How Do I Approach Sex With My Partner of Six Years While We’re Both Navigating Trauma?

Q:

(Content Warning for discussions of sex and consent, consensual nonconsensual kink)

My partner and I have been together going on six years this year. The first year, our sex life was incredible. We had sex almost every day, sometimes two or three times a day. We were constantly trying new things and laughing during sex (which both of us really value with intimacy). But since, then it’s fizzled out.

A large component of that was both of us unearthing past traumas where boundaries were crossed and consent was violated. For them, that looked like wanting to step away from sex for a while. On the other side of things, I wanted to have more of it but while I was incapacitated in some way (drugs, alcohol, unconsciousness), which they were (understandably) uncomfortable with, particularly since they made the decision to solely engage in sex while they were sober.

The lack of sex, however, that resulted from our wildly differing needs has had a lasting impact. They have tried to initiate sex a lot more the last year and a half or so, and I am the one shutting it down. We have had so many conversations — around times of day we both enjoy having sex, whether they should initiate or I should, how our traumas affected our perceptions of sex, what we’d want to try out or would excite us, how to incorporate fun/spontaneity/curiosity into sex again, which toys to buy, etc. You name it, we’ve talked about it. We’ve even talked about my CNC kink, and they’ve asked how they can engage with that (even though, I know, they’re apprehensive about it).

It all sounds good in theory, but then I feel a block when it comes to initiating sex myself and some combination of aversion, panic, and stress when they do. The only time I feel sexual with them is when I’m VERY incapacitated, but we’ve established that’s a firm boundary for them.

The small handful of times we have had sex the last two years, 9 times out of 10, I find myself disassociating, feeling nothing, thinking about other things, and/or having to imagine different scenarios that don’t involve myself to connect to the physical sensations happening to my body. I’ve tried to explain this to my partner many times, and even though they’re very understanding of it, they’ve started to wonder if I’m not sexually attracted to them anymore. Which is understandable given how much I have withdrawn. And given that I’ve shared with them that I’ve had sexual thoughts about strangers 2-3 times this past year as well. (Not rooted in attraction to them, just those people being near me when I’ve been drinking in public on my own and the thrill of the idea of them taking advantage of me.)

Yes, I am in therapy. We’ve been talking about this for the better part of a year, but while I’m getting validation of my feelings, I am not getting any indication of how to work through this. It’s always “it takes time,” but it’s been years, and I still feel exactly the same, just more defeated.

Any advice?


A:

First, you both are doing great in terms of knowing you each have trauma to work through and facing that head on. Trauma sucks, and the strange and bumpy road of healing can take a very long time. It’s also, unfortunately, incredibly common for both/all people in a queer relationship to be dealing with some kind of trauma, PTSD or CPTSD. I’m not a therapist, but I am someone who’s been in trauma-specific therapy, who has CPTSD and has dealt with PTSD from more sudden events, and who has dealt with sexual / SA / consent violation related trauma. So, that’s where I’m coming from here, offering advice as a fellow traveler on this road and a friend, but not as a professional.

Okay, so, up top, I think it’s definitely the right move to be incredibly cautious about encouraging or asking your partner to engage with the full CNC kink situation at this time. For one, being the top or dom/me in a CNC scene is something that requires a ton of trust in the other partner and comfort with sex in the relationship as well as experience in kink/BDSM dynamics. It’s just not a starting point in kink, you know? And it’s also extremely sticky in this situation because of what your partner is working through, not even to get into their very reasonable and healthy boundaries around sobriety and sex.

It’s also an awesome move to be engaging in these conversations, and I’m really happy that you can be so frank with each other. It’s also totally normal to have the excitement around a new relationship override trauma for a while and then to have trauma resurface when we feel comfortable and safe (as we do in healthy partnerships). I know it can maybe feel like you’re being punished for feeling safer by having your brain decide that NOW is the time to process this trauma, but I remain hopeful that you can move through this.

