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I have been watching a story bounce around the Internet over the last couple of days and I wanted to share it with you all. Apparently (if a post on Reddit is true), a young married couple is having some difficulties in the bedroom with a mismatch in sexual desire. The husband tries to initiate sex often with his wife and is denied most of the time, along with a variety of explanations that amount to her "not feeling like it".
Thus far, the story is not "news worthy" or even uncommon. This husband, however, chose to track married sex with his wife on a spreadsheet for a month (including days he initiated sex, whether she accepted, and "excuses" provided when she declined). He then emailed the spreadsheet to his wife, who was away on business, to inform her of his frustration that she only agreed to have sex 3 times in that month (with 27 attempts on his part). For those interested, here is the chart:
The rest of the world has heard of this private spreadsheet because the wife put it on Reddit looking for advice and support on the issue. Anonymous forum posters, journalists, as well as Manosphere and Feminist writers weighed in - circulating the issue around the Internet. Each explanation has a piece of the puzzle, but seem to be missing (or concealing) the big picture.
What is that big picture?
The Role of Power in Intimate Relationships
Many theories circulate as to why this couple has a mismatch in desire. Underneath them all, however, is one simple truth... This husband does not have the power to influence his wife's desire to have sex with him when he wants it. In the primary definition of the word, he is impotent - unable to take effective action; helpless or powerless.
From this perspective it is easy to see both the husband's frustration and the wife's lack of desire for him. As others at Psychology Today have noted, an equal balance of power is essential for satisfying relationships (see here). Such power allows each partner to get their needs met in the relationship. Seeing the other person as powerful (valuable/attractive) also motivates desire to meet their needs. The balance keeps both partners satisfied and desiring each other. Therefore, anything that significantly disempowers either partner reduces the satisfaction of both partners in a relationship.
How Power Works in Relationship Transactions
Power in relationships results from:
Suppose we have two partners, Pat and Jean. Pat has a bunch of fish to cook, but no fire to cook it on. Jean has a fire, but no food to cook. Each has some value to the other (food or fire) and each desires something from the other.
Pat will desire Jean's fire and be motivated to invest fish into the relationship to get it, increasing loving and positive feelings in the process (see here). When Jean cooks the fish, this will reward Pat's behavior, increase the positive feelings, and ensure Pat shares more fish in the future (see here). Jean, in turn, will invest the cooking time and be rewarded by eating the fish Pat has provided. Therefore, both have power to get their needs met, desire for the other, and are satisfied by the relationship exchange.
Now suppose Jean asks Pat to sign a contract, entitling both partners to evenly share whatever fish are caught in the future. Pat signs without much thought, as Jean usually keeps half the fish anyway after cooking them. Ostensibly then, a small contract to give Jean peace of mind is no real change.
Unfortunately, however, Pat has now lost power, having given up control of the valuable fish. Unless Pat can find something else of value to Jean, Jean will no longer find Pat desirable. As a result, Pat also has no power to influence how, when, or even whether Jean cooks fish for Pat at all.
Does a Wife Owe Her Husband Sex?
Given the explanation above, we can now reevaluate advice to the couple in terms of power dynamics in the relationship. Most of this advice centers on the debate whether the wife owes sex to her husband. In fact, both the husband creating the spreadsheet and the wife posting it online is a power struggle over defining whether sex is owed (a form of legitimate power).
Such a power play might work for a religious marriage, where a wife was rewarded with social approval she valued for being attentive to her husband's needs. After all, people desire and are motivated to have sex for a variety of reasons - including social status, self-esteem boosts, and performing a duty well (see here). My guess is that religion and culture cannot be leveraged to equalize power here though. If it could, the wife would most likely not be posting on Reddit and we would not be talking about it.
Besides, as authors focused on the female perspective note, she truly does not owe him sex (for example, see here). Legally, he has no right to her sexually. Beyond that fact, some female-centric advice has attempted to shift the power dynamic even more in favor of the wife, by suggesting that the husband should not even have an expectation of sexual satisfaction in the marriage. While this idea may have some support in our current social structure, furthering this perspective only serves to perpetuate the husband's disempowerment - and dissatisfy BOTH partners.
Taken as a whole, the idea of "obligation" also misses the point that the husband most likely wants his wife to WANT to have sex. Often, men desire both the sexual satisfaction and emotional interest of a desirous partner - not simply someone "going through the motions". Advice provided to the husband by various sources online do a bit better in this regard...
Internet Advice on Husband Self-Improvement: Should He Do More?
Mainstream media advice to the husband seemed to focus on additional ways he could make himself more useful to his wife (for exampe, see here). Essentially, they suggest that he should make himself more helpful around the home and hope that she reciprocates in the bedroom. Unfortunately, these suggestions fail because they do not empower the husband. His "chores" may not be valued by his wife (point 1 above). Also, if he performs them all the time, he is not controlling that value until he gets what he wants (point 2 above). Therefore, such behavior will not increase his power, his wife's desire, her motivation to please him, or either of their satisfaction. Instead, at best, we get back to an issue of whether she is obligated to give him sex for the chores he has already accomplished - which didn't work above.
