How Can I Help My Partner Feel More Comfortable In Bed?

Eyes that keep avoiding your face. Tense muscles. Stilted conversation. Strained smiles. Guarded posture. A sudden loss of enthusiasm. A sudden spike in irritability. When people are uncomfortable, their behavior changes in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Everyone has bad days, and every couple experiences times when they’re out of sync with each other in the bedroom. But when your partner frequently shows signs of distress whenever you’re trying to set the mood for romance, it’s time to consider the possibility that they might be dealing with unprocessed trauma.

There are many life experiences that can result in people feeling very uncomfortable with physical intimacy and sexual interactions. Problems with intimacy have a reputation for being extra hard to resolve, and this is often due to the fact that people who feel threatened in intimate situations often also feel unable to talk about what’s wrong. When your partner is acting strange and refusing to communicate, where does that leave you? Frustrated, usually. And that frustration often leads to you using a sharp tone of voice, which only reinforces your partner’s fear of explaining themselves. It’s a difficult situation for everyone, but before you toss up your hands in defeat, remember that there is always a way to move forward.

If you’re the frustrated partner of someone who clearly has problems with intimacy, I have good news for you. There are ways that you can help your partner relax and open up to you. If you’re willing to be patient and try some new approaches, it’s very likely that you can help your partner reach the point where he or she can actually enjoy sexual interactions with you. While it can really make your heart ache to see your loved one acting so afraid of you, winning the trust of someone with these kinds of fears is a very rewarding experience.

Common Fears

If your partner gets tense, nervous, or defensive whenever you start moving in for some affectionate cuddles, they are probably dealing with one or more of the following issues:

  • A fear of you touching their body in certain areas.
  • A fear of having to touch your body in certain areas.
  • A fear of having certain parts of their body uncovered or seen.
  • A fear of intercourse.

These kinds of fears can occur in a wide range of intensities: from nervous tension to all out terror. The more upset your partner becomes, the more their mind will focus on whatever upsetting life experiences caused them to be afraid in the first place. These traumatic experiences probably happened long before your partner ever met you, and they probably involved feelings of being trapped, forced, and degraded. Physical violence and physical pain are often elements of experiences that lead to fears of touch and fears of sexual interaction. It’s important for you to understand these principles, because to avoid triggering greater fear in your partner, you need to try to behave in ways that do not include the elements I just listed.

Traumatized minds are stuck in an obsession over certain very upsetting life events. That constant obsessing results in them aggressively looking for similarities between what is happening right now and what happened in the past. The goal here is self-protection: your partner’s mind is trying to get as much warning as possible before another crisis strikes. The challenge is that when humans expect to see something, they start interpreting reality in a very biased way. It’s rather like deciding someone doesn’t like you and then imagining that they are speaking to you in a derogatory tone of voice. They might be speaking to you in a normal voice, but because you have already decided that they have hostile feelings towards you, you are automatically going to assume the worst about them. In the same way, traumatized people expect intimate relations to be a very negative, scary, and perhaps painful experience. Because they go into the experience already convinced that it is going to be awful, they are prone to interpreting what happens in the worst possible way.

You reach up to brush your partner’s face and she flinches as if she expect you to hit her. Because her mind already believes that something bad is about to happen, it instantly interprets your affectionate gesture in the most negative light. After all, a gentle caress and a slap both begin with the same motion: a moving of the hand towards the face. When they are on emergency alert, traumatized minds feel they can’t risk letting their guard down, so they feel assuming the worst is the best way to prepare for disaster.

Creating A Safe Environment

So how do you work with a mind that is determined to think the worst about you? First you need to realize what’s going on: your partner’s mind is panicking that some horrible experience from their is about to reoccur. Second you need to help the mind separate past from present by creating an environment that feels very different than the one in which the trauma happened. Even without knowing what originally happened to traumatize your partner, you can succeed at creating a safe environment by following these steps.

Keep Your Voice Calm

Because angry, loud, and sharp tones of voice often come before physical assault, if you use these tones with your partner, it is very likely that you will escalate their fear to panic levels. Keeping your voice calm, soft, and gentle is essential to helping your partner work with you in these moments.

Let Your Partner Choose the Lighting

When you head into the bedroom for an attempt at romance, invite your partner to set the lighting. Lamp, candles, or darkness? Make sure the candles and lighter are out and ready so they will be easy to set up if your partner wants that option. If your partner likes Christmas lights, those can be hung on the walls using pushpins and they can make a pleasant, soft, colored lighting alternative.

Your partner will feel more comfortable in a room that is lit very differently than the environment in which he or she was originally traumatized. For example, if your partner was raped in a dark bedroom, he’ll feel more comfortable with some form of light. If your partner was assaulted in a bright room, she might prefer darkness or low lighting. Often people with exposure issues prefer dim to no light. Your partner likely has a strong preference on this subject already, and it will probably be a relief to them when you invite them to choose. Also invite them to change the lighting at anytime, and arrange lamps and switches within reach of the bed to make adjustments easier.

