The Economy and Your Sex Life

With the threat of a double-dip recession looming, I've been encouraging couples to extend their own personal debt ceilings (so to speak) and start reinvesting in their relationships.

All of the economic turbulence of the past few years has resulted in couples seriously cutting back on things like date nights, babysitters, gifts to each other, short trips and, of course, longer vacations.

Yet for all their thriftiness, couples are more anxious and stressed-out than ever about personal finances, and arguments over money remain one of the leading causes of marital strife. While it may seem counterintuitive to add to your expenses when going through your budget of must-haves and nice-to-haves, I implore you to find a way to put relationship satisfaction at the top of your priority list.

Things like date nights may not seem like necessities, but like trickle-down economics, a strong relationship feeds into personal and professional success. In fact, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, people with healthy sex lives may even do better at work.

And a healthy sex life requires a strong underlying relationship to support it.

Financial stress is also a leading cause of low libido and sexual dysfunction, especially in men. Desire and sexual confidence are rooted in self-esteem, and - maybe it's evolutionary - men derive so much of their sense of self-worth from their jobs and status as providers.

Normally in my practice, I tend to see men who suffer from sex issues that are more chronic than "situational," meaning that the person generally has a long history with the problem and that it has a basis in underlying biological, psychological or relationship issues. But with the volatile ups and downs of the economy, many men are reporting the first-time occurrence of an issue - such as premature ejaculation, erectile disorder, delayed ejaculation and low desire - or that an occasional issue is suddenly becoming an ongoing problem.

When asked to discuss what's going on, almost all of the men cite their anxiety over work (or lack thereof), mounting debt or arguments over money as a main source of their bedroom difficulties. In some cases, these concerns have caused men to go on anti-anxiety medications (which tend to have their own sexual side effects), but more often the men just feel anxious, distracted, depressed and/or have generally lost their mojo.

Sexual dysfunctions are a bit like bedbugs: Once they appear, they're awfully hard to get rid of. Worrying about an issue often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. No wonder a recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that sexual performance anxiety plays a role in male infidelity.

Writes study co-author Robin Milhausen, a professor and sexuality researcher at the University of Guelph, "People might seek out high-risk situations to help them become aroused, or they might choose to have sex with a partner outside of their regular relationship because they feel they have an 'out' if the encounter doesn't go well - they don't have to see them again."

Although this also may sound counterintuitive - wouldn't a guy who suffers from a sexual issue be less likely to cheat? - I've seen this dynamic play out many times, especially when a guy blames his partner for the issue or his feeling about the issue is enmeshed with his relationship.

This same study also suggests that women are more likely to cheat because of relationship issues. When a guy is tuned out, turned off, irritable and critical -- as men often are over money issues - a woman is more likely to develop her own doubts about the relationship. Says Madeleine Castellanos M.D., author of "the Good in Bed Guide to Male Sexual Issues," "The economic downturn has sent lots of men into a funk: Job changes or loss, financial worries, and depression can all add up to a low libido. He may feel like less of a man, no matter how much you tell him that money doesn't matter."

Will money issues lead to infidelity in your relationship? Will they create sexual issues? We can hope not. But in my experience, financial issues are about more than just dollars and cents. Money is about emotions and family history, and just going through a credit card bill can lead to accusations, generalizations, outbursts, lies and ultimatums.

Our government often takes emergency action to create liquidity and protect the economy, and I think people need to do the same to protect their relationships. Call the babysitter and go on a date night; take that weekend getaway - it's worth it.

A double dip-recession doesn't have to mean a dip in your love life, and if you invest in your relationship, the return is virtually guaranteed.

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