- Sex conflicts in relationships are often not a problem of mechanics, but rather of past, unresolved grievances.
- Getting specific and coming up with shared definitions is key to communication.
- A continual practice in curiosity will help couples find common erotic ground.
One of my favorite questions to ask new clients is, “What does sex mean to you?” While they’ve surely spent hours and hours thinking about the sex they are having—or not having—they’ve rarely taken time to think about the ways in which sex is important and the meaning it confers.
In partnered relationships, especially those that are long-term, helping people understand their core belief systems around sex is key. Only from that introspective, self-aware foundation can they authentically create the sex life they want by asking for what they need.
One of the most common relational paradoxes a sex therapist manages is that of sex versus intimacy: one partner wants more sex while the other wants more intimacy. Now, of course sex and intimacy can coexist—it’s what most couples desire—but when specific needs around physical and emotional closeness aren’t being met, this divisive line becomes quite pronounced.
What I’ll typically hear from one partner is, “We never have sex,” or “You always say no.” The other partner will assert, “We never talk,” and “All you want is sex.” For example, one person feels like their partner ignores housework, childcare, and romance, yet expects them to be magically turned on and in the mood for sex at all times. The other person feels rejected, unwanted, and taken for granted, and tells themselves they are justified in not giving their partner the relationship they want because they aren’t getting the sex they want.
This becomes a passive-aggressive standoff of dueling belief systems. It is particularly dysfunctional when neither partner will budge form their position until the other does, e.g., “I’ll have sex once I feel cared for,” versus “I’ll take care of you once we have sex.” And around and around they go in an uncoordinated dance of unmet emotional and physical needs.
While it may seem like each partner is asking for something entirely different, they usually aren’t. By exploring the meaning of sex and intimacy (rather than specific acts of them), couples have an opportunity to come into alignment and co-create an erotic space that is equally satisfying.
Most people who crave intimacy are actually craving curiosity and genuine interest from their partner.
Here’s an insider sex therapist secret: Many couples have good or even great sex when they have it; it’s trudging through emotions like sadness, anger, resentment and contempt before taking their clothes off that gets in the way. It’s often not a problem of mechanics, but rather of past, unresolved grievances. Of the four common relational emotions listed above, venerated couples therapists and researchers John and Julie Gottman have determined that resentment and contempt are the most harmful to long-term partnerships. Helping couples understand and move through their resentment or contempt is a necessary first step toward both people cultivating the sex life and relationship they’re longing for.
Okay, but how?
Step One: Define “intimacy” and “sex.”
Intimacy to one person is not intimacy to another, and the same goes for sex. Starting with the latter, it’s important for each partner to understand what’s being asked for when sex is stated as a need. Is it penis-in-vagina, the penetration-based norm for many straight couples? Or, does sex mean oral or anal or simply lying in bed together making out? Part of my job is to help clients create a satisfying and meaningful sex life, which necessitates a sex-positive approach. The way I describe “sex-positive” is: All sex is good sex if it’s consensual and pleasurable. From this position of sex-positivity, couples can communicate more specifically about what they’re asking for when they ask for sex. Most beneficially in this scenario, when the partner who has been avoiding sex and craving intimacy understands the expectations around sex, communication opens up and allows the couple to recreate each experience and therefore disengage from the dysfunctional cycle.
Regarding intimacy, my preferred, easy-to-remember definition is, in to me see. Most people who crave intimacy are actually craving curiosity and genuine interest from their partner. They want to feel known and understood. Yes, sometimes it’s about feeling supported around the home, and perhaps being “courted” and romanced. But it almost never involves grand gestures like expensive presents, dates, or trips. Intimacy for many people can be fulfilled by their partner asking the simple question, “How are you?” and truly caring about the answer.
With a continual practice in curiosity, couples create a unique opportunity to find common erotic ground.
Step Two: Create meaning.
This is one of my favorite questions to ask when digging for meaning around sex and intimacy: If our sex life was perfect, I would _____and then you would feel more ________. The first part of the question attends to sex, the second part, intimacy. Is sex a matter of physiological release? Is it about experiencing physical touch? Is it about feeling sexy and powerful? Is it an expression of love? Does it meet a sensual need? Similarly, is intimacy about feeling loved and cared for? Is it about being seen, accepted, and known? Is it sacred or spiritual in some way? Does intimacy equate to vulnerability and being totally open mindfully, bodily, and soulfully?
In addition to the array of answers above, the response I hear most often—from both partners—is that sex and intimacy are about connection. It just so happens that each person is asking for it in a way the other doesn’t understand. With a continual practice in curiosity, which includes radical inquiry of ourselves and our partners, couples create a unique opportunity to find common erotic ground.
Step Three: Be specific. At this point in your sexual and relational evolution, your partner will better understand how you define sex and intimacy as well as the meaning it confers, but no matter how long you have been together, they still can’t read your mind. Instead of guessing and potentially misreading their cues again, each time you are asking for sex or intimacy, answer these two questions for yourself:
- What do I need to feel?
- How do I want my partner to feel?
There are no wrong answers here! You may need to feel a physiological release and want your partner to enjoy the intense pleasure of a quickie. You may need to feel adored and want your partner to feel powerful. You may need to feel held (so sex actually looks like cuddling) and you want your partner to feel needed. You may want to feel animalistic and want your partner to feel empowered. You may need to feel desired and want your partner to feel appreciated.
Exploring how you feel most connected to your partner is invaluable in increasing sexual and relational satisfaction around the common paradox of sex versus intimacy. By opening up honest, authentic conversation—and setting aside resentment and contempt—you have the opportunity to reimagine a sex life that is, in equal measure, physically and emotionally fulfilling.
Have Your Needs Met
Learn helpful tips to establish healthier communication in the on-demand workshop Couples Communication, led by Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC.