By Kalman Heller, Ph.D.
A good marriage is best friends with passion. Without the passion, you just have a friendship. For some, being companions is sufficient. But for most, it is not. One of the major casualties of the harried pace of modern marriage is the loss of sexual intimacy. It is too steep a price to pay. While communication is the most frequently mentioned issue in troubled marriages (see April 2005 article on “Improving Marital Intimacy”), inevitably I find a diminished sexual relationship at the center of most troubled marriages.
What follows is a brief tour through the world of marital sexuality with a focus on how to understand the issues and strategies to repair the damage.
Gender and Physiology
Men and women are different. While these differences get debated in some circles, when it comes to sex, they are real and very clear. Unfortunately many couples fail to reflect on these differences and integrate them into an understanding of how to be successful partners.
Start with arousal patterns. Men are quick to be aroused and relatively quick to achieve orgasm. The “spike” rises sharply and drops off just as sharply. Men are especially aroused visually; brain research documents this. So looking at other women, at magazines, videos, and online pornography play a much bigger role in the sexual life of men.
Women are aroused more slowly and after achieving orgasm, tend to remain at a high plateau of arousal before dropping off. These are very different physiological patterns. No wonder it is a challenge for couples to really experience mutual satisfaction. These differences must not be ignored; instead they must be incorporated into the lovemaking process.
The simplest way to do this is, regardless of who initiates the foreplay, is for men to focus on pleasuring their wives, bringing them to an initial orgasm before focus is given to bringing the male to orgasm. It is also critical for men to understand what will help their wives achieve orgasm. While clitoral stimulation is usually a key component, many women still “get off” on intercourse, especially if the angle is such that it also stimulates the clitoris or that clitoral stimulation is being done manually by either partner during intercourse.
It is also important to understand the psychological implications of the different genital anatomies. For men, sexual intercourse is an external act. This has evolutionary implications about the need for prehistoric men to “seed” many partners in order to insure survival of the species. It is part of what allows men to more easily separate sex from love. But, for a woman, to have intercourse means allowing a man to enter her body. That is a deeply personal act and men need to appreciate this. It is why women complain about the need for emotional intimacy before they can be sexually active. Combine this with the difference in arousal patterns and it becomes much easier to understand why it is so important for women to experience meaningful foreplay.
Yet there is a trap here for women that becomes a key issue for so many of the couples who come to see me. When couples are struggling, women insist on emotional safety and closeness in order to be actively sexual. That creates a prohibitive barrier to improving the marital relationship, since the lack of sex, especially for men, but a lot more for women than they recognize, is one of the central underlying problems in not resolving their issues. Women act as if sex is still a process of servicing men and often deny that they are sexual beings who need to be serviced at least as much if not more. While some female readers may be dismissing this because it is being written by a male author, this concept is a central theme in books written by some of the best known female professionals in marital work such as Betty Carter, Ellen Wachtel, and Susan Scantling.
Women need to have sex! For themselves! So it is important to overcome the excuse of emotional disconnection and have sex with your husbands as frequently as possible. It will allow BOTH partners to feel closer and create a more intimate context in which to resolve other issues. I am, of course, not suggesting that this can happen in relationships that are verbally and, especially, physically abusive.
Women Need to Feel Desired; Men Need to Feel Competent
Another gender factor is the different psychological needs that are played out in the sexual relationship. Women have a never-ending need to feel attractive and desired. Unfortunately, this often traps them in the issue I was addressing in the previous section: objectifying themselves, minimizing their own sexuality and focusing on being a desired object by their husbands.
The reality is that women who are in touch with their sexuality, literally and figuratively, are really the masters of the bedroom! They can control and shape the sexual relationship because of their longer state of arousal. Most men, secretly or openly, are aroused by women who take a dominant role in their sexual relationship. Women are not used to this and often experience it negatively because they have been socially conditioned to be the “chased” rather than the “chasee.” They associate the male as initiator with their own sense of being desirable. Just turn your husband on and you’ll quickly enjoy a sense of being desired!
Men carry the burden of sexual competence. Men have to get an erection and keep it long enough to satisfy their partner. This performance anxiety is a major issue. Erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation are very common problems. The former can now be more easily addressed with medication and the latter with proven strategies. The key is for men to be comfortable dealing with these issues. For men who are functionally okay, the key to feeling like a successful sexual partner, as stated earlier, is to put your wife’s needs first. Focus on her arousal, on being affectionate, on a reasonable period of foreplay, and on bringing her to orgasm first – if you follow those rules you will have a very happy partner and feel like a very competent lover.
A common problem for women, especially with newborns and very young children, is sleep deprivation and loss of libido. It is important not to believe that you have no need for sex; just that you feel too exhausted to think about it! So when baby naps, try a bubble bath and a vibrator to reawaken your sexuality as well as experiencing some incredible stress relief and a re-energizing.
