What Makes Relationships Bad for Sex

So on the heels of posting a study that derides casual sex, here is a post on how relationships can be bad for sex–and how infidelity might not be such a bad thing…

Here are excerpts from a book titled How to Think More About Sex. I have not read the book yet, but the excerpts are pretty interesting. This article touches on a lot of the realities of relationships and why they make sex difficult. We have known for a long time that commitment can be the destruction of passion, but this book appears to explore how that might happen.

I was just talking with a client about the appeal of “drama” in a relationship–it actually can make us feel more wanted. Commitment promotes reliability, but reliability also promotes taking for granted. Reliability feels awfully nice in a relationship, but a little instability in a relationship can make us feel wanted, even fought for. The risk is that the “drama” can manifest as disrespectful or destructive. Enthusiasm is another great (less risky) alternative to drama in making your partner feel wanted. The key, it would seem, is to offer reassurance that doesn’t lead to be taken for granted, which is tricky.

Risks of Casual Sex?

A recent study found that casual sex among college students was associated with greater frequency of anxiety and depression. I think the relationship between casual sex and mental health is important one, but I think it is also important to note the scope of such a study. It is tempting to read that there is a greater occurrence of poor mental health among people who have recently had casual sex as thinking that casual sex leads to poor mental health, in fact it seems that one researchers kind of suggests this. However, the study is quite superficial.

From the press release at least, there was no aspect of the study that addresses whether people with anxiety and depression are more likely to engage in casual sex and therefore the cause effect relationship may be in reverse of how it is presented. Additionally, we do not know if there is a factor (such as low serotonin) increases the occurrence of anxiety and depression (which we know to be true) and casual sex (?) independently of each other, and that the two phenomena co-occur without having a causal relationship with each other.

It is plausible to me that the presence of anxiety and depression (in mild forms at least) are likely to facilitate casual sex. For one thing, sex can be a fantastic way to experience immediate gratification on a physical level, which can be a temporary relief from the negative feelings . Few mental health professionals don’t recognize that a leading motivation of casual sex is an attempt to feed one’s self-esteem–it shows that I am desirable, and in turn “worthy.” Sex is likewise a way in which many people seek “connection” (without the possibility or any real success) in lieu of actually risking emotional intimacy. Many people (wrongly) perceive sex as a “love delivery system.” To not acknowledge the role poor mental health as motivational factor in casual sex is just irresponsible–and suggests a moral agenda to me.

As a mental health professional who embraces the potential mental health benefits of casual sex, I am genuinely interested in the negative affects of casual sex too. In my experience, the negative effects of casual sex are usually in the cognitive interpretation of the action. Something I see in my clients frequently is sadness (depression ?) following casual sex which specifically results from the casual sex not meeting the desire for emotional intimacy or adequately satisfying the need for validation–things for which casual sex will almost never be successful. And again I note, these clients did not begin the pursuit of casual sex from a place of good mental health to begin with. Another common negative outcome from engaging in casual sex is the guilt of doing something that is a violation of societal values (though less so societal norms), especially when it failed to meet the desired outcome of appeasing bad feelings.

If in fact casual sex can promote (or exacerbate) poorer mental health–which seems almost certain to occasionally happen–then I think it is potentially dangerous to condemn casual sex without looking at the mechanisms at play in why it does. Is there something inherent in the brain chemistry that causes poor mental health after casual sex, or is this a purely cognitive interpretation relationship? The reality is that it is probably a combination of the two. But until we understand the relationship better–both in terms of chicken-and-egg and in terms of the mechanisms,  we need to be cautious in condemning casual sex.

Having Been “Raised” by One’s Parents

Many of my clients express a sense of obligation to their parents or family, despite not being able to report anything rewarding about the relationship. When I inquire about why they feel obligated to do things for their family I frequently hear “because they raised me.” I love the word “raised,” it is so poorly defined that it covers all matter of sin.

I usually inquire if there is a difference between providing the minimal requirement of food, shelter, and clothes and “raising” a child. My clients usually react that they have never had the idea that “raising” might be more than simply providing the minimum asked of them before. Unfortunately, I also often discover that “the minimum” wasn’t even met–clients who report having gone hungry as children or one client who moved 15 times by the time he was 18 years old because his family kept getting evicted–in their concept of owing their parents continued exploitation of them because their “raised” the.

I recently discussed with a client the notion of an obligation being a contract–which is often they way people think about. In exploring this idea, we looked at the two aspects of legal contracts–namely entering in the contract willfully and for an exchange (reward). My clients frequently speak of potential (possible, but unlikely) reward, but not current reward, nor any certainty of future reward. Having a child obligates one–it is entering into a contract willfully and with an implication of the reward of being a parent. It can be a risky option, but it meets the basic criteria of a valid contract. Being born (to one’s particular parents especially) is not a willful act. And if it is not rewarding, then can it really be seen as a valid contract or obligation?