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Sexual Mismatch

Sex is relatively easy when you are swept up in the glories of dating, engagement, and the wedding. By year two, three, or four of a marriage, though, things can get more complicated.

Please don’t lose your composure if you and your partner are having trouble agreeing on the role of sexual activity in your marriage. For the sake of argument, let’s say that you are inclined to have sex once or twice a week and that you have the feeling that your sex life goes pretty far in defining the success of your marriage and your success as an individual, really. What is the probability that the person you find yourself married to will have the same sexual values? Pretty slim, it turns out.

So the difference has to be negotiated. And the wider the gap, the more ground must be accounted for. That’s tough when it comes to something so fundamental as sex is to our sense of self and to our fantasies of what should and will happen when we are married.

Negotiating differences is an important part of the work of marriage. In other words, having different feelings about sex does not mean a couple shouldn’t be together. The sorting out of differences is what makes marriage challenging, but also rich and rewarding. If you are well matched in sex, don’t worry, you will be poorly matched somewhere else in your marriage - parenting, money, cleanliness, leisure activities, relationships with families of origin, and so on. Unless you are married to yourself. So it might as well be sex.

What I mean is that we have relative differences to negotiate in all areas of our marriage. People generally don’t match up perfectly in their interest in keeping the house neat, to cite a pretty simple (and common) example. In the short term, this can lead to arguments. In the long term, however, many couples work out some kind of compromise, or in other cases one partner just yields to the other. The difference is that housecleaning is not so fundamental to our sense of self, security, and partnership, usually, as sex. Self-esteem, identity, entitlement - there are a lot of tender spots when it comes to sex. And the need to tend to one’s own tender spots can put a big strain on one’s partner.

There are two basic approaches to reconciling such differences. The more obvious one is compromise. In this case, the partner with the higher sex interest will have somewhat less sex than she would like and the partner with the lower sex interest will have somewhat more sex than he would be inclined to if it were left up to him. This is compromise. My wife says compromise is when everyone is a little bit miserable, and but I think that overstates it.

The approach works if you are fairly well matched for sexual interest. Unfortunately, unwanted sex is so aversive and off-putting that this sort of compromise can make things worse if you are pretty far apart on the scale. Sometimes, of course, if we let ourselves be coaxed or even pestered into having sex when we weren’t really in the mood, it can go really well. But for some people, having sex when you don’t feel like it makes you even less likely to want it next time around. When dread starts compounding, you are headed in the wrong direction.

In other words, for the most part it is uncomfortable for people with a low interest to more-or-less just lie there while their partner is doing their thing. It can be a pretty big turnoff. Further, for folks with complex sexual histories (capital H or even small h), it can be re-traumatizing. In the end, every time that happens, the individual’s experience of sex will become more and more distressed, creating dread of sex broadly. We don’t want to go there. You don’t want to go there.

In cases of less-well-matched sexual interest, then, the better approach is sex by mutual consent. This means the one who wants it less, wins. That’s rough, right? But really we operate that way all through our romantic lives, so why not in marital sex too? If I want to date you, but you don’t want to date me, you win. If i want to kiss you and you don’t want to kiss me, you win. If I want to have sex with you and you don’t want to, you win. Sex under this concept, then, is by mutual consent. If I want to have sex and you don’t, we don’t. If you want to have sex and I don’t, we don’t. Only when we both want to have sex do we have sex. This can be deeply frustrating for people who feel urgently about sex. But it does make sense nonetheless. If you are pushing your partner hard for sex, things are only going to get worse.

But if you give your partner the time and space to come to his or her own sexuality, sex can become easier and more successful. Many women, recent reliable studies have shown, are most active and much more satisfied in their sex lives in their 40’s. Many husbands in their 20’s are very frustrated and unable to let things evolve. Sex after all is often a big part of their self-esteem as well as a part of marriage that they thought would be easy to deal with. And it is hard to wait when your body is screaming, “Now!” But sex does evolve over the course of marriage, and it pays to be patient. If you understand that you are going to be together forever, it can be somewhat easier bide your time.

In plenty of marriages, I have found, it is the woman who is pushing for more sex and the husband who is reluctant, or less interested. Plenty. And of course in same sex marriages, either party can be in the eager or reluctant one.

If you are looking at chunks of several years and nothing is changing, of course, counseling may help. Discussions with a urologist or gynecologist or urologist may be in order.

In the meantime, I am a fan of scheduling sex, for those who are having trouble working out their sex lives. A lot of couples balk at this idea, I find, but many spouses can’t and won’t make the transition if they are approached for sex at 10:30 pm after putting two kids to bed, or the equivalent. Scheduling an encounter can give everyone a chance to pace themselves and get themselves emotionally oriented so they are ready when Thursday night comes. A lot of times, in fact, such anticipation leads to a nice sense of readiness and excitement.

Give yourself a chance get it going even if you aren’t exactly in the mood. Sometimes people wait to feel good to have sex, when having sex might cause them to feel good. You have to agree in advance, though, that either party can call it off, if things aren’t progressing. And no sulking if that happens. Try again next Thursday.

Many times it is the relationship when you are NOT having sex that creates the problem. I will write about that soon. And look for article about sexual communication (coming soon!) for help with the sexual encounter itself since oftentimes it is the way sex happens that is the problem, especially when couples are having a hard time giving each other feedback on what is and is not working during sex. More to come on these topics, and soon.

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