Written by Kate Pauley
At the Colorado Center for Couples and Families, we work primarily with couples in relationship distress. One of the questions on our intake paperwork is “how satisfied are you with the sexual intimacy in your relationship?” Very often, the response to this question is, “not satisfied.”
Typically, when there is conflict and discomfort in a couple’s relationship, we also see dissatisfaction in the couple’s sexual relationship. There may be many reasons for the dissatisfaction, but the three most common reasons that I see are because of a lack of intimacy in the emotional relationship, “sexual desire discrepancy,” and a sexual trauma history in one or both partners.
Lack of Intimacy in the Emotional Relationship
*The research on this piece of the article has been conducted in heterosexual relationships.
Men and women are wired differently. What the research shows is that women need emotional closeness to want to be sexually intimate, whereas men use sexual intimacy to feel emotionally close. When there is distress in the relationship, and individuals (especially women) do not feel emotionally close, having sex becomes a challenge. When you think about the physical anatomy of men vs. women, this adds some context as to why women need to feel emotionally close first. When preparing for sex, the female anatomy needs to relax, open, and allow for another being/object to enter her body. In order to allow for this softening, a woman needs to feel safe, secure, connected. Oftentimes, without that emotional closeness, it can become difficult for women’s bodies to open up or relax enough to want to allow their partners in. Men, on the other hand, do not need their bodies to open up, soften, relax, in fact their bodies get harder, more rigid, and they can use their bodies to enter into their partners’ space to feel emotionally and physically connected.
If you are sensing that emotional intimacy is lacking in your relationship, please see the next article in this blog series for ways to increase emotional intimacy and safety in the relationship.
Sexual Desire Discrepancy
Different people have different sex drives, we all know and acknowledge this, but oftentimes it can be forgotten when wondering why one’s partner doesn’t want to have sex. Research shows that typically, men have higher sex drives than women, but not always. It is important to have discussions with your partner about your sexual needs and desires without pressuring one another to change. Rather, first get to know yourself and your needs, and seek to understand your partner as well. Continue discussions, and if you get stuck, schedule a session with a couples counselor to work through the areas of stuckness.
Not Talking About Sex
Many of us grew up in families/cultures where talking about sex was taboo. Often I find that client’s don’t always talk too much about their sex lives, and it really is something that could be discussed and talked about freely with a little practice. It is great when during sex, partners can tell one another that something feels great, or not, but this isn’t always the case right off the bat. One way to get to this level of comfortability is to talk about sex outside of the bedroom. This includes frequency, likes/dislikes, fantasies, etc.
The morning after having sex, when you and your partner are not feeling so vulnerable/caught up in the moment, be sure to revisit how the sex was for you, and talk about what you liked. I often encourage talking about sex the next day because it allows you to spend some time getting clear on what felt good, what you’d like to see more/less of, and what questions you may have for your partner. It also allows the heat of the moment to die down, which allows both partners to feel less vulnerable and hopefully more open to receiving feedback. Be sure to review what you liked, talk about what felt good, praise your partner for the positives, while also explaining what you might like to be different. Ideally, as your confidence about talking about sex increases, and your sex life improves, you will be able to ask for adjustments in the moment.
Sexual Trauma History
Unfortunately, rates of sexual trauma are incredibly high in this country. It is estimated that 1 in 6 women have been the victim of rape or sexual abuse. A sexual trauma history can make it incredibly difficult or uncomfortable for individuals to engage in physical intimacy. If you or your partner have experienced any sexual abuse, rape, attempted rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, couples counseling or individual counseling would be a great space to work through the experience. There are individual therapies that are specific to working with trauma: EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), somatic experiencing, brainspotting, cognitive behavioral therapy. Couples counseling may also be a space to work through some of the relational issues surrounding the past trauma or abuse. Everything that is discussed in therapy is completely confidential so please do not hesitate to reach out to a therapist if you have been the victim of sexual abuse.
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