Blame it on the media or the porn industry, but sex is often thought of as a performance—how we look, what we do (and don’t do), the sounds we make—all of it judged by an audience of two: our partners and ourselves. Still, two people can be a tough crowd to please. A “must perform greatly” mindset can be brutal on egos, especially with people who tend toward perfectionism or have an oversensitivity to mistakes. Happily, the solution is simple: cut yourself some slack.
Impossible, you say? An undressed ego feels uncomfortably vulnerable, you say? Remember this: striving for perfect performance in the bedroom—while all intentions may be good—can actually undermine sexual satisfaction, researchers report in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Everyone has his or her own definition of perfect sex: for one person it might be a mind-blowing orgasm; for another it might be not passing gas during the main event. Where perfectionists get into trouble is that “They want to be flawless,” says Joachim Stoeber, Ph.D., head of University of Kent’s School of Psychology. Flawless is good if you’re a brain surgeon or an airline pilot, but when one-on-one, and intimately involved, perfectionists risk some decidedly imperfect side effects to their behavior.
Stoeber and other researchers found that perfectionists who think their partners expect a flawless performance tend to blame themselves for any perceived failing. Those who believe that society in general demands sexual excellence are likely to be pessimistic about future sexual success. And all this gets worse if a partner utters critical words about technique, or if the idea of perfect sex is gleaned from films.
“If you place any kind of expectation on a sexual experience, you are automatically putting yourself in a position to be disappointed,” says Kristen Mark, Ph.D., professor of health promotion at the University of Kentucky. There’s nothing wrong with having high standards, but insisting that every sexual encounter follow some elaborate choreography is counterproductive because it elicits anxiety, Marks says. “And too much anxiety has been shown to inhibit sexual response.”
Part of the solution is to talk about expectations ahead of time, before the clothes come off and the ego is laid bare. Research suggests there’s often a disconnect between perceived and actual expectations between partners. The best place to get clear on this is before you hit the sheets.
For perfectionists who are still unconvinced, remember this: you can satisfy your partner without the perfect music, the perfect 1,200-thread-count sheets, the perfect scented candles, and the path of rose petals leading to the bed. Know that your intention to satisfy is enough, then give your ego the night off. Three’s a crowd anyway.
Calling of St Matthew, by Titian, (ca 1544 – 1546), oil on canvas, Mondadori Portfolio/Getty
Cupids with Venus and Mars, by Carlo Saraceni (ca 1579-1620), De Agostini Picture Library/Getty