I can't quite get to an orgasm when I'm with my partner.

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Dear Dr. Myrtle,

I can have an orgasm when I'm by myself, but I can’t have an orgasm with my partner. Why is this happening?


The following post goes beyond purely technical issues that might be involved, such as what body parts you have and how you are using them. We're going to look deeper into some issues that can impact arousal capacity during partner intimacy.

Persuasion is the key.

Physiologically, orgasm represents both a neurologic release and a reflex. Importantly, reflexes are, by nature, not something we can consciously control; they are something that happens when enough of the right kind of stimulation happens. In this way, it is better to think of persuading (as in slowly building a fire) rather than making (as in turning on a switch) if someone wants to have more control over having one.

For some, it is impossible to ever coordinate the mind/body process of sexual arousal with enough personally arousing stimulation to trigger the orgasmic reflex. For others, it is easier in certain circumstances (usually alone, in private, at your own pace), while harder in others (high distractions, after drinking alcohol and certain drugs, with partners, etc.). When you are sexual with other people, you don't have the same control and ability to focus without distraction, which makes it harder to build arousal. Understanding this helps ease the expectation that an orgasm is always the outcome of sexual play; it is an option.

I'm all for the persuasion part, but how do I add this to my partner-sex experience?

Being sexual with someone else adds layers of complexity:

  1. Trust and Safety. You have to viscerally trust and feel safe with someone else so close to/inside of your body. Since trust is earned, not given, deep safety with another person is something that the two of you have to build together, and can't be developed by only one person alone. If this is something that is missing, it's all right to stop expecting deep sexual intimacy, and focus on how (or whether) to develop trust together. This is a topic where counselors are so helpful in working through the actual roadblocks (lack of trust) rather than the more apparent roadblocks (inability to let go and orgasm with someone with whom you don't have trust).
  2. Arousal is personal. For awhile, your partner needs to focus on you and what is arousing to you, not what they think you want to feel. Some signs of arousal can be seen (eyes dilating, flushing of the chest, flushing of the genitals), but some can be faked (sounds). The best way for someone to know what's working for you is asking.
  3. Care for your own sexual goals. Your partner isn't ultimately in control of your arousal level, you are. Knowing how to arouse yourself, and what things psychically get into your way with a partner, is something only you can bring to the intimate experience. It isn't their responsibility to make your body work: it's yours. Being shy or not saying what you need is something you can work on in little bits over time, but being present is critical to fully experiencing sexual arousal in the presence of someone else.
  4. Association and dissociation: flexibility is key. Do you dissociate during sexual intimacy? (Some people experience this as not feeling as though they are there, or feeling as though they can't feel parts of their bodies during sexual intimacy.) All of us dissociate from most body sensations most of the time. The question is, can you flexibily choose not to dissociate when you want to, or have you lost the ability and are 'stuck' dissociating? Is this why you can't feel deeper arousal when you are intimate with a partner? Recognition is the first step to working on it.
  5. Gentle Communication Counts. You have the responsibility to let your partner know, gently, what is working, and what isn't working. This is why self-pleasuring is so important: if you don't know what kinds of stimulation works to arouse you, then you can't guide someone else in helping you get there.
  6. Perfect practice makes successful partners. The first time someone is pleasurably sexual with someone else is technically a fluke. The rawness and novelty of being with a new partner are key features of focusing the mind on the here-and-now experience of sexual arousal, and can make some pretty exciting things happen. Making pleasurable sexual experiences happen with the same person repeatedly takes more practice and dedication.You both have to want fulling sexual experiences--for both of you. Those experiences often don't happen exactly at the same time, either, no matter what your romance novelists tell you. Consider taking turns so that you get exactly the type of stimulation you need.
  7. Teamwork. Said another way, sexual experiences with someone else are extreme examples of people working together as a team. As a team member, your partner ideally has control of their own level of arousal, so that their own sexual experience doesn't take them away from focusing on your experience. This goes the same for you. Experienced lovers have the ability to back off of their own arousal and bring their partners to a pleasurable stimulation peak. Although this might seem like a drag (waaaa! I want what I want!), the process of learning how to shift and drive your experience of sexual arousal is very fun, and is well described by tantric sexual practice tips. It can be an enjoyable, lifelong journey.
  8. Sexual arousal takes time. If you and your partner are both engaged in the sexual process, but you only have 20 minutes to spend together uninterrupted, you can always choose to focus only on one person for that time. Just make sure it doesn't get lopsided in who receives the pleasure. Alternatively, try something completely arousing: sit in different corners of the same room (or bed), and watch each other pleasure themselves. (Some couples think this is the hardest thing to do--so much easier to just turn off the lights and close the eyes.) Yowza: it's a high turn-on to watch someone you care about arousing themselves.
  9. Sometimes it is easier to be orgasmic with strangers than someone you know well. Ouch! Why is that? The very fact that you know someone well--that your body and mind recognize as safe--makes the experience more meaningful and less unique both at the same time. This removes some of that component of novelty (which can boost arousal and focus), but also invites some of the distracting grudges or lack of trust that are arousal killers. There are so many reasons to choose to be intimate with another person, and frankly, high orgasmic experience isn't always at the top of the list. Building on your relationship, and seeking out opportunities to explore and experiment (sexual or nonsexual) can bring the beautiful connection between high arousal and trust together for both of you.
  10. Unwanted pain kills sexual arousal. Unwanted pain during something that is supposed to be  safe and sexually pleasurable diverts sexual arousal into fear and escape arousal. Pain shifts the body back to trying to understand why something is hurting you, and the experience runs so deeply into your psyche, you can't just wish it wasn't painful. Stop what you're doing (gently tell your partner), and investigate why you're experiencing pain. If you continue, your body may well react negatively to the next experiences of sexual arousal as the trigger that more pain is about to happen. This can become a difficult connection to unwrap (sexual arousal triggers pain avoidance), so you are better off recognizing the problem and preventing it from happening together.

This is pretty deep stuff. Take time to think about whether and how these ideas may help you work towards a higher arousal place with your partner.

Take Care.

Dr. Myrtle