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My boyfriend is too stressed out to have sex. What can I do?

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aprasad asks:

I'm 21 and I've been in a relationship with my boyfriend for two and a half years now. We go to the same university and have practically been living together in the same on-campus apartment for one and a half years. As our relationship has progressed, we've begun to have less and less sex. Neither of us initiates because we're always tired or stressed out. He says I should expect to not have much sex during the school year by now, but I don't understand how he is just constantly too stressed to even think about wanting to have sex. I've tried talking to him about it and he doesn't have much to say about it. A sexual life is important to me but the fact that he doesn't have much to say about it is worrying me regarding whether he doesn't find me attractive anymore or his testosterone levels are just canceled out by stress. If so, I don't know how to help him. Or help us.

Jenna replies:

I am sorry to hear about your stressful sex conundrum. Being in school can be a very stressful and sleep-deprived time, and I am sure that many people can relate to your situation, including myself. Stress is just one of those feelings that has a much larger impact than many people acknowledge: in addition to affecting one mentally, it can take a toll physically and emotionally. It can be helpful to understand how stress affects one's sex drive, and to also identify helpful stress-management techniques.

Before diving into on discussion on stress, I want to explore what you mean by "sex". Sex can mean different things to different people: penis-vagina sex, anal sex, oral sex, manual sex (touching a vulva, vagina, or penis with your hands), plus a whole range of other activities. This range matters because some sexual activities might feel less desirable or feel like more pressure when one is stressed out, tired, or busy. Many people have this concept that sex is an all-or-nothing commitment, and unless a specific end goal is achieved (a penis entering a vagina, for example), then it doesn't count or isn't worth doing. Thus when someone is feeling particularly stressed out, the idea of sex can seem intimidating, undesirable, or just too much pressure. However, there are plenty of activities that are pleasurable and can create intimacy that might feel a lot less intimidating, such as kissing, cuddling, general physical contact, etc.

Additionally, I wonder if it is specifically sex that you are needing from your boyfriend, or the feelings that are often associated with sex: affection, intimacy, pleasure, etc. If it is feeling intimacy and attraction from your partner, there are other ways to achieve that emotional connection outside of sex. It might feel difficult to differentiate what it is that you are looking for, but recognizing what activities or emotions leave you feeling more fulfilled in your relationship with your boyfriend might help you pinpoint exactly what it is you need.

A Stressful Cycle

Of all the things can can decrease libido or sex drive, stress is right at the top of the list. This can include school stress, stress from being too busy or overwhelmed, as well as relationship stress or pressure.

The biology of stress involves our brain releasing certain hormones, cortisol and norepinephrine, when in a stressful situation. Stress can be a good thing, in that it can keep us alert and stay out of dangerous situations. However, the hormones that are released also cause different physical, mental, and emotional side effects: headaches, irritability, anxiety, inability to sleep and changes in sex drive, just to name a few. These effects can be especially bad when someone is constantly stressed out, or doesn't know how to manage their stress.

It can sometimes feel like a cycle - we might feel too stressed out to do those things that decrease our stress. Sex, being one of those things. But, for the sake of your and your boyfriend's health and relationship, it is important to slow down, take a step back, and take care of yourselves.

Getting Started

If stress is the root cause of the decrease in sex in your relationship, then the first step is to work together with your boyfriend in managing both of your stress. You mention that while his stress is affecting your sex life, you are also stressed out. There are several things that you two can do to address the lack of sex in your relationship, but taking care of yourself and well-being should come first. Working on this together can also be a way for you two to connect. Here are some specific things that you might find to be helpful:

  • Talk it out. You mentioned that you already tried talking to your boyfriend about your feelings and concerns around your sex life. Don't give up! I am sorry that he did not have much to say about it, but I think it's really great that you already brought it up. Taking about sex with our partners, particularly if there is something that we are unhappy with, is not always the easiest thing. For a little inspiration and encouragement, check out Be a Blabbermouth! The Whys, Whats and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner.
  • Share stress management tips.There are specific things that have been shown to manage stress. These tips include regular exercise, eating healthy, decreasing caffeine intake (okay, I am a coffee drinker and I know that won't necessarily help but I am just putting it out there), breathing techniques, meditation exercises, and massages, just to name a few. In addition to sharing these techniques, I would also encourage you to browse the resources included at the bottom of this page and share any of them with your boyfriend as well.
  • Change your environment. Create a stress-free environment where you can spend time together. Do you usually have sex in your on-campus apartment? Put away the books and laptops, and bring out the scented candles and bubble bath. This might sound like a corny seduction plot, but aromatherapy (using certain scents to change one's mood or health) can really help with stress reduction. Regardless of whether it's in the location of where you have sex, creating a comfortable and relaxing environment where you spend most of your time can make a big difference.
  • Remember that sex decreases stress! It can feel easy to put sex on the back burner when you have papers due and midterms to study for. However, sex itself can help with bonding and stress relief. I am not saying that you and your boyfriend should have sex if you both do not feel like it, but it's definitely worth considering how the both of you will feel afterwards: hopefully relaxed and connected.
  • Make time. Scheduling sex might seem like it takes the fun and spontaneity out of intimacy, but for many people with busy schedules, carving out time specific to making out, cuddling, or any sexual activity can be helpful in ensuring that it actually happens. Especially since you and your boyfriend practically live together, it can help to plan specific date nights, when you two are not studying together on the same couch, but actually focusing on each other and enjoying each others' company.

