“Men and women approach sex very differently. Men make love to feel loved and women need to feel loved to make love.”
– Sheila Wray Gregoire
While interviewing clients about what caused the breakdown of their marriage, I found sex was frequently attributed as the first cause with money a close second. I also found that while there was a gross thought disparity between what men and women wanted from sex and intimacy, both agreed it is more vital to marital happiness than money. I invite you to look at sex and intimacy as the building blocks of a relationship just as proteins are the building block of the body. If there‘s a deficiency of the sex and intimacy in a relationship feelings begin to atrophy just as muscles do when deprived of protein.
It’s ominous to think two trusting souls sign a binding contract to love each other for as long as they live without understanding the fine print that warns at some point what binds them together may someday unravel. What happens in most relationships is a slow unwinding of the tie that binds. It occurs when partners are filled with unruly emotions they don‘t understand and find themselves out of sync and out of sexual desire for each other. A lack of closeness feeds distrust and disagreement, and each failed attempt at reconnection breeds more distance. The couple builds walls when they need a bridge. That bridge is sex and intimacy and the way across it is to understand that what they‘re feeling is emotional starvation.
If you want to reconnect sexually with your partner you have to grasp the fact that you each desire something different from sex and intimacy. Not surprisingly, the research finds when men think about having sex, which according to the Kinsey Institute is several times a day, they fantasize about their penis being touched, fondled, or sucked. When there is a reluctance by their partner to engage this way, men reported feeling detached from their partner and although they may have orgasm, they felt sexually unfulfilled. On the other hand, women preferred being caressed at the nape of the neck or having her throat softly kissed before any desire to be touched in the clitoris, vaginal, or perineum area. When a woman‘s sexual partner is not sensitive to what she needs for an orgasm and her partner is focused solely on the act of intercourse, women report they feel violated and unloved. “My husband repeatedly rushes to the finish line without me,” is an often heard complaint followed by expressions of resentment and disinterest in sex causing stress.
Stress kills sexual desire, and a loss of sexual desire shadows the relationship causing more stress. From an evolutionary perspective the body did not want to bring a baby into a hostile environment as this reduced the baby’s chance for survival, so the body suppressed sex hormones and triggered the hormone cortisol’s production, the sex numbing hormone. Studies at the University of Nebraska‘s Center for Brian, Biology and Behavior also linked increased cortisol levels with leading a person to have a more pessimistic view of the world and misperceiving other people‘s social cues. These findings add to the growing body of research that relate stress with depression and anxiety disorders and cortisol to communication apprehension and lack of sexual desire.
Since communication is the most important essential emotional nutrient as discussed in the first blog an inability to communicate your feelings to your partner hastens the decline of the sexual relationship. Now that I‘ve crushed all romantic beliefs that you and your lover will always want to “get it on” no matter what, I‘d like to share some insight into how to prevent your relationship from being destroyed by the changes that occur in every marriage.
Step # 1: Evaluate your inherent belief about sex.
Do you believe in sexual growth or sexual chemically induced destiny?
If you believe in chemically induced sexual destiny, and become disappointed with your sexual life, you‘ll blame the person you thought was your soul mate as turning out to be a dud. Your response to the natural changes that occur in ever sexual relationship is to look for your true “soulmate” elsewhere. No doubt if this is your core belief you will have sequential sexual partners and may end up forever disappointed since marriage is not about finding the right person, it‘s about being the right person.
If you believe sexual intimacy takes work to grow “you‘ll have to talk about sex not just have it.” How do you start that conversation? Relationship researchers recommend beginning with the three F‘s: feelings, frequency, and fantasy.
Step #2: Starting the conversation about feelings
Begin with feelings. “Uhm, can we carve out some time to talk about something I need to discuss with you?” You have to learn to be an “askhole” and let your partner know that you desire them and feel stress is getting in the way. Ask them how they need to feel to be in the mood to have sex. It would make complete sense that you would talk to your partner about sex since it‘s the only way you‘ll get the advice you need to change things, but for many our puritanical society has imposed a sense of taboo of disgust around it.
To help you get over this obstacle consider that in true intimacy we lower the level of what we consider disgusting. A prime example is someone else‘s tongue in your mouth is a sign of intimacy but can also be a disgusting experience if it‘s forced upon you by a stranger or ex-romantic partner. When you have consensual sex you are transgressing the disgust-defended boundaries that are obstacles to intimacy with others. By asking your partner to talk about whether they need to feel to be in the mood and acknowledging that neither of you are coming home from work wanting to “get it on” before dinner gets on the table, the kids get fed, or the dog is walked recognizes we’re not light switches. Do they need to feel relaxed, feel loved and what do they need to feel loved?