Differences in Libido
A major challenge can be when couples have a natural significant difference in their level of sexual desire. Some individuals have very high sex drives and desire sex constantly while others have very low levels of need and are quite content with infrequent sex. Most of us fall somewhere in between and are usually close enough in libido levels to feel satisfied with the alleged average of about 1.5 times per week. But when partners have very different levels of need (and sometimes it is difficult to separate physiological need from level of attraction – there is such a thing as the “chemistry” of love), that presents a real challenge.
Like any other relationship issue, the solution lies in finding compromises that can create a win-win situation. Just don’t go outside the relationship, even with consent, to fill unmet needs and think that won’t harm the marriage. However, masturbation can play an important part in providing some relief, especially when “toys” or videos are mutually agreeable as ways to make it fun for the higher-need partner. The key is not to make either partner feel abnormal or wrong in being who they are.
Couples constantly face the time issue. There isn’t any! If you wait for a quiet period when romantic behavior can surface and there is energy for prolonged lovemaking, you will only get to have sex a couple of times a year when you get away without the children! You need to schedule a date night when you plan to go to bed early enough that you are both still awake with a mutual commitment to make love. The door should be locked to prevent unexpected entrance of children. Of course, you don’t need to be limited to nights. Many couples find the best time is in the morning after children have left for school; others are able to work out lunchtime liaisons.
If the children are older, there is the usual embarrassment about “What will the children think?” Look at it this way. Parents hide their sexuality from their children, and then expect their children to grow up and understand that sex is an expression of love between two adults. It is healthy to be open about this. Healthy to explain to your children that husbands and wives express their love in part by touching each other in special ways. Healthy for children to know their parents are lovers. So don’t hide the fact that you are.
As for the lack of romanticism embedded in scheduled sex as opposed to spontaneous sex, I guarantee you that within minutes of gently arousing each other on a date night, you won’t even be thinking about the fact that this was scheduled. It will be just as satisfying and enjoyable as if it were spontaneous. Meanwhile research has shown that there are very clear relationship benefits from sex – couples have fewer disagreements for about 48 hours after making love. I guess that suggests if you have sex every few days, you’ll get along great!!
Communication Before, During, and After
Words are very erotic. You can do the exact same physical act over and over yet transform it endlessly with words. Whether it’s “talking dirty” or saying “Imagine we are sitting in a restaurant and right now I am slipping my hand into your pants!” Expressions of love, desire, telling your partner how hot she is, moaning – there are so many ways to intensify the experience with words.
Another important communication is to let your partner know what feels good and what doesn’t as it is happening – or to ask for something you want to experience. That’s all during. Actually, I have found many couples already do at least some of this. On the other hand, what is missing from most relationships is the before and after.
By before I’m not referring to general conversation, although it never hurts to be talking to each other. Too often couples are embarrassed to ask questions, to discuss likes and dislikes – everyone assumes they are supposed to know how to be good lovers, but how can you be unless you are able to talk about it. Of course, this includes the after as well, because the issue I’m addressing here is finding out what works and what doesn’t IN THIS RELATIONSHIP. Even if you are very experienced, you still don’t automatically know each other’s desires. So while you are snuggled together after making love, it is important to let each other know what might have been especially erotic that time. DO NOT use that time to be critical. Talking about what doesn’t work needs to be away from the time you have sex. It can be awkward, even upsetting, and not conducive to feeling good right away.
Of course, people often don’t even know what they want because they may not have explored their own sexuality enough to provide guidance. That’s what makes a place like the Grand Opening, a sexual boutique in Brookline, Mass., so helpful. Created and run by a woman, it is a comfortable place for women and men to go and find out about oils, sex toys, videos, and classes that can be taken to better understand how to have more satisfying sex.
Sex as Fun, a Release of Tension, and Good Exercise
In the stressed-out world we live in, people are always looking for ways to unwind, to escape from real-life concerns, and, of course, to find time to work out and shed some of those calories. Sex provides all of these. One single activity, preferably about 45-60 minutes of time, can achieve so many goals. And it’s free. You don’t even have to leave home to enjoy it! So turn the lights on (so many couples still have sex in the dark), put on music, light candles, open a fragrant bottle of oil, heck, get out the whipped cream or chocolate sauce (so much for burning off calories) and get some relief from childrearing, laundry, or the job that follows you everywhere.
I have tried to provide you with a brief guide to enhancing your sexual relationship and, simultaneously, improving your marital intimacy. A good reference for a more detailed exploration of this topic is David Schnarch’s book, “Passionate Marriage.”
I’ll close with the following thought:
Sexual and emotional intimacies are inextricably linked. A marriage that loses its passion becomes merely a good friendship and ceases to be a true marriage – which ultimately even ruins the friendship.