My last entry talked about sex and the benefits it has for relationships. A common problem couples run into is differing sex drives, which fluctuate over time. Your sex life is often a barometer of the overall health of your relationship. Sex is supposed to help build and maintain the bond between a couple, but it can also become an “issue” and a source of conflict in a relationship. In this entry I want to focus on when sex does become a source of conflict, and what you can do.
Types of Sex
First I want to look at two different types of sex. And no, I’m not talking about positions or anything like that. What I’m referring to is sex as just the physical act (or physical release) vs. sex as a form of communication and connection. Sometimes I’ve seen this distinction referred to as sex vs. making love. The act may be largely the same, but there is a difference emotionally and in terms of connection.
Last spring I was at the Zoo watching the monkeys (ah monkeys, they never cease to make me smile). Anyhow, a female monkey was walking along casually when another ran up and… um… shall we say “took her” from behind. Yeah it’s nature, but it was still a bit disconcerting to have it happen right in front of you. What I saw definitely wouldn’t have qualified as making love, or intimate sex. I have my doubts there was any connection there (especially when the female had no idea what was going on until it happened).
Something like a one night stand is really only the physical act. It’s not quite the same as the monkeys, but although it may feel passionate the only connection happening there is aided by hormones (and likely alcohol). Truly making love requires trust and openness, which can only really develop in a fairly committed relationship over time.
In a committed relationship there is place for both types of sex. Sex for physical release is fine, and can be great as a stress reliever. But it needs to be balanced with the more intimate form of sex or sex can become a source of resentment in a relationship.
What is the Real Problem?
Back to sexual issues in a relationship, one of the most important things to keep in mind is:
Sexual issues are rarely about sex
Sex is a form of communication. It’s a physical manifestation of the love, caring and compassion that you share for one another. If there are any underlying issues in your relationship, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s a bit of a breakdown in caring and compassion. When this happens the openness required for meaningful sex is likely missing (or at least somewhat hampered). You may or may not still be having sex, but without the emotional connection sex becomes purely the physical act.
If there is tension in the relationship, chances are you already know it. If that’s the case you probably shouldn’t be shocked if the sexual side of the relationship has broken down somewhat. Maybe, just maybe you would be better of focusing on the actual issues instead of the sexual ones. Even showing that you recognize that there are issues and you are interested in working on them can go a long way to restoring the closeness required for sex.
Lets imagine for a moment that your relationships IS in a good state. Maybe there are a few disagreements here and there, but there’s no real underlying tension. If this is the case, but you are still unhappy sexually then there are a few things to think about…
Intimacy vs. Sex
The first thing to do is ask yourself what sex really means to you. This is a personal question, and the answers will be different for everyone.
For instance, guys and girls seem to have some pretty different thoughts around sex. Here’s an awesome video illustrating some of these differences. Yeah, it’s an exaggeration (but it’s still pretty damn funny).
Where many people (mostly guys) get themselves in trouble is that they equate intimacy with sex. I’ve actually talked to buddies who use the words interchangeably, and I can tell from the context of the conversation that they REALLY don’t get that there’s a difference.
It’s possible to have sex with no intimacy at all, at which point it’s been reduced to the physical act. Sex the physical act is a biological urge. It’s a characteristic we share with any other animal (like the monkey from the zoo) It’s still pleasurable because of all the nerve endings and stuff, but it is not the same as sex in the context of intimacy.
So what is intimacy? I’m sure everyone has their own thought on it, but here’s my take:
Intimacy is about connection. It’s emotional, physical, and even spiritual. Sex is a form of intimacy, but it’s not intimacy. Intimacy is the little things – the touches, the smiles, and the shared looks. Intimacy is feeling loved, feeling valued, and giving that in return. Intimacy is opening up to each other, sharing hopes and dreams, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person. Intimacy is about openness.
Sex in the context of intimacy is the deepest form of sharing a couple can have. You are literally giving yourself to your partner, and symbolically the two of you have joined as one. It needs to be as much about what you give as it is about what you receive.
Can you have intimacy without sex? Of course. I believe that most of your intimate contact is non-sexual. Hugging, holding hands, non-sexual touch. These little signs of affection are forms of communication and intimacy.
If your only intimate contact with your spouse results in sex, then you’ve probably got a problem. Can you have an intimate relationship without EVER having sex? Technically yes, but I would say no. Sex is a form of expression and it is an important part of an intimate relationship. It is a physical manifestation of love, caring and compassion. There may be medical reasons why it’s difficult. But short of that if you are in a long term relationship without intimate sex that’s probably a sign of underlying issues.
Sex in the Media
Another reason you may be unhappy sexually is unrealistic expectations.
Guys are the ones who supposedly have these crazy out of control sex drives, but look at the way sex is portrayed for women!!! Look at the cover of pretty much any “womens” magazine in the grocery aisle. Headlines like “20 positions to drive him wild”, “men’s sex secrets – can you handle the truth” and “sexier sex tonight” are all over the covers. Sexier sex tonight? Really? Who writes this stuff? And yes, those titles came from real magazine covers.
