Give and Take: Mutual caring among partners

Too often we give a partner what we need, not what the spouse wants.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published March 4, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Give and Take: Mutual Caring Among Partners

Healthy relationships are based on mutual caring. Whether it's friendship or marriage, there has to be giving and receiving. We reach out to friends who could use support, make an effort to understand what they need and often go out of our way to give them what we sense they need. We know that is how to proceed.

But often enough we don't do that with our closest partners. And we rarely do it when the subject is sex.

We know to be mutually caring when it comes to making decisions about parenting, or about where to live, or whether there's going to be one or two careers or who does what around the house

"But noticeably missing from that mix are one's feelings about sexuality," contends marital therapist Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage. It's as if sex is in a category by itself, when it is a very fundamental part of marriage. Often enough, the sexual intimacies of a marriage are reflected in the emotional intimacies of the relationship.

Weiner-Davis contends that it's critical for there to be some sort of mutuality in how couples handle sexual issues. But instead what usually happens is that for assorted reasons one partner has lower desire than another. And that person controls the terms of the sexual relationship. It's the lowest common denominator thing; that's what both parties get reduced to.

What typically happens is the more emotionally oriented person waits for the other spouse to invest emotionally before they invest emotionally, and the more sexual person waits for the other spouse to invest sexually before they invest. And that's a deadly wait, says Weiner-Davis.

Yet, fidelity is expected. "The implicit agreement that most couples have is something like this: 'I don't need to care about your sexual needs, but I still expect you to be monogamous, and I expect you not to complain about it.'" It's unfair and it's unworkable, says Weiner-Davis, who is based in Woodstock, Illinois, outside of Chicago.

And another thing. We rarely give our partner what he or she really needs. We think we're giving, but we're not. When we give, we give selfishly, looking out for our own needs. We "give" them what turns us on, not what turns them on.

People tend to give to one another the way they like to receive, but that's not real giving, says Weiner-Davis. Mutual caring involves giving to your spouse in ways that your spouse wants and needs. "You don't have to understand it, you don't have to like it, you don't have to agree with it, you just have to do it, because that's what a real caring and loving relationship is all about."

The Illinois therapist urges couple to take what she calls The Great American Sex Challenge. Essentially, it goes like this: If your spouse is irritable, angry, critical, retreating to a cave, or in any way nonparticipatory, take action. For the next two weeks, whether you feel like it or not, pay more attention to your sexual relationship. That means

o initiate sex more often

o get out of your sweatpants and put on something more attractive

o say sexy things, make a sexy, breathy phone call

o leave something with sexual innuendoes around the house where the kids can't see it

Do this for two weeks, and Weiner-Davis personally guarantees that you will see a change in your marriage. For the better.