Take Sex Off the Agenda

When you don’t know that your partner has issues with bedroom activities, it’s easy to rack up several bad experiences before you realize that there is a serious problem. If you’ve gotten naked in the past only to have things go south, make a point to start the next session off by saying you want everyone to keep their clothes on. Starting back at the beginning is critical to undoing damage that’s already been done, so suggest that you just have some cuddle time without the goal of sex. Also invite your partner to choose where the cuddling happens: on the living room couch, on the bed you share, or somewhere else.

Let Your Partner Choose the Position

Sitting up or lying down? Back to front, side by side, or face to face? There are many ways to be close to each other. Invite your partner to pick the starting position. Invite them to change the position whenever they want. Often in cases of past sexual assault, sitting up feels much safer than lying down.

Let Your Partner Control Your Hands

Trying to guess how a traumatized person wants to be touched is extremely difficult. Get yourself out of the hot seat by inviting your partner to take your hand and show you what kind of touch they like. Pay attention to where your partner puts your hand on their body. Also pay attention to pressure level. Traumatized people often have “no touch zones”: areas of the body that they absolutely do not want to feel your hands on. Casually roaming your hands into one of these zones can trigger instant panic, depending on what level of trauma you’re dealing with. It’s going to help everyone if you focus on keeping your hands within the areas your partner has already indicated are okay. As your partner gets more comfortable with the whole touching experience, they will invite you to touch them in new places.

If your partner is shy about guiding you, here are some common “no touch” zones for sexually traumatized people which you should make a point to avoid until your partner gets more relaxed:

  • The entire pelvic region (front genitals and butt)
  • The inner upper thighs
  • Breasts (for women)
  • The face

The closer you get to a “no touch” zone, the more nervous your partner will be, which is why it’s often best to also avoid:

  • The thighs and the lower back (because they are close to the pelvic)
  • The stomach (because it is close to the pelvic and the breasts)

The best way to expand into these zones is to touch them through a layer of clothing. Save the genital area for last and have your partner control your hand until you understand what kind of touch they like there. For very tense partners, multiple layers of clothing with the bottom layer tucked in will help.

Encourage Clothing

Forget about sexy lingerie–there will be plenty of time for that later on. When you’re working with someone who is afraid of being touched, barriers of material that separate your skin from theirs are going to be extremely helpful. When you want to try a cuddle session, invite your partner to put on as many clothes as they want. Very nervous partners may want to wear multiple layers that cover their limbs as well as their torsos. Some people need to start in something as thick as a snow jacket before they will have any hope of relaxing. Your attitude about layers is going to make a huge difference in how quickly your partner recovers. If your partner comes out wearing a scarf, hat, jacket, and long pants and they still want to add a blanket before they sit down close to you, that indicates you’re dealing with a severe level of trauma. Don’t be discouraged: instead, see it as a big step forward that your partner is responding well to your invitation for them to be more comfortable. Many traumatized people feel like they don’t have permission to ask for what they need. They are often afraid of being mocked or punished if they admit how afraid they are. Your opinion is going to be very important to your partner, and they will put a lot of effort into hiding how upset they are rather than risk losing your respect.

All humans have a core need for affirming physical touch. This means that deep down, your partner wants to get physical with you, they just need help with overcoming major obstacles of fear. By allowing them to pile on as many layers as they need without acting critical, you will help your partner begin to form trust. Trust is critical to your partner being able to talk about their fears with you, and perhaps share things about their background which they’ve been hiding. The more your partner communicates, the easier you can avoid upsetting them, so it’s worth being patient.

Allow Barriers In Bed

People with fears of being touched often dread sharing having to share a bed with someone all night. But sharing a bed is an important part of keeping the emotional bond strong, so before you consider separate beds, try putting a moveable barrier between yourself and your partner at night. A body pillow works well in this situation. Sleeping with a body pillow between you allows you both to still hold hands and exchange some affectionate touches in established safe zones like the arms or the back of the head. You can also have cuddle time first, then move the body pillow between you when it’s time to go to sleep. If a barrier can help your partner learn to relax in your presence, it’s well worth it.

Body pillows can also be very helpful when your partner wants to transition out of wearing pajamas all night. Cuddling together when you’re both naked can be a very comforting and affirming experience, but facing a whole night of anticipating random touches on their naked body can feel mentally exhausting to your partner. Practicing being naked together with a soft barrier between you can be a helpful transition to full body contact.

When you’re working with a barrier, invite your partner to insert and remove the barrier whenever they want. The more patient and gentle you are with your partner, the more bonded they will feel to you, and the more motivated they will be to want to overcome their fears so that they can actually enjoy your touch.

