the following excerpt from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

What to do if you find yourself trapped beneath a large boulder with no means of escape: Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far. Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far, which given your current circumstances seems more likely, consider how lucky you are that it won’t be troubling you much longer.

Which is so much more entertaining than, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” but indeed that’s what these two coping strategies ultimately suggest.

Making lemonade is not obvious, though; let’s not underestimate the ingenuity and resource required to make the leap from a sky full of citrus fruit to a fridge full of Tom Collins mixer. In addition to lemons, you also require access to sugar and water and a vessel to mix them in, as well as the capacity to view the lemons not as sour and brutally heavy as they tumble from the sky onto your head, but as a potentially delicious summer beverage ingredient.

As a woman who is buying a house and getting married this summer, I’m doing a lot of lemonade-making.

emily's planful problem solving

It’s relatively easy for me, given that much of my stress is related to the opportunity to live in a house I own with a person who can make me laugh while I’m crying and make me feel sexy even on my most bloated and self-doubting day. So: “Why am I spending my afternoon filling out hateful, ill-designed paperwork and then cleaning my apartment beyond a point that seems necessary to me? Oh yes, so that I can move in with the romantic euphemism and live happily ever after!” That’s lemonade, see? I do it not because I ENJOY it, but because I realize how important it is to my longer-term happiness, and realizing how important it is makes it seem like I’ve done something Good For Me.

When sex is your lemons (this is turning into an awkward metaphor) – that is, when sex is a thing that’s in your life and you’re a person whose interest in sex goes away when you’re stressed – lemonade sex is your answer.

Just as the shift from fruit plonking from the sky to tasty beverage requires a shift in how you see it, sex when you’re stressed requires a shift in perspective.

It’s not an obligation, to start with. It’s not necessarily about physical pleasure, per se. It doesn’t have to be a “release” or even a distraction. It doesn’t have to be AWESOME. It’s a thing you do with your partner because your partner likes it and you like your partner and it won’t do you any kind of harm to have some naked time. You do it because you see how it’s good for your long term happiness: your partner feels welcomed into your heart and mind, feels connected and accepted, may even feel all the pleasure, release, etc that sex is hyped to be. You do it because it’s Good For You.

Will lemonade sex be the best sex of your life? It COULD be! It could surprise you! Responsive desire can blossom into life in a big way at moments you might never expect! But it might also be, ya know, just sex.

Look, if you only exercised or ate vegetables or showered when you really WANTED to… well, I know I’d only do each one about once a week, most weeks.

Sometimes – and I realize this is a controversial thing to say – sometimes you have sex because it’s Good For You, even if you’re not excited about it at first. You make lemonade because you see the potential in lemons; you have sex when your desire is low because you see the potential in sex. See also openness rather than eagerness

(PS – this only works in committed relationships. I wouldn’t apply any of this to the BEGINNING of a relationship. I would have to think it through more thoroughly to give a real answer, but my quick and dirty gut instinct is that if you’re having lemonade sex during the initial stages of a relationship, there might be something amiss.)

(PPS – every asexual person on earth probably already knows all of this.)

emily nagoski

  11 Responses to “lemonade sex”

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  1. This so applies to me and my life these past few years. I love lemonade, and the way you’ve used it as a metaphor. From here on I’m going try to have more “lemonade sex”. I actually know that the really good sex can and does happen sometimes as a result, but I seem to forget that in the middle of the stress(ors). Anyhow, congratulations on your upcoming wedding and home-buying, Emily. Thanks for writing this post.

  2. Comments are going to be… interesting.

    This would work best for those that are sexually submissive?

  3. Eh, submissive isn’t the same as responsive, nor AT ALL the same as having a low libido.

    I think one thing that sometimes happens is that couples quit touching each other enough at other times, often due to stress. If you get used to not being touched, you start not feeling so much like having sex, and stop being sufficiently in tune with yourselves/each other to have particularly good sex when it does happen. (An overload of touch, as when you’ve been caring for small children all day and are “touched out,” can also be problematic.)

    My impression of sex I’ve had to oblige my partner and keep things going has been that if I stay in that mode too long, it isn’t good for either of us, though it’s fine as a stopgap measure. In the long term (I’ve been married almost twenty years), it’s better to expect more of both of you, I think. It’s really hard to have the kind of sex that says “I care about you and love touching you” if one partner is being eh, whatever, and isn’t getting much out of it. And if you’re not getting the “I care about you and love touching you” message, how much are you going to want to devote to decent sex, even when your libido is back? Vicious cycle.

    So I think one thing that helps is taking a wider view: we’re primates, we need cuddles of a whole lot of different kinds. Doing without them under stress is a bad thing.

    Come to think of it, I think I was trained to a certain extent to expect hugs only when I was happy and confident, because of mentors who would specifically avoid touching me if I seemed stressed out or vulnerable in any way. That was a really good thing in that context, to help keep the relationships as far as possible from being abusive, but in a relationship that is supposed to be sexual (or intimate in another fashion, as between parents and children), it’s quite different.

  4. This is totally necessary to the discussion:

    Like I said, absolutely necessary.

  5. An impressive thing to read from someone going into a first marriage, rather than 20 years into a successful one. I will add that it’s useful to have an intermediate physical connection to your spouse other than full-on sex. If either my wife or I are, for any reason, not in the mood, they are still likely to get their back stroked in order to help them fall asleep. That might _get_ them in the mood, in which case a sweet and gentle sporking (like spooning, but with a little extra) will get us the rest of the way to sleep. If it doesn’t, then the last thing that happened before sleep is that we touched each other lovingly. Still a big win.

    • This is exactly how I took the “lemonade” part – you look for what sort of touch, sex will soothe you at the moment, and appreciate it even if it doesn’t flourish into the grandest of passions. Because it’s nice to feel loved even when you don’t feel your best.

  6. Thanks for providing a new and better way to phrase this! In my head, I’ve called this “fake it ’til you make it” – but that has all those recovery overtones that I don’t necessarily associate with sex. Lemonade sex is much more enjoyable to think about!

  7. I’ve been away for awhile and this is the first I hear of your lucky news for the summer. Congratulations!!!

  8. It’s a good thing to take one for the team now and then.

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