Question: I recently broke up with a man who I am in love with. I'll admit I am insecure about both sexual performance and body image, and to be honest, I am just a self-conscious person in general, and I always second-guess myself. I failed to initiate sex as often as he’d (and I’d) like, and he basically shut down. I tried to communicate with him about what he wanted, but by that time it was too little too late. He is terrible at communicating, so that didn’t help. He broke up with me because lack of chemistry, and I can't stop beating myself up about what I did wrong in the relationship. I don't want it to be something that I carry with me. I want to have an active and healthy sex life, but how do I get past this?
If I had to guess who wrote this question, I could narrow it down to any human who has ever been in a serious relationship. Feelings of insecurity and poor communication are commonly experienced in significant relationships and can easily lead to sexual dissatisfaction. And because of their high frequency, these scenarios provide opportunities for the Dr. Phils of pop psychology to use their exploitative fingers to write books about how you screwed up, which is why I believe the Dr. Phils of the world are about as helpful as a creationist tour guide in a natural history museum.
So let’s breakdown and address all of the components of your question in a more helpful manner. You say you are feeling insecure about your sexual performance, which is a very, very common feeling. So common, in fact, that people who boast the contrary (e.g., “I am the Messiah of sex!”) are labeled as narcissistic douche canoes. We live in a culture that has turned sex into a task with all of us questioning whether we are qualified to get the job done. But sex is not a performance. There are no spectators, judges, or critics evaluating the mastery of every pelvic rotation and nipple lick.
Sex isn’t about goals and earning gold stars; it’s about pleasure. From scalp massages to putting a finger in a butt, there are innumerable behaviors that can produce pleasure. And when the focus moves away from performance-based erections, lubrication, and orgasms, you are free to simply explore your bodies to discover what feels good. Evaluation forms are not necessary.
As for the insecurities about body image, again, this is almost a universal concern. I have yet to meet a person that wasn’t worried about some aspect of their physical appearance, whether it is their height, weight, or degree of scrotal sagging. However, it is highly unlikely that someone would say, “It is physically impossible for me to experience pleasure from someone with breasts smaller than a C-cup.” Conversely, your physical appearance, whether it is weight, perceived size or shape deficiencies of the breasts or genitals, or having a baby arm growing out of your back, will not prevent you from receiving sexual pleasure.
Despite the feelings of insecurity, without having a partner that has the ability to communicate, the relationship is going to struggle to survive. You stated that you attempted to communicate with him about what he wanted, but felt it was too late. This is where it is very important to remind yourself that you were not the only participant in the relationship (although it may have felt that way many times). We are responsible for getting our needs met by articulating them to our partner. Therefore it was your ex-boyfriend’s responsibility to tell you what he wanted, not yours. You were only responsible for sharing your needs. Since we do not possess mind-reading powers, if he wanted to be spanked with a My Little Pony, he needed to say this and not have you guess.
I know my writing style is often flippant, but that is to reduce the pressure associated with this unrealistic expectation we have about sex and relationships. I understand you are distressed by what happened and I empathize, but the responsibility of the relationship’s deterioration should not rest solely on your shoulders and therefore it does not warrant beating yourself up.
You say you are self-conscious, but that can be a good thing. People who lack self-consciousness and awareness are the ones standing way too close to you in line at Chipotle or clipping their fingernails in Starbucks. Use your level of self-awareness to gain insight into what your sexual and relational needs are and practice communicating those needs to future partners. You can even articulate your needs to close friends just to practice verbalizing them. And, of course, a sexuality-competent therapist can always assist you with this difficult task if your friends aren't receptive to listening to your sexual needs during happy hour.
You deserve an active and healthy sex life. By understanding that sex is not a performance, that your body’s physical appearance does not dictate its ability to receive and give pleasure, and that you are responsible for verbalizing your sexual and relational needs, you will be able to fully enjoy those pelvic rotations and nipple licks.
They are not watching you have sex, but if they did, you would earn a perfect score.