“Sex is always about emotions. Good sex is about free emotions; bad sex is about blocked emotions.” Deepak Chopra
Here is the sad truth about the sex lives in many long-term partnerships: often it is either the glue that keeps the relationship strong or the thorn in its 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 no more painful and destructive injury than that of sexual rejection. Whether the conversation gets stuck in the frustration of who comes first or not at all, or in the score keeping of who initiates and who rejects more, or lost in the persistent silent erosion of who isn’t in the mood matters little. What we often don’t get about the sexual conflicts that pervade our relationship is that they often carry multiple layers of unspoken meaning, packed with a range of negative feelings that linger long after. This is why sexual incompatibility is often cited as the number one reason people leave their relationships. Yet taking a closer look at how sexual issues emerge and persist in the life cycle of relationships, offers a fresh perspective on what else is going on and how to begin to heal this most essential element of intimate connection.
Sexual skill deficit
Often sexual lives fall apart innocently. Because many of us have both limited sexual education and language to express our sexual needs when we begin our relationships, the deficit of sexual know how catches up to us over time and can degenerate into low sexual self esteem 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 many of the same common sexual dysfunction issues like pain with sex, no libido, 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.
As time passes and sexual frustration becomes normative and not discussed, our initial sexual skill deficit becomes complicated by growing a family and the many increasing adult responsibilities that go with it. Sexual initiation issues stemming from increasingly different degrees of sexual desire are spurred by lack of sleep, lack of privacy, lacking hormones, lacking babysitters, over stressed… the list is endless. Typically the story goes that the male partner is the one who wants sex more and is more frequently rejected, and the woman who is saying no is controlling the marriage. Having spent time on both sides of this fence, mostly what I remember is how remarkably similar the experience of shame, isolation and self-doubt was 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, 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 damaging to all parts of the relationship.
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 was both the willingness and dedication to learn more about our own sexual response. 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. As I became more proficient at finding ways to engage my arousal, I stopped believing there was a “mood” to find. The more I trusted my capacity to generate a sexual mood, the more that we were able to sync up our sexual desire. When he stopped worrying about my anger, he had time to figure out what helped for him to last longer. During the baby years I often had to think my way into desire. It never just came to me, but it was easier and easier to remember how much softer life was for everyone when we took care of our sexual needs first.