This list is definitely not complete, but hopefully a good start for working with your boyfriend to address the stress that is getting in the way of your sexual relationship.

Something else to consider is that relationship dynamics can change when romantic partners move in with each other. You mentioned that you two have practically been living together for a year and a half. Something that people might experience with a shared (or almost shared) living situation is that your time spent together is not always about hanging out anymore. You might cook, clean, do homework, or watch TV together, but not really be present and focusing on each other. That is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you enjoy your currently living situation and your boyfriend does as well. However, you might find that taking a little break and seeing each other specifically to see each other and enjoy each other's company might also help. Additionally, planning a fun new activity or date night together can increase intimacy and improve your feelings of satisfaction within your relationship.

I want to repeat the importance of communication in your situation, as well as in any other relationship. I think that it is fantastic that you already brought it up to your boyfriend, and if the lack of sex continues to be an issue for you, then I encourage you to continue to try to talk with him about what is going on. Communication is a two-way street, and your boyfriend needs to be willing to meet you in the middle. If he continues to be quiet and not respond when you try to talk with him, then it is possible that there is more going on. You might benefit from taking a step back and thinking about whether being in a relationship with someone who is not able to talk with you about your sex life and relationship will work for you in the long run.

Taking Responsibility

As a sexually active person, you can take responsibility of your happiness and needs. I know that society often sends us the message that being in a relationship is all about compromising, and making compromises is certainly important. However, it is possible to strike a balance in which you are being an open, communicative partner while still taking charge of your sexuality. Your boyfriend is also responsible for his own happiness and needs. Talking about what you both desire and hope to get out of your sexual relationship is the only way to ensure that you are both equal partners. For a greater in-depth explanation of this type of reciprocity, I definitely encourage you and your boyfriend to check out Reciprocity, Reloaded. Below are some things to take into consideration when thinking about reciprocity within your relationship.

Initiating sex. You mentioned that neither of you initiates sex because you are always stressed or tired. To me, it is a pretty big flag that you discussed your boyfriend being to stressed out to have sex, yet you have stopped initiating sex as well. I am curious as to whether sexual initiation was pretty equal before you both started to get stressed out with school, or if one of you was more often the "initiator". I understand that when one is stressed out or tired, it can feel like getting a good night's rest might be more appealing than putting the moves on your partner. But if you are concerned about the lack of sex in your relationship, then taking things into your own hands (no pun intended) is something that you might want to try, before turning to your partner and putting all of the responsibility on him.

Solo sex. At the beginning of this answer, I mentioned identifying what exactly it is that you need from your boyfriend: physical intimacy, emotional connection, attraction, connection, pleasure, etc. If you find yourself seeking physical pleasure, then I encourage you to explore solo sex, or masturbation. Part of taking responsibility for your sexuality and sexual well-being is to ensure your needs are being met, and you might find that masturbation meets some of your needs. For more information on masturbation, check out How Do You Masturbate?.

Sexual compatibility. This is can be a tough one to talk about, especially if you are compatible with your partner in other ways. The idea of sexual compatibility can seem complicated, but really the bottom line is are you having the type and frequency of sex that you want (for the most part), and does that also match what your partner wants? The second part of the question is important - no one should be pressuring their partner to do anything that they don't want to do. And from time to time, many people with compatible sexual desires have a bit of a disconnect. If that disconnect feels constant and your needs are never feeling met, however, then it might be time to think about whether this particular relationship is working for you. I am not trying to suggest that you and your boyfriend are not compatible, but I just wanted to throw that out there as something to explore. You and your boyfriend are the only ones that can determine that. For a little more information and guidance, check out This is what sexual incompatibility looks like.

I hope that you and your boyfriend are able to manage your stress levels. Stress is a part of life, and it is important to be able to deal with it in a positive way, so that one's sex life or general well-being isn't in trouble every time a stressful situation comes up. Additionally, having open communication is a crucial part of a healthy relationship, and I can tell that you value that. In the spirit of reciprocity, getting to a place in which your partner is able to communicate as well seems to be the first big step.

Resources

Below are some resources that might have some helpful information for you and your boyfriend.

written 03 Mar 2013 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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