A lot of couples need help with sex. If they’ve drifted apart, failed to resolve conflicts, or merged into one gloppy entity, these relational problems are often reflected in their love life (or lack of one). Conversely, identifying and fixing difficulties in their sex life can not only make sex better, it can fix other problems as well, because it is hard to feel distant from or angry at someone who brings you so much pleasure. I’m not suggesting that a good roll in the hay is an answer to anger at being taken for granted; I’m suggesting that an ongoing, reliable, gratifying sex life can help keep you from being taken for granted. Indeed, it seems this may be the reason for sex in the first place.
Mere reproduction would not need pleasure, and all the complications that sexual pleasure has entailed. Reproduction could be handled evolutionarily with instinct, like blinking and breathing. Instead, it seems that it’s easier to survive in the wild as a twosome, and the pleasure of sex creates a bond between the couple that makes them teammates. This concept explains why women have orgasms, since they are not needed for reproduction, and it explains why gay couples are sexually normal.
1. One partner might be secretly or overtly disgruntled about the frequency or content of lovemaking, leading to resentment or lack of enthusiasm for other aspects of living together. In straight couples, I’ve seen this more in men than in women, partly because of the way men are typically hard-wired, and partly because of the different roles men and women adopt or are assigned in many marriages. In gay couples, too, though, there’s often one person who wants to have sex more frequently than the other.
Indeed, the great friction in all couples, in my opinion, is that the other person, being a person, is a constant source of frustration and entropy, because you can imagine your partner doing exactly what you would like and of course it doesn’t happen that way. If you don’t actively appreciate being married to a human and not a robot, you can build up quite a lot of resentment. Still, the person who wants sex more often needs a strategy for getting sexual needs and desires met, while the other person needs a strategy for meeting the partner’s needs that doesn’t feel like a capitulation.
2. One of the role divisions that lead to men wanting sex more than women has to do with parenting. Even in feminist-informed marriages, nursing mothers get involved with babies in a way that fathers just can’t. Beyond that, deep societal expectations can lead mothers to spend more time with their kids than fathers do. And children are simply not sexy for the vast majority of adults, analogous in their way to funerals, bodily fluids, and tearjerkers. It’s not just that their presence is a wet blanket; it’s also that the role you’re in when you are with children is anti-sexy. You’re all about their needs, and your own get put on hold for so long that it’s not always easy to access them when you get the chance.
3. Many couples’ sexual problems stem from their difficulties discussing the subject. They grew up in families that made the subject taboo or “unnecessary.” They don’t see sex as a key part of life, and they don’t see romance and marriage as sexual institutions. Indeed, one of the key motivations against gay marriage is that gay marriage constitutes an overt claim that sex matters. If it didn’t, who would go to all that trouble? When you read Freud and his constant insistence on the importance of sex in human psychology, it’s easy to forget that much of America is as Victorian today as Europe was then. One consequence of this sexual reticence is that a partner can feel as self-conscious and as vulnerable to being “shot down” suggesting sex to the spouse as the partner felt when single. This leads to intense feelings of betrayal and rejection.
4. The partners might not be interested in sex, robbing the relationship of an important adhesive. When Kirsten Ging was writing her doctoral paper with me on Lesbian Bed Death, we developed the idea that all couples are susceptible to Bed Death. Our idea was that couples have sex for about 500 hours before losing interest, and lesbians use up their 500 hours in lengthy, sustained sexual marathons a lot faster than straight and gay-male couples use up theirs. There are remedies for Bed Death, but couples won’t seek them if both members have lost interest.
5. Couples often fall into the trap of comparing their relationship, and coming up short, to their own heady, dreamy days at the start or to Hollywood images of passion. If sex is supposed to be utterly distracting, or spontaneous, or destructive, it’s easy to feel like it’s not good enough to schedule orgasms next Wednesday between two favorite TV shows. (By destructive, I mean the pervasive movie images of ripping off clothes, clearing tables, and knocking over lamps.)
6. One partner may feel that sex means validation or freedom or conquest, none of which are available from a spouse. If you feel essentially ugly and undesirable, your partner might not be able to make you feel attractive and desirable like a stranger can. Many people who grew up in sexually repressive families associate sex with freedom. It’s something about you that breaks the shackles of conventionality and familial control. Sex within a stable relationship can feel like a submission, like the beast has been tamed after all. Sex with your partner might still be fun, but it’s not likely to be liberating or rebellious if your parents implicitly condone it. Finally, sex for some people can mean a conquest, another notch on the belt. Repeated sex with the same person, someone who loves you to boot, can hardly be considered a victory.
In a future post, I’ll address the things couples can do about these pitfalls.