Yes, most conflicts about sex can be resolved. That's good news for folks struggling with sexual differences who want to save the marriage. Maybe not all however will find fully satisfactory solutions.
The dividing line between those couples who do find fully win-win solutions and those who do not seems to be whether both spouses are willing to work on this issue. For some spouses, talking about sex feels too frightening or otherwise upsetting. For others, one spouse gets critical or wants the partner to change without any willingness to look at changes he or she can make as well. Or what one partner wants is so far to one extreme, and so locked in, that there genuinely are not win-win options.
For most couples however, talking through their sexual issues in a cooperative way works. Sometimes professional help from a marriage counselor can be an important addition, as resolving sexual differences may be more like fixing a broken bone than like cleansing and bandaging a scraped knee.
As a therapist in these cases I aim first to insure that the skills the couple are using are adequate for the job. If not, I coach them as we go along so that both partners can follow the guidelines for collaborative talking together and for solving problems with the win-win waltz. Couples aiming to resolve tough sexual issues on their own would be well-advised to begin by being sure that they have these essential skill sets for talking over and resolving sensitive differences.
Another key role for a therapist is to help both spouses to clarify their underlying concerns, often by asking questions that help them, where appropriate, to look at the origins of these concerns in earlier life experiences.
When it comes time to explore solution options, I monitor to make sure that the each partner focuses on what they themselves can do to be responsive to their partner's concerns. Too often spouses focus on what they would like their partner to do for them rather than what they can do for their partner. The first does not work; the second does.
Of the following six case examples of couples with stressful sexual differences, four resulted in solidly win-win outcomes. One found a good-enough solution. One found an acceptable but sub-optimal plan.
Please note that for purposes of protecting clients' confidentiality these cases are fictionalized couples based on composites from actual cases, rather than actual therapy cases.
Case #1: Far apart
Joe had a brief homosexual affair. His wife Monica had been showing no interest in sex.
We began in therapy by addressing the issues holding Monica back from wanting any participation in sex. A big factor turned out to have been sexual activity in her younger years in which sex was a useful tool she used to get others to do things for her. She associated sex with being something that men wanted, not the woman.
As we explored how she herself now, as an adult, could gain from sexual activity (physical enjoyment, feeling closer bonds with her husband, health benefits) Monica was able to think of sexual activity as something that might benefit both of them, not just her husband. She then returned to the enthusiasm and enjoyment of their sexual time together that she had experienced in the earlier years of their marriage.
Joe for his part immediately stopped going to the gym where homosexual men were plentiful and inviting him to connect. He realized that the sexual encounter he had had there was more about his attraction to danger than about an actual desire on his part for a homosexual encounter. While he could "go both ways" his vast preference was for a gratifying and monogamous relationship with his wife.
The therapy then focused on resolving additional issues that had divided the couple. As we resolved each of these issues we also practiced the marriage communication skills that would in the future replace fights with collaborative dialogue and win-win patterns of conflict resolution.
The outcome was a vastly improved sexual life between the couple, a more harmonious and affectionate partnership and cessation of the husband's interest in outside liasons of any type. Both partners were very pleased with this result.
Case #2: Relief
Quentin wanted to "swing" with threesomes. Aretha tried it once and hated it.
Quentin kept insisting that they participate in a threesome, threatening to leave the marriage if Aretha didn't comply. Aretha finally caved in and agreed to try it one more time.
Aretha's reaction was to feel totally disgusted by the experience and especially by her husband's obvious pleasure in it. She realized that his enjoyment and insistence on these sexual forays was just one of many ways in which Quentin was selfish (narcissistic). She also became more aware of the extent to which her husband was often quick-tempered to the point of being verbally abusive. She gradually realized that the only times she felt happy in the marriage were when he was away.
With this new awareness, Aretha agreed with Quentin's insistence on divorce as the only other option. Aretha saw now that divorce would be preferable for both of them to trying to sustain a marriage where the lifepaths each of them wanted were so different.
This win-win outcome left them both spouses very much relieved. This was a later-age marriage, a second or third marriage for each of them, with no children involved, so the divorce process proved relatively simple.
Case #3: To kiss or not to kiss? All or nothing ...
Steven, his wife Clara thought, wanted sex all the time. Clara never wanted it, especially kisses.
Clara was reluctant to be affectionate at all because she feared that any show of interest would be interpreted as permission for a sexual encounter. A single kiss or hug meant that they would have to end up in the bedroom. Steven felt starved for physical contact, both of hugging and touch and also for sexual connecting.
