As human beings, we all have a need for connection.
We’re driven to fill our needs for acceptance, affection, appreciation, closeness, companionship, intimacy, nurture, and belonging in myriad ways.
When these needs are not met as children, or we haven’t developed the social skills to meet these needs as adults, sex can become the most direct route to fill the void left by the lack of connection in our lives.
Sex is a powerful tool that can bring up our deepest needs for love and connection, our deepest fears and traumas, and our most vulnerable, raw selves.
It’s also designed to feel good so that humans reproduce themselves.
But using sex, including pornography, compulsive masturbation, or one night stands solely as vehicle for hedonistic pleasure can have consequences. The dopamine rush from the new stimulation feels nice, but with every dopamine rush comes a subsequent low.
Running towards the feel good dopamine release becomes an exhaustive cycle of trying to make yourself feel better. Eventually, you need more intense forms stimulation. It’s a vicious cycle that feels good in the moment, but neglects the true underlying need for connection.
When I had sex for the first time at 13, I fell in love with how it made me feel.
Feeling close, seen, and heard by a man awakened a beast: sex filled the need for closeness and affection that I never had with my alcoholic dad.
It made me feel pretty, loved, and powerful, so I learned that anytime I needed affection, all I had to do was sleep with someone.
Whenever I felt anxious, sad, frustrated, or bored—I found a new man to fill the void. The immediate dopamine rush relieved any bad feelings I had and filled the need for connection, belonging, and love I didn’t otherwise know how to find.
Sex was my #1 way to cope with the anxiety and pain of not feeling loved.
If sex is your primary mode of escaping the negative feelings in your life, here are five ways to cope and transform your relationship with sex.
1. Figure out your story around sexuality
Most of our dysfunctional sexual behaviors are rooted in unmet emotional needs. I didn’t feel loved, seen or heard by my emotionally absent father, so I learned to meet those needs through sex. Writing my story helped me understand how I’d been stuck in a pleasure seeking cycle. Learning to cope with the feelings of guilt and shame around my sexuality helped shift my ability to be truly intimate with a partner.
2. Recognize why you’re doing it
Are you using sex to fill a void in your life? Going through a particularly stressful stretch and looking for a release?
Make a distinction about whether you’re doing it to explore or to escape. It’s okay to explore, to try new things, to stretch the boundaries of your sexuality. It’s not okay when you do it because you can’t cope with your life and sex is the easiest way to feel good. I justified my behavior through labels such ‘open-minded’ and ‘liberated,’ and it took years to realize these were a poor excuse for my escapist behavior.
3. Learn new ways to achieve true intimacy
Most of us go through sex with our eyes closed, disconnected from our partner, and looking for the quickest way to achieve climax. But becoming mindful during sex—looking our partner in the eye and feeling all the different sensations in the body inspires a deeper level of intimacy and satisfaction. For specific techniques on how to do this, read the book Passionate Marriage, which has concise exercises for achieving true intimacy.
4. Practice mindfulness of feelings
When you’re feeling off, it’s easy for old coping mechanisms to resurface. Learn to recognize what you’re feeling and make space around the scary feelings. It wasn’t until I began vipassana meditation, which teaches you to become aware of your body, mind, and feelings, that I realized I didn’t have to push anything away. I was capable of handling whatever I felt without having to resort back to my old ways of coping.
5. If you’ve explored the 4 steps above but still can’t find a way out.
Find a therapist or a coach. Read books. Learn as much about yourself and your triggers so that you can nip them when they creep up.
I believe that sex is meant to be explored mindfully. It can be one of our greatest joys in life. But we rob ourselves of its true gifts when we use it as a coping mechanism.
By learning to be in touch, in tune, and mindful of our sexuality we are likely to reach levels of connection with ourselves and our partner we never even knew existed.
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Ed: Dana Gornall