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Advice – My girlfriend gets aroused when stressed.

To sum it up, stress makes my girlfriend horny. This could be work stress, family stress, or studying for finals. Now usually I don’t mind this at all, right? We’ve been together about 2 years.

Well, we’ve hit some bumps in our relationship lately and we’ve been having some pivotal conversations about where the relationship is headed, what we’re realistically going to be, what we want in the short and long term. It’s not like we’re breaking up, but it’s a possibility; and it has made both of us feel pressure and stress as we work through it.

The issue with the stress is that it makes her want to get it on really frequently. I mean, REALLY frequently. Four or five times a day, and usually she wants to have sex right after a tense conversation. But, I’m the exact opposite of her. Stress kills my libido, and after a hard conversation I don’t mind laying down with her but literally the last thing on my mind is having sex.

This difference is creating a new level of issues during the hard time we’ve hit because she feels like I’m pulling away or don’t find her attractive or like I actually want to end things, despite the whole conversation we just had where I said I wanted to be with her. I’ve tried to explain that the stress is shutting me off, and she says she understands, but it’s clear she is still feeling hurt about it.

Any advice on what we, or I, should do?

Anonymous, Reddit.

Dear Anonymous,

Think of your sexual “drive” as composed of two different parts – an accelerator and a brake. Some people have really sensitive sexual accelerators – Sexual Excitation System (SES) – while others have insensitive accelerators that require a lot more to be activated. In short, the accelerator is reflective how fast you get turned on by your turn ons. An example of someone with a really sensitive accelerator is a person who gets aroused very easily with minimal input. Sexual accelerator operates under a completely independent spectrum than a sexual brake – Sexual Inhibition System (SIS). In short, the brake is reflective of how fast you get turned off by your turn offs. So an example with someone with a really insensitive brake is a person who doesn’t get turned off by something that might turn others off.

Our goal here is to “turn off the offs” and “turn on the ons”. We do that by identifying what our ons and offs are, communicating the essential expectations, and then managing the contexts around our ons and offs.

So first let’s parse your situation into to different parts: one for you and another for your girlfriend. This will help us identify what are your and your girlfriend’s turn ons and offs. After we discuss each of your perspectives, then we will talk about what you can both do to have a more fulfilling sex life together by adjusting the context around your ons and offs.

Let’s first talk about your headspace around arousal.

According to the dual control model, arousal is really two processes: activating the accelerator and deactivating the brakes … [I]t’s also a product of how sensitive your brakes and accelerators are to that stimulation.

Dr. Emily Nagoski, Come As You Are.

Based on what you have shared, it sounds like stress – particularly relationship stress – presses on your sexual brakes. That is a very common response to stress. Even if the actual status of your relationship is not in jeopardy, the sense of attachment in your relationship certainly could be. So when your brakes get inevitably hit, your body needs more time to acknowledge that this is still a safe connection that you can be erotically vulnerable with through intimacy. That does not happen on its own. You need time to heal and recuperate before you can turn off the offs – the relationship conflict points.

You said that your girlfriend’s behavior hasn’t been a problem for you in the past. I wonder if that is because the conflict itself didn’t pertain to you or if it was because the NRE overshadowed the brakes that were already being pressed. Has this been an issue in your previous relationships where you felt turned off immediately following a heated discussion with your partners?

This problem gets further exacerbated when your girlfriend keeps initiating sex even though you are not yet aroused. For you, this means that your sexual brake remains pressed, as a new iteration of the ongoing relationship stress. That is a problem. And one that perpetuates the existing set of issues.

So what does this mean for you?

You need a basis and a foundation of trust and safety in order to be aroused. Being rushed or pressured is not going to work for you because it is going to add to the stress that you already feel about your relationship. Even if the stressors are justified, well-intentioned, and on their way to resolution, there needs to be more of a space between the stress-inducing experience (like heavy discussions about the state of your relationship) and the erotic reconnection.

Now let’s talk about your girlfriend’s headspace around arousal.

Physiologically, anger and arousal have a lot in common. Psychologically, too. In your case, I think the anger emboldens you. It relieves you of compliance, and leaves you feeling more entitled. Anger highlights separateness and is a counterpoint to dependence; this is why it can so powerfully stoke desire. It gives you the distance you need. As a habit it can be problematic, but there’s no denying that it’s a powerful stimulant.

Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity.

I have two theories on what your girlfriend’s erotic headspace is like. And they’re not mutually exclusive.

The first possibility is that she has a very insensitive brake that allows for her to overlook the relationship conflicts in her arousal. In this possibility, her state of arousal is unaffected (or less than affected) by the stressors surrounding her personal life. This might be the case with your girlfriend if her normal libido maintains through times of conflicts as well as times of happiness.

The other and more likely possibility is that she has a very sensitive accelerator that allows her to get aroused with ease with her innately spontaneous sexual desire. In this possibility, her arousal is an outward manifestation of her stress mitigation effort. This arousal can come from a couple different places. Maybe she is able to switch gears really fast and easily tap into her fountain of spontaneous desire for sex with you. Maybe her arousability is a reflection of self-value affirming practice. Maybe her sense of stress is the heavy foot on that rests on her accelerator.

And the issue is not with any of those rationale. Her sexuality and desire is just as valid as your sexuality and desire. The issue is in how that conflict is resolved (or not resolved).

We also have additional data points to consider. When you communicate your current disinterest in sex, it sounds like her responses to this rejection is also layered. Whether she fears her own attraction or the stability in her relationship with you, the meta-feelings that she has about the rejection also shines a light on what she feels the most insecure about. Even though the rejection had nothing to do with her, her internal narrative around rejection unfortunately rewrites your stated intentions and desire for her. That is not only painful for her to feel through, but also difficult for you to overwrite her internal rewriting. And this in turn brings your caretaking to the forefront, which is also not conducive to an erotic mindframe for you. For her, her reaction might come from a complicated but powerful concoction of her sexual upbringing, self-criticism, and relationship doubt. Her feelings are just as valid and real as yours.

Now that we’ve touched on each of your perspectives, let’s do a deeper dive on how to bring both of you together.

When we feel distressed, our attachment object is our safe haven. Even – or perhaps especially – if our attachment object is the source of our distress.

Dr. Emily Nagoski, Come As You Are.

So far, we’ve covered that your erotic headspace and your arousal cues might be very different from your girlfriend’s erotic headspace and her arousal cues. That is normal. You two have led completely different lives before you met each other. Also, you each contend with completely different social conditioning around your gender and sexuality. Our goal here isn’t to bring the other completely over to one side. Instead, we should aim to understand where you are each standing, find out what makes each of you feel safe & supported, and settle on a happy medium where neither of you are dealing with a crisis of faith in your relationship.

For you, your goal is to turn off your turn offs. I think it would be beneficial to communicate your headspace and the meta-feelings around your relationship conflict points. This will create space for her to also relate with you about her own headspace and her meta-feelings about the recent stressors. Then reflect on what you need to feel safe to engage in intimacy with your partner. That can look like a soft verbal reaffirmation that she is just. as committed to work through this with you. It can also look like a long, intimate cuddle to start physically reconnecting before sex even comes into play. Or it might look like her giving you five minutes on your own to process your feelings and meta-feelings about the heavy discussion you two just had. Whatever it is, be courageous and reassure her that you are not abandoning her and that you also want to keep working on this relationship with her.

For her, she’ll also need to come up with a way to interrupt her negative feedback cycle upon rejection. The knives that she wields are sharp and context-dependent. If she has to leave you alone for sometime while you recuperate, it’s going to feel exactly like the wrong thing to do. That just isn’t how her attachment muscle is set up. But consistently doing so even if for five minutes will allow her to build trust that you will keep coming back, that you are going to keep choosing her. And that five minute break will help you switch your mental gears and get back into your erotic headspace with the person you’ve been working so hard to maintain a relationship with.

For both of you, it might be mutually beneficial to look to what intimacy really means for both of you. Eroticism and intimacy goes far beyond just the act of penetrative intercourse. A skin-to-skin cuddle can be just as erotically charging as PIV in the right context.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

I want to hear your thoughts and feedback! Please feel free to send me your questions and comments at teatimetomato@gmail.com. If you liked my advice for this post, please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. You can also subscribe below to get alerted when my next advice column is published!

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