Too many unmarried people share the fantasy that when they find the right person and commit, sex will forevermore be perfect. Alas, that’s a fairy tale, as is the opposite expectation, that it all goes downhill soon after the honeymoon.
What’s really going on? Can you find yourself in a terrific relationship and yet have differing sexual expectations and styles? And what can you do about that? Let’s examine a couple of common issues couples face:
Who Rejects Whom?
So here you are, happily coupled, having had a busy day of work and responsibilities, and now it’s time for a little loving playtime. But wait a minute: He’d rather play his favorite online game “for a little while,” or shop Amazon for a new camera—after all, he's gotta keep up with these things, right? Or maybe it’s you who begs off—you’d like nothing more than to curl up with a romantic read (sometimes the fantasy is all you have energy for).
And maybe there’s really no problem here: Sometimes your reluctance to get sensual is mutual. After all, once you’re a committed couple, you can do it anytime you want—what’s the hurry?
But what if you’re in the mood and he isn’t, or vice versa, too often?
When one partner is the more consistent initiator, the other can be the gatekeeper. The initiator risks getting a negative response, which can be a ho-hum experience or a crushing blow. It seems natural that the partner with the higher sex drive would be the initiator, but in reality that’s not automatic. And most of us feel less attractive when it hasn’t occurred to our mates to make an overture for a while.
When I was researching the lives of long-married and unusually happy couples for my book, Loving in Flow, I asked about their satisfaction with their sex lives. One woman explained how the above scenario plays out in her marriage: “I have a higher sex drive than my husband does. But even if he doesn’t feel like it, he’ll often accommodate me.” When she talked about their intimate life, it sounded so resolved. But it wasn’t always that way, she admitted. Negotiating their different drives had been the toughest compromise they faced as a couple:
"I had to learn to be assertive and learn that he’s happy to take care of me, and comfortable with that. And I think he had to learn that I don’t judge him because he’s not where I’m at sexually. That took a while, since when we met, we were teenagers and hot like monkeys."
When this husband was feeling stressed at work or otherwise bothered or preoccupied, he wasn’t interested in frolicking. But even though he was clear about that with his wife, it wasn’t easy for her to adjust to the idea that his libido is tied to his emotions. “I really had to realize that it’s not about me,” she explained, “that it doesn’t mean I’m overweight.”
The Clash of Styles
I knew a woman who fretted over her husband’s passivity in bed: “He has no sexual style,” she would complain, but of course he actually did. They eventually split up. Another woman absolutely loved the time her husband agreed to play “brain dead” in bed—it gave her a rare chance to let go utterly.
Conflict can happen if you’re the type who likes to have sex in order to feel close, but your partner prefers feeling close by way of intimate conversation before loosening up physically. The trick is in combining the two perspectives, or taking turns, not in winning your mate over to the “right” way.
A woman I know laughed when she admitted that she can be a “get it done now” person with regard to sex. She’ll say to her husband, “C’mon, let’s get going with this, I’ve got a day to deal with.” They have a joke where she writes “romance” in a big red circle with a slash through it.
But now they’ve turned their clashing attitudes into a joke—in the best sense of the word. "Just ignore me and have at me," she sometimes says to him:
"Then he's able to get into it. Sometimes he wants connection and for it to be slow, and there’s no time for it to be slow that day. Of course, sometimes we do find time for that, especially on vacations."
Another wife shared that, for years, there was one constant bit of contention between her and her spouse:
"I require a certain level of personal interaction. Bob will come home, and we’ll have dinner together, and then he’ll go up to his study and work all evening. We may sit in the same room, but we don’t talk. And then at 10 o’clock we get into bed, and I’m tired, and he starts making moves, and I’m like, 'Hi!' when he’s like, 'You’re my wife, what do I have to do chit-chat for?'"
And yet, this turned out to be one of the happiest couples around. By joking about their differences, they found common ground. Which goes to prove that imperfect sex is no barrier to a great love life.