Step #3: Finding the right frequency
Once again you have to be an “askhole”. There‘s no way you can become sexually compatible unless you know how often in an ideal world your partner would like to have sex. It‘s no different than finding out what they like to eat. How are you going to serve them food without knowing what they like, how much, and how often to serve it. Note the food metaphor.
If your partner stonewalls you and doesn‘t want to talk about sex you need to remind them that suspending disgust is a sign of intimacy and is a mark of personal commitment and a measure of love. Ask what message you‘re supposed to take from their reluctance. Remember psychologist John Gottman‘s research and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse? Stonewalling (withdrawal) means the future of your relationship is bleak.
As I‘ve stated before if you feel like you‘re in McDonalds banging on the counter demanding steak, you have two choices: learn to love hamburger or find a restaurant that serves steak. I believe in love and want you to have a long relationship, but I want it to be a fulfilling one and not mired in unhappiness for you both.
Step #4: Being frank about your fantasies
Even if you are successful at suspending disgust and get to this step of discussing fantasies, neither of you is probably going to tell every detail and will hold something back that‘s normal. Nothing wrong with that, but you can describe what‘s at the core feeling associated with your fantasy. For example, is it the thrill, is it the novelty, is it being wanted, is it the risk?
Step #5: Before you begin
Now that you know about the three F‘s think about what yours are. Write them down practice what you‘ll say and be prepared for some pushback. Sex is only one kind of boundary crossing involving nakedness. Laying bear your soul is an intense intimacy that involves sharing and revealing doubts, worries, concerns confessing short comings and revealing aspirations. It‘s letting someone with whom you share the privilege of love to see you in ways that may shame you and disgust others without the intervention of love.
Lessons of Long-Term Sexual Intimacy
If you and your partner make it to middle age you‘ll share the joys of menopause and what I call “testapause” for men. The symptoms for women linked to the decreased production of estrogen and progesterone are hot flashes, trouble sleeping, pain during sex, moodiness, irritability, depression, or a combination of these symptoms. They are directly related to the cessation of ovulation that occurs with most women between 45 and 55 and can last up to seven years or longer.
For men testapause is linked to low testosterone as the testes (testicles) gradually reduce the production of testosterone. Although this decline begins after age 30 most men begin to feel the effects of low testosterone after 45. While the symptoms of low testosterone depend on the age and physical health of the individual many men share the same symptoms which include, low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, decreased sense of well-being, depression, difficulties with concentration, fatigue, moodiness, and irritability.
Often people think about divorce during this transitional time blaming their spouse for “letting themself go”, “being too tired for sex”, “not wanting to do the housework”, “he/she doesn’t make me happy”, you get the idea, or maybe you could give your own example. When you take a history from the client you learn that both have full time jobs and most of the housework is done by one spouse, as is the food buying and preparation, as well as responsibilities for the kids. Not surprisingly it‘s usually that spouse who‘s attributed the offending behavior.
The reality is no marriage is going to survive unless both parties are in it together and I mean together. When one spouse has been responsible for taking care of everyone and everything else, always putting themselves last on the list, is it any wonder they have very little left to give, even to themselves? This is especially true if their vitality has been sucked out of them by the time they hit menopause or testapause which are metabolic interrupters.
During menopause and testapause, the body begins to use energy differently, fat cells change, and both men and women may gain weight more easily. Both may experience changes in their health, body shape and composition, physical and mental function. What most couples fail to recognize is these changes are linked to an inevitable property of all cellular life, aging. And “until death do us part” may seem a prison sentence that with enough money for a divorce can set themselves free.
Don‘t get me wrong, there are late in life marriages referred to as “grey divorces” (their hair) that should have ended much sooner than they did because of the toxic nature of them, but there were an equal number of marriages that broke up because the couple didn‘t understand what the other spouse was going through. My goal in writing this book is to shed some light on the “askhole” aspect of marriage that have saved some marriages.
The time to be an “askhole” is when you first have that feeling that something between you isn‘t right. Let me tell you something, you can take to the bank, if you feel that way your partner does as well. When you notice the night sweats, don‘t just change the sheets, change your mindset. Ask, “What are feeling? Is it menopause? Is it testapause? What can I do to make you feel better?” The secret the thousands of couples I‘ve asked the question, “How did you stay together all these years?” and “What‘s the secret to a happy marriage?” the answer was always the same, “I treated her/him the way I wanted to be treated”.
A love relationship ebbs and flows. It fills you up and hollows you out. If you assume that once you‘re married you can kind of relax and take the relationship for granted and stop talking to your partner about what you hunger for, you‘ll end up talking to a divorce lawyer.