“So she thoroughly taught him that one cannot take pleasure without giving pleasure, and that every gesture, every caress, every touch, every glance, every last bit of the body has its secret, which brings happiness to the person who knows how to wake it…” -Herman Hesse
Here is the sad truth about sex in many long-term partnerships; it is either the glue that keeps the relationship strong or the thorn in our side, a source of persistent pain and discord. Endless books and articles substantiate both the frequency and damage of the sexless marriage. Of all the conflicts that come between couples, there is not a more painful or destructive argument than the sexual one; whether stuck in the frustration of who comes first or not at all, on the scorekeeping of who initiates and who rejects more, or lost in the persistent silent erosion of who is or isn’t in the mood. Our sexual arguments not only carry multiple layers of unsaid meaning, but the myriad bad feelings they generate linger long after the yelling is over. This is why sexual incompatibility is often cited as the number one reason people leave their relationships. By taking a closer look at how sexual issues emerge and persist in the lifecycle of relationships, we can learn to locate the emergency exit and begin to heal this most essential element of intimate connection. Having been married and having sex with the same man for over thirty years has given me multiple opportunities to see these breaks from all sides… and yet, here I stand as evidence that sexual breaks can be overcome.
- Sexual Skill Deficit
Initially, sex falls apart innocently. Because many of us have both limited sexual education and language when we launch into our relationships our deficit of sexual know-how easily degenerates into poor sexual self-regard and a battleground of hurt feelings. I remember early in my marriage, how little I understood about my own arousal mechanism and how uncomfortable we both were when it came to using words to describe our sexual preferences. Erroneously, I believed that my partner should just know what kinds of touch felt best or which positions worked for me, when clearly I didn’t know myself. To a certain extent, what we have no language for is not available to us, and so it is not surprising that so many relationships suffer with issues like premature ejaculation and the inability to orgasm. We struggled with this combination of sexual inexperience for more years than I would like to admit, which often created more frustration than our fledgling relationship could hold. It often turned into sexual blaming that made both of us feel impotent and afraid to engage. Living with persistent sexual frustration often evolves into an approach-avoidance game where everyone loses and one or both partners start putting one foot out the door.
- Differing Desire
As time passes and sexual frustration becomes normative and not discussed, our initial sexual skill deficit often becomes complicated by the distractions and joy of building a family and increasingly adult responsibilities. Sexual initiation issues stemming from increasingly different degrees of sexual desire are spurred by lack of sleep, lack of privacy, lack of hormones, lack of babysitters, over stress and more. Typically, the story goes that the male partner is the one who wants sex more and is more frequently rejected, while it is the woman saying no that is controlling the marriage. Having spent too much time on both sides of this fence, mostly what I remember is how remarkably similar the experience of shame, isolation and self-doubt were on both sides. Our sexual arguments often turned mean as our early sexual insecurity is amplified with every sexual rejection. Being consistently turned away sexually and turning your back on your intimate commitments amplifies rejection into every aspect of the relationship. Sexual breakdown at this stage provokes seeking sexual satisfaction elsewhere, whether in the virtual world, in clandestine affairs or with paid sex partners.
- Not in the Mood
Arriving at the moment when the sexual arguments stop entirely and are replaced by a total and persistent lack of interest in sexual intimacy is the beginning of the end. The human sex drive is not built with a hibernation gear and the less touch that is exchanged, the further away we drift. When we give up the will to fight for our sexual lives with our partner, and join the ranks of the sexless, we are releasing our connection to our partner in ways that are often not understood.
Finding your way out of this downward sexual spiral is doable no matter what stage of sexual conflict you find yourself. What helped for us first was both the willingness and dedication to learn more about our own sexual responses. The more confident I became in my own ability to respond sexually, the more I could bring to our intimacy and stop blaming him when it didn’t work. When he wasn’t worried about my wrath, he had time to figure out what helped for him to last longer. During the baby years I usually had to think my way into desire. Rarely did arousal just come to me, but the more I was willing to commit myself to seeking it, the softer life became for both of us when we consistently prioritized took our sexual needs. As I became proficient at finding ways to develop my arousal I was able to throw out the entire idea of being in or waiting for a mood. The more I trusted my capacity to generate a sexual mood, the more that we were able to sync up our sexual desire. Fixing a broken sex life is an interior job first and foremost- no one else can make you want to feel sexy or want to know yourself as a sexual person.