Now, according to your description of what happens when you engage in sex with your partner, it seems like you’re dissociating during sex after initially feeling discomfort and panic. Dissociation during sex can be a trauma response because our brains learn to dissociate during traumatic events in order to protect us, and then they keep doing that during similar events. So, if you have trauma around consent violations and sex, that can be triggered during intimate moments. And also, sometimes, I have heard that physical arousal itself can trigger dissociation or other trauma responses because of the physical similarities in the body to fear —rapid heartbeat, etc. So, all that is to say, this sounds completely normal, as frustrating as it is. As a recommendation, I think it would be both helpful for you and helpful for your partner in understanding where you’re coming from to look into resources dedicated to helping people process dissociation and PTSD/CPTSD.

I started looking into some resources about trauma and dissociation for you, as a starting point:

  1. For one, this Reddit thread is ostensibly about dissociation during sex due to ADHD, but contains a lot of great recommendations from people going through similar and many who are dissociating because of trauma. Within the thread, I saw this book, Come As You Are recommended by a couple of people. The author, Dr. Emily Nagoski, also has a podcast. I’ve never read or listened, so your mileage may vary.
  2. I would recommend, also, some self-help books. Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma (which is also useful for recovering from complex trauma obtained from other situations), The Body Keeps the Score, and The Sexual Healing Journey (which I have not read, but is apparently a classic when it comes to helping people to recover from sexual abuse / violations of consent).
  3. Thirdly, I know you’re in therapy, but you don’t mention what kind. So, I do want to just bring up the potential for exploring somatic or movement therapy specifically because you are dealing with trauma associated with the body. And also, sex therapy is an option, too! [Edit: From a reader, a searchable database of kink / poly friendly and even specialist therapists that may be helpful when seeking a sex therapist.]
  4. Anything you can find or want to try with regards to meditation. Now, I’ve also dealt with my brain getting stuck in weird loops. Needing this particular scenario (alcohol + CNC) to be present and aroused is nothing to be ashamed of, but it also might not have to be the only thing that works for you forever, and also, it’s probably healthy for your body to attempt to move away from needing alcohol for sex. Meditation can help us deal with stress and trauma and to establish new mental patterns. For one, I recommend establishing a meditation practice for just like 5-20 minutes a day. I turned to Reddit once again for resources on getting started. But, as a very, very basic way to do this: find somewhere comfortable and sit in a way that is comfortable for your body and that won’t numb your limbs (some practices ask for specific positions but we’re just going to go for preserving blood flow). Minimize distractions. I don’t do any music or guidance or anything, just quiet. Breathe in for a measure of seconds or counts (like: 1, 2, 3, 4), hold your breath for the same, release for the same number of counts, and hold your exhalation (like don’t breathe in again yet) for the same number of counts. Repeat. This is called square breathing. Do this and also just let your thoughts run, but try to picture them as just like birds or bees flying by. It’s okay to notice them, but just let them go and don’t engage and keep breathing. Eventually, the thoughts will be fewer and less frequent and your mind should calm down. Meditation: apparently it’s good for ya!

And now for sex stuff. I’d like you to start with an analysis of your solo sex life. Do you masturbate sober? Do you masturbate only when you’re inebriated? What kinds of fantasies do you have or get off to most? Do you masturbate at all? And then, I want to encourage you, if you aren’t currently (and it’s not triggering – in which case, please move at your own pace), to try masturbating sober and while intentionally engaging with a variety of different fantasy scenarios to explore what turns you on and what feels fun and what might feel any kind of way from safe to exciting to both. You can seek out erotica or ethically sourced porn to try on different scenarios and dynamics, all while it’s just you and you know you’re safe and secure. I can’t tell you what you might or might not learn, but it might be neat to keep a journal and see where this takes you. As with meditation and trauma work, when we’re traumatized, we can get stuck, and I think that you could get yourself un-stuck from feeling only into this one particular scenario (and un-stuck from the handy dandy crutch that is alcohol) with just kind of giving yourself a push in a new direction. A lot of people turn to alcohol for its inhibition lowering properties, especially when sex is hard, but it also, longterm, doesn’t produce the sexiest results. That link is to a medical study which also shows that caffeine can lead to arousal, so…coffee dates? Sexier than we thought? My point is that masturbation can be a super healthy way to try things that are difficult yet desired during sex — and in this case, it might be getting aroused while sober, fantasizing about something that isn’t CNC, and working on feeling comfortable and safe in your body and home while engaged in sex.