In the therapy I asked each partner what rate of sexual encounters per week would work for them. Steven said that a rate of 2 to 7 nights a week would suffice. Clara said that up to two or three times a week would be fine once they got going. At the same time, she seldom felt interested and often felt too tired.
Steven and Clara then did succeed in finding an acceptable plan. Monday and Thursday evenings they would head for bed instead of watching TV in the early evening, at about 8:00, when Clara would not be tired. That timing and pre-planning would also give her time to get herself in the mood with a shower and maybe some exercise.
That plan would enable Clara to let herself be affectionate with Steven the other days/evenings, knowing that there would be no sexual demands. In addition, if she chose to add sexual time on the weekends those initiations would be up to her so that instead of feeling like she was always caving in to Steven's demands she would feel more personally empowered.
The outcome was that the tension over when and if Steven and Clara would connect with intimate time together essentially disappeared. Clara became delightfully affectionate, sitting next to her husband as they read or watched TV, on the non-sexual evenings. Both were pleased with this solution.
Case #4: Managing the situation with a less-than-ideal solution
Mark felt sexually deprived. H and his wife Karen seldom connected sexually. The rare times when they did, he felt that she was just complying from a dutiful stance.
Karen in fact wanted nothing to do with sex, including even talking about it in therapy. She had been subjected to negative sexual experiences in childhood and sex was too associated with that trauma to be appealing. Mark said that he would resign himself to a sexless marriage, saying that he still loved his wife and therefore would accept that she just was not able to participate in sexual functioning.
While this couple stayed married, the outcome to their sexual issues felt unsatisfactory to me. At the same time, I have huge respect for this couple's dedication to each other and to their children, for which both made major personal sacrifices.
In this case, the outcomeinvolved "managing" the conflict, which was preferable to keeping the conflict alive as an active argument. Managing rather than resolving a conflict is recommended by marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman as, from time to time, the best option a couple create.
At the same time, the couple's solution was to some extent win-win in that the couple's most strongly-valued concern was to keep their family intact. At the same time, the sexual desires of the husband were sacrificed to this larger goal, or else managed privately with masturbation or outside of the marriage, so for me this solution felt win-lose or compromise rather than fully win-win.
Case #5: The asexual wife
Christina had zero interest in any sexual participation whatsoever. Ralph saw sexual activity as a vital part of marriage.
This couple did find a win-win solution. Christiana was aware that she is one of those asexual people whom research has recently clarified simply do not experience sexual feelings. Accepting this reality, Christina suggested that if Ralph wanted to find sexual relationships elsewhere, like some spouses do sports separately, that would be acceptable to her.
Christina acknowledged that this plan involved a risk that Ralph would fall in love and want to marry someone else. She anticipated that if that were the outcome, she would feel a fair amount of jealousy initially. At the same time, she would adapt if they could divorce and then live in side-by-side homes or at least close-by. That solution would suffice for the sake of the children and also so that she would not feel totally alone.
Ralph appreciated and accepted this plan. Their marriage then became far more amicable.
Case #6: The less-interested husband
Elaine had enjoyed active sexual interactions with prior boyfriends. Her husband Billy simply wasn't all that interested.
Initially Elaine resented Billy's relative disinterest. As his disinterest in her began to be mirrored in Elaine herself feeling increasingly less sexualized, Elaine resented having lost her sexuality.
At the same time, Billy was open to doing whatever he could to be more responsive to his wife's sexual concerns. He suggested that he could do better if they designated several set times each a week as sexual times. A man who could be relied on for meeting his commitments, Billy functioned better sexually with this arrangement.
Elaine gradually realized that every marital match has some stronger and some weaker elements to it. Instead of resenting her husband's relatively low libido, she accepted that his strengths were in other areas. She kept her mental focus on these strengths instead of continuing her prior pattern of near-obsessive thinking about her husband's relative sexual deficiencies. Both spouses gradually relaxed into enjoying the blessings of their marriage and family.
Most cases of sexual differences, discussed in a mutually compassionate and deeply understanding way, can end up with win-win solutions.
Occasionally the outcome plan of action on sexual issues is less than ideal, usually because staying married is a higher priority than being able to enjoy a mutually fully gratifying sexual relationship. In these situations finding even a sub-optimal solution at least moves the issue aside so that couples can focus instead on enjoying their lives and the positive areas of their partnership.
Earlier posts in this series on relationship conflict:
Marriage Arguments: Can All Conflicts Be Resolved?