Look at many of the prime-time TV dramas, and most of them involve people falling in love (or lust) and having sex. If you watch a few seasons of many of these shows they are a case of musical beds. Pretty much everyone sleeps with everyone else at one point in time or another. Then there’s the whole romance novel genre that is geared towards female readers, where there is lust, intrigue and everyone always orgasms at the exact same time.
I understand that the entertainment industry is a form of escapism, but just as all the billboards of Victoria Secret type models aren’t positive for a woman’s sense of body image, the way sex is portrayed in the media will make most people feel they don’t measure up.
What is Normal?
A big question many people ask themselves is, what is normal? Am I normal? How does my sex life compare to everyone else’s? If you try comparing yourself to what you see in media (TV, movies, books, etc) you’re in for disappointment. I talked a bit about this in a prior post, but most people seem to believe that everyone else has a better situation than their own, so we feel like we are somehow lacking by comparison.
You can’t even trust the “experts”. If you do a web search, you will likely find sex therapists saying that most couples have sex once or twice a week. Some people probably look at that and think “oh man, twice a week? I would be happy with twice a month!!!” Others may think “twice a week? Yeah, maybe if we only see each other one day that week.”
Honestly there is no normal. How new is your relationship? How old are you? Do you have kids? If so, how old are the kids? What’s your job situation? How is your general health? There are countless factors that can influence your sex life. Trying to compare your sex life to someone else’s or trying to figure out if you are “normal” is an exercise in futility. All you are likely to do is make yourself even more self conscious and frustrated.
What’s really important is how happy are you with it. How happy is your spouse with it? Is it a source of conflict in your relationship? If it’s not a source of conflict, then it’s probably normal for you. If it is, how do you deal with it?
If your sex life is a source of conflict, the best thing you can do is talk about it and get it out in the open. The taboo nature of sex makes it difficult to talk about it, and we need to get past that. If you are in a committed relationship with someone then this is one of many conversations you should be having.
If you’ve never talked about sex beyond “want to have it now?”, maybe it’s a good time to do so. Coming to a common understanding sexually is something that can only enhance your relationship. Try to be understanding of each other and don’t be critical or defensive.
Maybe your issue is just boredom with the same routines all the time. There’s a good chance each of you have fantasies, so share them. If you can’t share them with the person you are (hopefully) imagining acting them out with, who can you share them with? Everyone has boundaries on what they are comfortable with, but as long as something doesn’t cross those boundaries be willing to try anything at least once.
If nothing else, make time for your sexuality. If it is something you have let fall by the wayside, make it a priority again.
Nowhere else to turn
For the person with the lower sex drive, keep in mind that this is the one facet of a relationship your partner can’t share with anyone else.
If you aren’t interested in a movie your partner wants to see, no problem, you can go with a friend. But when it comes to sex? You can’t really call up a buddy and say “hey, my husband/wife doesn’t want to have sex with me tonight, so are you up for it?” Well I guess you could, but it probably wouldn’t be received very well. And it could make for some serious awkwardness if it is. Realistically, options are limited to the right hand, the left hand, or some form of battery powered device. In the long term none of those are overly appealing choices.
I’m a firm believer in marriage and in commitment. But long “dry spells” can put serious strain on a relationship. I don’t ever condone cheating, but sex is a basic need for most people and without it people can start to get restless. I don’t believe it’s possible to have a strong relationship unless there is at least some satisfaction for both sides sexually.
For the person with the higher sex drive, the worst thing you can do is make the other person feel guilty. If you guilt the other person into sex, this WILL backfire on you. The other person won’t be engaged, and you are laying the groundwork for resentment. Sex is supposed to build connection, not break it down.
Sex can be a great stress reliever, but it requires a feeling of connection up front. It can be difficult to feel “up to it” when someone is highly stressed. Ask yourself what you can do to reduce stress for your partner (and this shouldn’t just be done with sex as a hoped for outcome). Help out wherever you can.
Keep in mind that sex is only one form of intimacy. It’s important, but you should be able to enjoy all forms of intimacy in the relationship. Intimate contact doesn’t always have to result in sex, and if you are pushing for that you are probably building resentment about sex.
Finding a Balance
People have different sex drives, and they vary over time. In a long term relationship there will be times that are better than others.
Whether you are happy with your sex life or it has become a source of conflict in your relationship, it’s something you should talk about. Discuss your hopes and expectations. And be prepared to adjust them somewhat if there is a gap.
It’s not fair for the person with the higher sex drive to expect their partner to reciprocate whenever they want. But it’s also not fair for the person with the lower drive to expect sex to only happen when they want it.
Sex is supposed to enhance your relationship and both build and maintain connection. Try to be understanding of each other, as a satisfied sex life will make the relationship better for both partners.