With your partner, you mention bringing in fun, spontaneity, toys! Again, I love that you two are working together on this. It’s a great thing to do for each other, and also, while I haven’t mentioned this yet, I’m excited for your partner who seems to be progressing on their healing journey and who is into initiating sex again and who discovered some cool boundaries around sobriety that are helpful!

I mentioned before that CNC scenes are like…another level. Starting with CNC in a kink dynamic is like if I decided to learn to skateboard by taking myself on a skateboard to the top of a half pipe in a skate park and to just roll with it and see how it goes. I’m probably going to end up on my ass, injured, is how it’s going to go. However, that doesn’t mean all kink / BDSM acts are off the table. You can try incorporating things into your sex life that might give you that loss of control you crave in a much physically and mentally safer way for all involved. And hopefully these ways are also fun for your partner (you’ll find this out by talking with them!).

As a start, here are some sensual things you can try together that are sexy but not sex:

  1. Massage. This actually seems like a great first step. I think it might be nice to get in touch with your bodies by giving each other massages. Make it nice. Break out the candles, the oils, the music, make the bed and arrange the pillows just so, and really let yourselves explore each others’ bodies while touching each other sensually but not necessarily sexually (or with sex off the table for the duration if that takes the pressure off). It’s a great way to appreciate a partner and how hot they are without, hopefully, feeling that pressure or panic when it comes to initiating or like sex is expected (provided you both communicate this first!).
  2. Intentionally sexy dates. There are so many activities you and your partner can get up to that might open up conversation, help you feel in touch with each other and your sexuality, get you out of your comfort zone safely or sink you deep into a place of comfort, depending. All this is up to you, but this type of activity can include stuff like: taking a sensual bath together, going to the beach in swimwear you find sexy and lying around on towels ogling each other, watching an erotic movie or digging up vintage queer porn, going to a store that sells sex toys or erotica and browsing or shopping, make erotic art of or about each other (this suggestion is very gay), or even attending a kink or sex class together, either in-person or online. This is about grounding yourself in your body but also exploring sexy stuff without an expectation of the actual sex act.
  3. Just plain old romantic stuff! Yes, that’s right! You’ve never been together too long to get past the wooing phase. Plan time to laugh, to have fun, to try new things together that aren’t just new sexy things. Maybe you want to try pottery or watch the sunset somewhere new or go out dancing somewhere you’ve never been — truly, whatever is your speed. Bonus: novel positive experiences can help with trauma.
  4. I also recommend the classic worksheet published by Autostraddle for talking to your partner about sex. It’s a great exercise to go through.

Here are some kinky things you can try:

  1. Brush up on kink basics. Talk about all the little things you want to try and all your boundaries, limits, maybe’s, hard no’s — and also know that these might change over time. Come up with safe words for BOTH of you and establish ways that you can check in with each other during sex that fit into the flow. You can have a check-in word, for example, as simple as saying “okay?” to which the other person either responds with “okay” or “no” or even “I don’t know” to get confirmation that you’re both feeling okay or to see if you need to slow down or pause. It’s important for both you AND your partner to have safe words, because even someone in a topping situation can feel uncomfortable, obviously, and should have just as much of an ability to stop a scene. You can have the same or different safe words, whatever works.
  2. Verbal domination. You can ask your partner to play with you in a scenario where you follow their orders. If you can get into a submissive headspace, it might give you some of that sense of submitting or being ravished that you describe in your fantasies. And, bonus, is that this doesn’t involve any kind of physical tool or restraint — it’s just all verbal and in your head.
  3. A blindfold. You can have sex with just the use of a blindfold. It might be thrilling to not be able to see where your partner is going to touch you, and also, it gives you permission to fantasize because sight is out of the picture and it’s all about your other senses and what’s in your head. Also, using a blindfold by itself without restraint or substances is likely a thing that a partner who is made anxious about things like this might feel more comfortable with trying (discuss first of course!).
  4. Beginner-level restraints. I don’t necessarily recommend starting with rope, especially not if one or both of you might start to feel panicky, but instead with some SOFT fabric or leather padded cuffs that can buckle or velcro and become unbuckled or un-velcroed quickly in the event that either of you wants to stop or take a break. Again, this isn’t the whole scenario you’re imagining, but it’s touching on aspects of it, such as being physically restrained.
  5. Roleplay. You can come up with entire scenarios together that you want to play out. Maybe you want to pretend that your partner’s a boss or other authority figure or a hot stranger or a doctor or a vampire or an alien — you can incorporate costumes and props and settings. You can get elaborate or not. The possibilities are as many and as varied as your imagination!