Making Sex Easier

Maybe your partner is alright with cuddling, but they freeze when it comes to having actual intercourse. Once again, there are many things you can do to make things easier. When sex is the goal, have your partner set the lighting and choose the room of the house that they want to make out in. The bedroom is certainly the most comfortable, but if your partner has a history of being sexually assaulted in a bedroom setting, it could be very beneficial to avoid that setting at first.

Once you have a location with sufficient padding so everyone can be comfortable, deciding on a style of intercourse is the next challenge. Don’t just assume your partner is comfortable with being fingered or using sex toys or having oral sex. Ask them what form of sex sounds the most appealing to them, then take your time in having actual intercourse. Always make it okay for your partner to suddenly ask you to stop, and if they do, stop immediately and put a little bit of space between you and them until they emotionally regroup.

If you’re using a bed, keeping everyone covered with sheets and blankets can be very helpful to partners with a fear of being exposed. Another very helpful tool is to remain partially clothed during intercourse. Instead of getting naked and simultaneously exposing every “no touch” zone that your partner has, arrange clothes so that only the necessary areas are uncovered. If your partner is male, he can move his penis through the open fly of soft pajama pants, allowing the rest of his genital area to remain covered. If your partner is female, she can wear a comfortable top, soft pants or nylons, and open crotch underwear that will allow access to her genitals while still giving her a sense of shielding. Again, keeping the whole operation under the cover of a sheet or blanket is a great way to lower stress levels.

How many clothes you should wear depends on how comfortable your partner is with the sensation of touching your bare skin. If you’re under a sheet, your partner might be comfortable with you having no pants on as long as they can touch your torso through a shirt. Sexual assault victims often have an aversion to touching the areas of your body that were assaulted on their bodies, which means your partner will probably feel most comfortable at first only touching you well above the waist.

It’s definitely ideal to transition to skin on skin touch, but this is best done in stages. Start by inviting your partner to slide their hands under your shirt and down inside your pants (while you’re not wearing underwear) so that they can practice touching your skin while you are still clothed. This method makes it easy for your partner to rotate between touching you through clothes and touching you skin to skin. Being able to rotate makes it easier for their minds to get comfortable with the skin-on-skin sensation.

Once your partner invites you to move your hands under their clothes, do so often, always using gentle pressure. It’s much better to slide your hand to new areas than to lift it up and set it down somewhere new. Sliding allows your partner’s mind to easily anticipate where your hand is going next. Lifting can result in alarming surprises.

Remind your partner that they can adjust your hand anytime they want. It’s very good for your partner to practice doing this, so if you accidentally get too close to a “no touch” zone and your partner swiftly corrects you, don’t be discouraged. This gives your partner important practice in drawing boundaries and experiencing control over what happens to their bodies. Sexual assault victims often feel that they have no say over what happens to their bodies, and this is one of the reasons they feel so threatened by being touched. The more your partner experiences having their preferences respected by you, the safer and more confident they will feel. Confidence will reduce fear and help them relax.

Encourage Conversation

As your partner feels safer with you, they will find it easier to talk to you about their fears. To make these loaded yet critical conversations flow easier, here are some helpful tips:

  • Avoid eye contact. Feeling stared at always increases tension in these moments. Lying on top of the bed looking up at the ceiling or lying together back to front will help your partner feel less nervous about saying awkward things.
  • Turn the lights out. Darkness reduces visibility, and many people find it easier to talk about emotional things if their facial expressions can’t be seen. Remember that the kinds of experiences that lead to fears of intimacy are often linked to intense feelings of humiliation, fear, shame, vulnerability, and degradation. No human finds these things easy to discuss in detail.
  • Give quiet, empathetic responses. As your partner shares their feelings, try to see the world through their eyes in that moment. Respond with sympathy, not judgment. Keep your voice soft. Try to recall times in your own life when you felt similar emotions, because that can help you choose wise responses.

When you love someone, it’s very upsetting to find out they were violated or abused in some way. Protective feelings, while well-intentioned, will often sound like anger to your partner, and that can quickly shut them down. Focus on sympathy for your partner in these moments, not on how much you’d like to trash whoever it was that hurt your loved one.

Celebrate Successes

Recovering from this kind of trauma often involves taking two steps forward and one step back. Your attitude is going to be a critical factor in helping your partner progress. With sex constantly being promoted in movies and books as something everyone does all of the time with total ease, it can feel very humiliating to have fears in this area. In real life, the world is full of people who find sexual interactions very distressing, and often those who do the most bragging about how great their sex lives are have severe issues with intimacy. Remember that sex is a private thing between you and your partner. Your sexual activities should not be something you discuss with other people. What happens in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom. Every couple develops their own intimate dance. Sex is not a competition, and what some other couple is or isn’t doing shouldn’t have any bearing on what is happening between you and your partner.

A healthy sexual relationship is one that occurs within the context of a close emotional bond and a relationship that is built on mutual trust and respect. There should never be any force or belittling of each other’s feelings. When we have sex with our partners, we are expressing our love for them in a special, private way. Any progress in this area should be celebrated as a victory for you both.

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