The ins and outs of sexual satisfaction

Our earliest bonds set a style for all future attachments, a leading psychologist tells Joyce Fegan

A change in the seasons, work pressure, hormones and stress can all impact on our sex lives, says psychologist Deborah Mulvany

JUST because it's gone quiet in the bedroom department doesn't mean love is dead. Your sex life isn't necessarily a barometer of the quality of your relationship, says top psychologist Deborah Mulvany.

Everyone goes through cycles where your libido rises and falls, and a natural lull shouldn't be seen as the nail in the coffin of your relationship.

Being in tune with one another's cycles is key to a successful relationship, explains the psychologist.

"A man can be worried about the finances or a woman can be extra tired because it's that time of the month – both big factors where sexual appetite is concerned.

"Be mindful of your partner's cycle," notes the psychologist, "and don't necessarily see a lack of interest as a personal rejection or assume that the chemistry is gone or conclude that you're with the 'wrong partner'."

A change in the seasons, work pressure, hormones and the stresses and worries of looking after the children can all impact on desire.

Ms Mulvany, a counselling psychologist, works with individuals and couples dealing with relationship issues. She looks to our earliest bonds to discover our "attachment style".

"Our primary care giver, be it our father, grandmother or mother, is our first emotion coach and that relationship sets a template for the rest of the major ones in our lives."

Attachment styles are either secure or insecure; in the latter category you can have either an anxious, avoiding or disorganised style. Research in North America found that nearly 65 per cent of people are "securely attached". An anxiously attached woman will engage in sex to "reassure" themselves that their partner still finds them attractive; while an avoiding-style male might be more sexually demanding because they do not engage in touch, and sex is the only way they know to get their emotional needs met.

According to latest research, contented couples attribute between 15 and 20 per cent of their happiness to a good sex life. An unhappy pairing will say that between 50 and 70 per cent of their unhappiness is down to bad sexual relations. Ms Mulvany says that people have a tendency to believe that sexual problems reflect the general state of their relationship when in reality there are other factors at play.

"The more you engage in sexual and intimate activity, the deeper your bond will become," Ms Mulvany says. She emphasises the "importance of touch", citing post-Second World War research: war widows displayed the same detached and despairing symptoms as orphans who were bereft of physical contact.

A woman may want to be hugged or rubbed but is afraid that such contact will lead to full intercourse, at which point she'll have to "reject" her mate. So instead of arriving at that situation she decides not to engage at all. This example, of a woman with an insecure attachment style, demonstrates a situation where a partner chooses "not to seek contact out at all", says Ms Mulvany. She warns that a sexual distance contributes to a great general distance too.

But is there an average amount of times a couple "should" be having sexual contact a month? Ms Mulvany says every couple is "so unique" and that there is "no prescriptive" that stipulates a figure. It's not so "simplistic" as most couples "don't fall into a box", she says.

What advice does she have for us? Deborah says we need to reflect on our attachment style and how we are communicating in general. Look at the "stuff" you bring into the partnership, like your experiences growing up, and how they impact where you are now. Also important, she feels, is allowing yourself to be "vulnerable" as it's key to maintaining a good emotional connection.

Deborah Mulvany was talking ahead of the second national Sexual Health Awareness Week that runs from Tuesday to Thursday in the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland; www.rcpi.ie/shaw

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