Some of these things might not be helpful, but I hope I’ve given you enough different starting points to work from. I also hope you can show this to your partner and be like “See! Autostraddle says it’s dissociation, not that I’m not attracted to you.” I also want to finish by saying you may or may not get to a place where you and your partner are comfortable or ready to engage with this specific CNC fantasy, but I hope this answer gives you a range of options to consider, pick, and choose from while on your healing journey and as you two work together on your sexual dynamic (as you both continue work on your trauma). This is so hard, and it’s no easy task, and I’m proud of y’all. Trauma is so fucking tough to deal with, and to deal with in relationships, but you’re moving forward, and that’s awesome. One day at a time! Thank you again for writing in and sending you both so much love!


You can chime in with your advice in the comments andsubmit your own questionsany time.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. This sounds like a great question for a kink-aware sex therapist. Sex therapists are usually MFTs/couples therapists that have expertise in sexual issues, and there are databases of kink-friendly, trauma-informed therapists. Unfortunately they’re not usually covered by insurance and can therefore be inaccessible, but I hope you can talk to someone about it!

  2. I have felt so much shame that I can’t be like those cool, enlightened queers who can have sex while sober and not dissociate, and so this is SO validating. 

    for me personally, I’ve found that I enjoy sex most (or rather the only time I enjoy it at all) when I’m tipsy, in subspace, and it’s in a setting that feels really distant from real life in some way (on vacation or with a new partner). I’ve been a whole “am I asexual??” kick lately but I always come back to the fact I can feel sexual attraction when I’m drunk. 

    I wish I had magical advice for you, but I’m in the thick of it too but I just get to be single and have zero pressure to actually figure it out. I just want to validate how hard you’re working and how you’re Doing All the Right Things and it sucks so much when nothing seems to be shifting. You seem amazing.

    I know a lot of the advice is around how to learn more about trauma and how to engage in different kinds of therapy, but I’m wondering (as someone who personally loves therapy and reading books about trauma!) if this might actually be a situation where hiring a sex worker or pro domme who is experienced in working with people with intoxication kinks might be helpful. No idea if that’s feasible, but might be the most useful expert to consult with. It’s something I’ve personally considered but the process of hiring one seems even more confusing and expensive than finding a good therapist.

    • Thank you so much for this comment and sending you love <3

      This is also a really interesting suggestion as it's definitely something that crossed my mind when reading this queston, but I also know a lot of monogamous people / couples probably wouldn't be open to it — and then there's the whole question in and of itself of finding a pro domme. Going to noodle on this haha.

  3. As someone with similar trauma, this answer felt really helpful and validating to me, thank you! I had somehow never before considered that trauma might resurface more later on in the relationship because we feel safer and more comfortable then, which is what’s always happened for me, so that’s given me an entirely new framework within which to look at/understand my experiences!

    Re therapy, I think generally anything that is not solely talk therapy is more helpful when it comes to trauma – I would also suggest maybe looking into IFS.

    Sending solidarity to the letter writer 🤗

    • C, thank you so much for this kind comment. And yes, I think that depending on the therapist’s experience and areas of focus / expertise, talk therapy has really varied for me in terms of its effectiveness when coping with trauma.

  4. “come as you are” is great, really really good. Though I’m not sure it directly addresses things in the question, it definitely addresses at least adjacent things, so it is worth a read.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!