There are a million reasons why guys and gals struggle with sex, but for folks with eating problems and poor body image, typical relationship problems are often magnified. Here are some of the themes that emerge from my work with clients struggling with eating disorders –followed by some helpful thought-shifting affirmations.
Ambivalence about Sex
Of the estimated one-third of women who have been sexually abused at some point in their lives, 85 percent of them will battle with food/body image issues. If someone has repressed traumatic memories of a painful sexual experience, the smells, tastes, sounds and sensations of sex can bring it back in a rush of panic, anxiety and revulsion.
While not so directly traumatizing, our culture itself gives very mixed messages about sex. When it comes to sex, it’s hard to find healthy, realistic role models.
People with eating disorders tend to be ambivalent about pleasure in general. Sources of pleasure are either denied or followed by guilt and shame. For those with anorexic tendencies, there is a Puritanical standard that denies all pleasures of the flesh. For those who struggle with binge eating, there’s the fear that, “If I eat one bite, I won’t be able to stop.” Those are the folks who’ve binged on sex the same way they’ve binged on food.
A woman who hates her body cannot feel sexy. Typically for women, getting turned on is less about desiring a man than about feeling desirable. When a woman feels fat and disgusting she won’t want to be seen or touched.
Karen worries that if she gains a few pounds, her husband will not desire her. He, of course, does not notice nor care, but she is deaf to his words. Sometimes she’ll engage in her eating disorder specifically to push him away.
People who obsess about food and their bodies live inside their heads, which is not where their focus should be when it’s time to heat things up. An obsessive brain tuned to the “Food Network” will keep a woman from being aware of what’s going ondown there. She needs to get out of her head, live in the moment and connect to her body – the very skills taught in eating disorder recovery.
People with eating disorders tend to have a rigid style of thinking, with strict rules about both food and sex. Their need to always be in control keeps sex predictable and safe, but it’s a sure-fire way to kill passion and spontaneity.
Poor Self Worth
At the core of eating problems is the strong belief of not deserving love. Sheila cannot imagine that her husband actually enjoys giving her sexual pleasure, so she rejects it and only takes care of his needs. By doing so, she denies her partner the satisfaction of expressing his love physically. She cannot allow herself to share her whole self with him so sexual intimacy becomes too threatening.
Out of her lack of self-worth, Joanie believes she does not have the right to express her needs, sexual or otherwise. She does not even know what she likes or wants sexually because she’s been focused on pleasing others. Faking is fine. Her man, unfortunately, has no idea how disconnected he actually is from his true love.
Fear of Intimacy
The bottom line is that the fear of emotional closeness and the ensuing risks will often cause a woman to keep her partner at a safe distance even as their naked bodies touch.
True sexual intimacy involves being vulnerable, letting down your guard, letting your partner in. If you know deep down that you are good, then it’s not so scary to open your heart to your lover. You can get out of your own head and into your body, into his head, into his body – with openness, curiosity and love.
If you suffer from any of the above afflictions, here are Ten Affirmations that can steer you towards a healthier sex life. Read them out loud. Try it in front of a mirror.
I am worthy of love, simply by the fact that I am here.
If someone hurt me sexually in the past, it was not my body’s fault. I needn’t punish it.
My sexuality is an important and vital part of my Self. It’s okay to experience sexy pleasure without following it up with a big pile of guilt and shame.
My body’s shape and size are not the sole determinant of whether I am desirable. My partner sees me as more than my imperfections. I’ll try to view myself through their loving eyes instead of through the distorting lens of my perfectionism.
I have the courage to let down my guard and the strength to survive the consequences of being emotionally vulnerable.
Sex is not just about being worshipped. It is about sharing my love with my partner who also needs to feel desired and important. Expressing my love physically is a gift.
I can change the channel in my brain if I am obsessing, or better yet, shut it off and shift my focus back to my body.
My feelings and needs matter. It’s my responsibility to communicate clearly and directly or my body will say it for me. If I communicate passively, I risk being misunderstood and having my needs unmet. Speaking up helps free me of resentment. Honesty is the best aphrodisiac.
My partner’s desires are important, too. I can let go of some of the control so I can receive pleasure. An orgasm, by definition, is about Letting Go of Control! While I can state my needs, I can also be flexible even when my ideal conditions are not met, because novelty and unpredictability can be exciting!
If I get stuck on one or more of these affirmations, that is a place for personal growth.
OK, now get to work….and have fun!