If sex were not a problem, would you be happy again in your marriage? Amherst, a 39-year-old mother of three, told me that her marriage would be a "10" if their conflict over frequency would go away. Daniel loved his wife and wasn't going to leave her; she was his best friend, fit and attractive, and a good mother to his children, but she was never going to understand what sex meant to him. Neither understood they were both contributing to the problem nor how to fix their intimate life.
Solving the problems of sex is about solving the way we manage the space between us. There is a magical "between" that when balanced makes us happy. Two human needs war within us and between us. On one side is autonomy and separateness—we all need to direct our own lives and be respected. On the other side is closeness—loving and being loved gives our separate endeavors meaning. We need both things but in marriage we often find ourselves arguing only for one side.
If you want more sex, you are arguing for closeness and connection; you are setting foot into that mythical space, which ironically pushes your partner away. Like a south-pole magnet, the more you ask, the more he/she refuses (either gender can want more sex, different sex, sex acts your partner doesn't want to do, etc.) If you want less sex, you are arguing for separateness and autonomy; and you are creating a vacuum that pulls your other toward you to nag further. You refuse and the pouting ruins the rest of your day. This push-pull wears out the patience of every New Year's resolver.
Should you just give up your desire for sex? Absolutely not! Sex heals, restores and connects two people in long-term commitment. Should you "just do it"? Please don't. The grit from your teeth will not serve as a good lubricant. So what should you do? Change the game.
For sexual pursuers:
#1 — STOP criticizing. When you make love, don't get up from the bed with a list of suggestions for next time. I know you're trying to be helpful but I'll bet your partner will say that whatever they do it's not enough. Don't pout if your partner doesn't want to do it again right away since "that was so great!" Try to understand that your hungers may be different. Accept that sometimes your partner makes love to you out of love for you not because they are particularly desirous themselves. They may (and probably will) get horny once the whole thing starts. When your partner says "no," take it as a one-time thing. Okay, pretend it's a one-time answer. Go on with your day. Believe that your partner has another agenda that is about their own life, not about hurting you or denying you. Why? Because you are balancing space. Every initiation is a step into the no man's land. Reduce your anger. Sulking sends energy into that space between you. You want to create a vacuum that draws the person toward you.
#2 — Contain your own anxiety. Pursuers tell themselves that if they don't get up to bat x many times then they will never get a home run. Don't let this drive your initiation. Initiate only when you want to make love to your partner. Take care of your sexual needs by yourself if they are about boredom, emotional upset, or a need to sleep. Those aren't wrong/bad/inappropriate reasons to have sex but if you crowd the between-space already with demands and requests, hold off on the ones that are more about yourself than about creating connection.
#3 — Be seductive. I know you've tried everything before and nothing worked. Try again. Put your time, energy and money into making your partner feel cherished. Listen to them with your whole attention. Put the phone down for the whole evening. Be vulnerable and tell them how beautiful or sexy you find them. Plan and be creative. "You want to do it?" isn't sexy anymore.
For sexual distancers:
#1 — Initiate. Yes, at some point you are going to have to do it. Moving toward your partner under your own direction allows you control of when, where and how. Do it on your best day. Do it after a long, lazy nap when you're languid and rested. Distancers are afraid of being drowned by their partner's needs—so offer up and feed them. The barking dog barks for two reasons: because they are mean and because they are hungry. I'll bet every New Year's resolution that your partner criticizes because they are starving. Feed them. Plan romantic times. Touch your partner several times a day. Feed them every week from your heart, from the love I know you have for them. You'll save thousands of dollars in therapy and there will be peace on earth.
#2 — Balance task-time with relationship-time. You like to get things done and get them done well. So, bump the time for intimacy to the top of your list, make it happen and make it happen with quality. Pour into the sexual encounter one-tenth of the creativity that you do your continuing education hours or decorating your home. Invest in learning how to make sex great: books, films or therapy. Don't let a week get away from you without setting aside a few hours that are just about intimate time. Couples often tell me they didn't have time for sex. I hear this refrain from hundreds of couples every year. Yet in each case, I can usually count several ways they could have saved time for each other. You exercise 10 hours a week? Save one hour for sex. Pay someone to do the laundry—there's one hour (more if you have as many kids as I do) and it's lots cheaper than divorce or therapy. You work 80 hours a week? Take one long lunch hour, book a hotel room, invite your spouse. (If you don't make enough money in 80 hours a week to do this, change careers.)
#3 — Respect your partner's differences. So many distancers say they are happy just the way they are and ask why they should change. We change to show our love for our partner. The golden rule says love your partner the way you would like to be loved. But the platinum rule says love them the way they want to be loved. You may not have the same needs. If your partner's requests are not immoral or hurtful to you, try them. Meeting their needs sexually will develop your erotic self. It will make you a better, more well-rounded person. You will have more spice, joy, pleasure and excitement in life too.
New Year's question—what do you struggle with in your sexual relationship?