Only advice for men seems to come close to empowering the husband. Proponents of "Game" in the Manosphere suggest the husband improve his physical attractiveness and perhaps start looking elsewhere to at least attract another partner (for example, see here). Taken together this may indeed help increase the husband's power by giving him more value (point 1) and putting that value back under his control (point 2).
Given that this manly advice is not explicitly focused on regulating the power dynamic in this relationship, however, there are also some problems that may arise. For example, the wife might not find value in the particular way the husband improves his physical attractiveness, or may have low libido for a number of reasons. The husband may also continue to pester for sex every day (as he has already done) and not control his increased value to improve her desire (or his power). Furthermore, depending on the couple's finances and living arrangement, not to mention other aspects of the marriage, the husband might not be willing or able to leave the relationship over sexual needs.
Therefore, while both suggestions are potentially effective for empowering the husband as an individual, without taking into account the particular power dynamic in the relationship, they may not work to empower him within his marriage. Additionally, such changes may also unbalance the power in a way that ultimately ends the marriage. While that outcome may sometimes be unavoidable, or preferable to living powerless and frustrated, there is a more balanced approach to try first...
How to Balance Power, Increase Desire, and Find Satisfaction in Relationships
Taking another look at the infamous spreadsheet, we see that the husband is not totally powerless. How can I tell? He was able to entice his wife into sex three times in a month! Not to mention, she presumably married him for some reason. Clearly then, he has some influence and value here. The task is to figure out what she values in him...and leverage it for greater power, desire, and satisfaction for both of them.
Put simply, to get what he wants, when he wants it, he needs to make sex a more rewarding experience for her. I mean this literally...he needs to make sure he rewards her behavior on the occasions that she chooses to have sex. Because there are a lot of reasons why people have sex (again, see here), that reward will depend on what she values and needs from him.
In other words, to make the relationship better for the both of them sexually (and beyond), the husband needs to:
This process of reward would work for any desired behavior, as noted in "fish" example above. Just like the "equal power" aspect of that fish example, every instance the wife "invests" in the relationship with sex, the more she falls in love with her husband (again, see here). Also, the more she is rewarded by her husband with her needs being met during/after sex, the more she will desire and choose to have sex in the future (again, see here). His investment in caring for his wife's needs, combined with the reward of being sexually satisfied by her, will increase his love and motivation to meet her needs in the future too. Therefore, in the end, this sets off a mutually-rewarding dynamic where both partners are equally empowered to get more of their needs met, feel better, and are satisfied.
Is All This Really Necessary?
Some of you might be wondering at this point whether such influence and focus on power is necessary. After all, we are taught to believe that people truly "in love" are just supposed to take care of each other's needs. Would it be a better use of our time to look for someone who "just gets it" and fulfills our every need without objection?
Unfortunately, perfect soul mates do not exist - and even looking for such an effortless "perfect fit" pretty much dooms the chance for relationship happiness (see here). By working and compromising with a "good" partner in the long run, however, such a seemingly "unconditional" and communal relationship may result. This type of relationship only arises from the mutually-rewarding balanced power dynamic I describe above. Over time, once both partners are very emotionally invested and satisfied, they may stop "keeping count" on a transaction by transaction basis - but only as long as the overall equal power and mutually-rewarding dynamic stays in place.
So, why all the work? Well, we happen to live in a society that no longer provides universal social, moral, or religious guidance to structure fair and satisfying relationships. Therefore, each couple has both the freedom and burden of struggling toward an unique power equilibrium in their own relationships. It is the "wild west" without set sex roles and courtship, where power seems to test power - at least until you duel to a mutually-satisfying "draw". Furthermore, modern social structures and marriage contracts also alter perceptions of value and relational power (much like the "fish contract" above). As a result, a satisfying hookup may make for a bad relationship...and a good relationship might be an unsatisfying marriage. It is no wonder then why disempowered men often avoid relationships and commitments (see here), while women become dissatisfied with the lack of desirable and valuable men (see here).
The only long-term solution then is to understand that this is all about power, learn how power works, and work to truly equalize that power in your relationship.
Seemingly complex marriage and relationship issues always boil down to one thing - power. The efforts of both partners in a relationship and the advice of various outsiders, at the deepest level, are attempts to influence and change relationship power dynamics. Without a clear and transparent focus on power, however, such influence attempts may not always equalize and stabilize the dynamic for the benefit of both partners. Therefore, to create a truly balanced and happy relationship, each partner must learn to empower themselves in ways that both satisfy their own needs and those of their chosen partner as well.
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Until next time...happy dating and relating!
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© 2014 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.