Living a Sexually Fulfilled Life: Lessons From the Dying
I recently ran across a blog post called Regrets of the Dying, written by someone who worked for years in palliative care. The emotions and reflections that arise as one nears the end of life often seem to strip things down to the bare essentials. I think that many of the regrets and final wishes that people tend to express have a lot to offer anyone who wants to live a sexually fulfilled life.
(Note- the following numbered items come from the original post, but the subsequent interpretations are my own.)
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
There’s a lot of pressure on all of us to conform to a fairly narrow model of sexuality. Sure- in the last few decades, sexual practices that used to be almost universally vilified (to the degree that anyone knew about them) have become more accepted. But even though more people are discovering that kink, polyamory, asexuality, anal sex, group sex, etc. are options, there are still plenty of expectations that influence sexual choices.
Speaking up and telling your partner your fantasies and desires requires courage. When you do it, you’re taking the chance that your partner will freak out, get angry, withdraw, shame you, or simply be uninterested. It is an act of bravery to take a chance and hope that your partner will be willing, or even excited, to discover new ways to have sex. It’s not surprising to me that many people end up having affairs or seeing sex workers, convinced that their partners would never do the wild and kinky things that they fantasize about.
Making this even harder is that sexuality changes over time. To paraphrase something I heard Joe Kramer once say, the food you like at 40 isn’t the food you liked at 20, so why should we expect our sexual desires and pleasures to stay the same? So even if you and your partner have already had the “sex talk,” you’re going to need to do it again and again, if you’re in a long-term relationship.
Learning to speak your truth with clarity and compassion, and being brave enough to live your authentic sexuality isn’t easy. But it’s well worth it.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
I talk with a lot of people about sex and I talk with a lot of sex therapists, educators, and coaches about their professional practices. One of the most common complaints that people have about their sex lives is that they’re too tired because they’re working too hard.
One of the holdovers of our pleasure- and sex-negative history in the US is that we often believe that we need to work hard now to reap the rewards later. In other words, if we don’t work hard enough, we don’t deserve to feel good. Granted, there are certainly times when we need to work towards a future goal and set aside the momentary distractions that will keep us from getting there. And that’s not the only way to get through life.
Sometimes, you just have to let the dishes pile up. Or take a little longer to deal with the housecleaning. Or leave work early for a date night. Almost nobody on their deathbed says that they were glad they worked so much. For that matter, a month later, you’re more likely to smile when thinking about the romantic weekend or the hot quickie than getting the budget sorted out or the checkbook balanced.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Another common barrier to sexual connection and fulfillment is that we can’t fully open to another person if we’re hiding our feelings. When we can’t, don’t, or won’t be honest with our partners, we might try to force ourselves to have sex, but it’s often a recipe for disappointment. Therapists often report that couples come to them with a sexual difficulty that disappears once they deal with the anger over money, the stress about work, or the arguments about the kids.
Sometimes, this manifests as a lack of sexual desire or interest. Sometimes, it shows up as erectile difficulties or other challenges. (I don’t call it a dysfunction when it’s your body telling you what your mind refuses to acknowledge. In my opinion, that the way bodies are supposed to work.) Sometimes, it creates boring, passionless, disconnected sex. But whatever the result, when we can’t be authentic with our partners, we miss the opportunity to create deep pleasure and intimacy.
Learning to express emotions takes time, practice, and patience. It can take a leap of faith and it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. But when it does, the payoff is tremendous.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
This is another example of the importance of relationships. Whether they’re sexual or not, relationships need care, attention, energy and time. It’s easy to put them lower on the list of priorities, especially when it already feels like you’re keeping a lot of plates spinning.
And yet, isn’t that what makes life worth it? To know that you have been part of other peoples’ lives? To know that you helped shape their path through the world?
This connects to sexuality because taking care of our sexual relationships is one of the ways that we can create pleasure, joy, happiness, and love. Whether we’re having a one-night stand or a 40-year marriage, tending to the needs of that particular relationship and treating the other person (or other people) as well as we can is much more likely to help us feel fulfilled by our experiences.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
A lot of folks forget (or never knew) that being happy is a choice. Happiness isn’t likely to simply fall into your lap and even if it does, you need to do something to cultivate it. In essence, you have to consent to be happy and you have to work to keep it growing. Happiness is not something you have, it’s something you do.
That doesn’t mean that your intention is enough. I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming people who are unhappy because we never have total control over things and we often end up in situations that are scary, stressful, or hard. But when we develop a practice of happiness, we learn the skills to come back to that place more easily and gracefully. And when we forget that happiness requires a set of skills that we can learn, we hold ourselves back and make ourselves miserable.
I think that this has a lot to do with sexual fulfillment. I often see people settling for less than they could have, whether they don’t know that they have other options or because they believe that they don’t deserve better. If you’re keeping yourself back, if you’re holding onto resentment, if you aren’t letting yourself have the joy and pleasure that is available to you, you can do something about it.
So what does all this mean?
When it all comes down to it, I think it’s important to learn from other people’s experiences. After all, we’re not going to live long enough to learn everything we can from trial-and-error. Looking at what other people have done, their successes and their failures, can make it easier for us. Of course, their wisdom isn’t only applicable to sex, but there is a lot there that we can use to improve our sex lives. And when so many people at the end of their lives say the same things, the smart thing to do is listen to them. Unless you want to be in the same place, saying the same things.