When we’re first in love, we’re practically dizzy, and it feels awesome. It isn’t just the act of getting off that keeps us enraptured. There’s also the longing for another that cuts the “six-inch valley in the middle of our skulls” (Springsteen.) The chase is almost better than the catch. The smallest touch turns both of you on.
Everyone remembers this exquisite torture, and no one wants to live without it. Desire is relationship cocaine.
We commit to someone because we want to feel safe emotionally and to hoard our lover sexually. We think sex will grow in frequency and quality. Yet within two years, 20 percent of all marriages end up sexless (less than 10 times a year) and an additional 15 percent become low-sex (less than 25 times a year)*. Skipping the wedding ceremony doesn’t change this outcome. One in every three committed couples is barely having sex. Why is our addiction to desire so sadly curable?
Here’s what causes the change and how to reclaim sex with your partner:
In every relationship, after the initial period of having sex all the time, we start wanting to come up for air. We remind ourselves of our separateness and authority over our own bodies. We become afraid that this orgasmic swamp will bog down the direction and purpose of our own lives. Lovers may fantasize that they will only leave the bed to eat or pee, but at some point, they find they must accomplish something else for sanity’s sake. After some time together, our need for merger is counterbalanced by our need for productivity and individuality. Freud said love and work are necessary for happiness, and indeed we find ourselves toggling between the demands of these two poles.
Early in the love affair, we suddenly understand our emotional vulnerability. The other person could leave us or control us. Something terrible could happen to him or her. We’ve jeopardized our hearts by wanting sex. Worse, our partner has seen us lose all control when we climax. Our exposure to them frightens us. Throw in a culture that esteems independence and, for some of us, childhoods where we concluded that our needs were bad because they overwhelmed our parents, and sexual desire begins to feel like weakness. Fantasizing about other potential partners or repressing out sex drives are ways we may try to dilute the power desire has over us and reduce the accompanying risk. Withdrawing makes us less dependent on our pusher.
Sex gets caught in a power struggle between the need for connection and the wish for space, though both partners want a balance between these poles. In a long-term relationship, however, one partner will seem the hungrier and more insistent about one end of the dynamic. The pursuer is concerned with connection, talking, time together, security, family; he or she needs reassurance of being loved and wants intensity inside the relationship. The distancer seems focused on freedom, time away, adventure, work; this partner wants to be trusted for his or her intentions and gets intensity outside the relationship. The couple might switch their favored side, however, when it comes to sex. For instance, a male emotional distancer absorbed in his career may want connection in bed. His female partner who pesters him about what he’s feeling may never want to make love. While their roles change, the distance between them stays constant. The partners move like opposing magnets, chasing and running away. Often the pursuer feels starved and the distancer feels crowded. In therapy, a sexual distancer may argue that their partner, “never gives me a chance to initiate because he/she is always asking for it.”
Couples claim their busy lives have crowded out sex. Parents of young children won’t lock their bedroom door for even an hour to prioritize their intimate needs above the family. Menopausal women and men with erectile dysfunction conclude their bodies don’t work and give up touching. But psychologically, the real issue is freeing sex from the tension of the partner struggle so that it can once again renew their love, soothe their anxieties, and exhilarate their bodies. How can we do that?
If you’re a sexual pursuer:
1. Imagine your partner is having a mirror experience in the relationship. If you feel starved sexually, your partner probably feels starved in some other way. Confront yourself about the ways you deny your partner. Do they need more help with routine duties? Come home one night each week with your sleeves rolled up. They feel pestered by your sexual demands? Ask for a quickie, and accept that sometimes your partner may give to you out of love and not from craving.
2. Become an expert seducer. Learning how to truly seduce your former high-school-sweetheart-now-fifty-year-old wife might require putting words to feelings that you usually bottle up. Engage emotionally. Drop the anxious, adolescent style of asking: “So, wanna do it?” Instead use a serious, adult voice, look him or her in the eyes and say, “I want you.”
3. Touch, grab, roll on top of him or her. Dare to be direct. Inspire desire with great technique.
4. Offer a gold medal in bed. Sexual pursuers are often improvers and may want the morning-after debrief. While not your intention, this conversation can convey to your partner that it wasn’t “good enough.” Sexual distancers fear criticism and are easily discouraged; they may give up trying concluding that nothing makes their partner content anyway. Thank your partner for the roll in the hay and tell them they were sexy and you feel great: skip the critique.
If you’re a sexual distancer:
1. Initiate. A client went home from therapy straight to a vacation, ready to tell her husband they would romp as soon as they got to the hotel. He suggested they do it before they left the house. Her plan usurped, she gave up. Don’t give up. Find a way to beat your partner to the punch. Text in the morning about your naughty plans. Plan bath time, wine and appetizers, whatever you need to turn yourself on.
2. F*ck first, party later. The candlelight dinner may just leave you sleepy with heartburn. But your pursuer thinks romance should prevail and will wake up angry after a night without sex. So send the sitter and kiddies to McDonald’s and have sex first. The lovely connection you feel after making love will bond you all night.
3. Make sex a sacred priority. Feel the stimuli around you–romantic movies, sexy songs–then bring the energy to the bedroom. Set boundaries around duties. Turn the phone off. Make date night and bedroom privacy inviolable. Stay sexily vulnerable to your need.
*Source: Michael, R., Gagnon, J., Laumann, E., & Kalota, G. (1994) Sex in America – A Definitive Study. Little, Brown.