I am prepared to bet that what I am about to write applies to at least 80% of married couples. Read until the end for a fun useful activity to complete with your partner.
Over the last few years I had the privilege to work with many individuals and couples on marital concerns. Specialising in clinical sexology, most of these clients come to me with sex-related questions and issues.
The range of concerns is broad, and there is no denying that often they cause great discomfort and discord to all those involved. But here is the punchline...
In my experience thus far, in almost all cases I attended to, despite their complaints being sexual in nature, SEX HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT!
This is a broad and bold statement, however, in my clinical experience it is absolutely true.
I am convinced that many who currently experience similar concerns are in fact looking in the wrong places to address them.
Like the famous Greek myth of "Ariadne's thread" following the line of enquiry that begins with the sexual concerns is useful, but it seldom is the actual truth.
Here are some examples of concerns clients brought to my attention:
- a man who can't obtain or maintain an erection when being sexual with his partner
- a woman who struggles to achieve orgasm despite feeling aroused during intercourse
- a woman who experiences pain during intercourse
- a man who climaxes before he or his partner wish to
I think we could all agree these are sexual concerns; and yet in all these cases, sex was not at all the problem.
Part of the confusion begins because most people have too narrow a definition of 'sex'. When asked, most of my clients define sex as the act of penetration, and I often get challenged when I suggest that it actually includes every single gesture, word and emotion we share with each other from the moment we wake to the time we sleep.
When we understand that sex, including the act of penetration, exist in a broader system called relationship, and that when the relationship is "broken" sex suffers, we will begin to see the importance to address relational challenges as a way to "fix" sex problems.
Of course there are situations when there is a genuine sex-specific matter at play: lack of sexual knowledge, medical problems, sex-specific traumas just to mention a few, but in my experience, only a handful of clients fell in this category. The large majority needed to address their relationship.
Here are some of the most common situations I encounter and some simple suggestions to get you started.
The limited definition of sex is limiting to the couple's experience and is often responsible for perceived sexual "dysfunctions".
People are in general so fixated on sex being a goal-oriented sport (ideally earth-shuttering orgasms), that they completely miss the joy of just being sexual with each other, even when there is no penetration or orgasm involved.
There can be great joy and satisfaction in simply laying down naked with your partner and feeling each other's skin.
And equally there can be deep satisfaction in giving pleasure to your partner without needing/expecting anything in return.
I invite everyone to expand their definition of 'sex'.
There is nothing like unmet needs, real or perceived, to make a partner feel strong, negative emotions towards the other.
It is natural to have needs that we wish to see met by our partner or within the relationship. However, I often see a challenge in identifying or articulating one's own needs.
This is no surprise when we look at the way most of us are raised; conditioned to comply to so many external expectations that we stop being curious about and nurturing towards our inner essence. Sometimes this gap is so big, that after many years of neglect, we know something is missing, but we cannot articulate what it is, not even to ourselves, let alone to our partners.
And so, next time you feel this sense of confusion, do pause and ask yourself, "what do I actually need right now?"
Conflict is another area of misconception that I often see causing problems.
Many clients tell me, "I wish we could find a way to no longer have conflict!" or "Could you teach us to no longer have conflict?"
These are unrealistic expectations and I believe they focus our energy in ineffective directions.
Life is made of differences, sometimes large and important enough to create conflict.
Successful couples have plenty of conflict. The difference is that they know how to handle it effectively so to remain a "team".
Minimising unnecessary conflicts is important, but learning to handle them effectively even more so.
FOCUS ON THE 'WE'
I wrote previously about the impact that in-laws can have on a couple's relationship, but of course, there are many other reasons that pull us away from the relationship and force us to think and act individually, as if we no longer were part of a union with our partners.
Being in a relationship is a 'we' game, it's about working as a team, it is realising that our past, including our friends and families no longer occupy as top a priority as our relationship does.
Everyday we make choices about our work, our friends, our extended families that silently communicate to our partners, "this things are more important than you and our relationship. I'll work on them as a matter of priority, I'll dedicate you and our family whatever time I have left". When repeated daily, these messages will slowly erode the connection we enjoy in our relationships and that is so critical to feeling intimate.
I invite everyone to identify the ways in which they are working as a team to create and execute on a shared vision as a matter of priority.
Very often I have encountered couples where there appears to be a misalignment in the time-horizon the two partners focus on. I personally found this gap to be gender specific.
Often I hear women in heterosexual partnerships focusing on the future and complaining about a lack of vision, or more specifically a lack of clarity on the shared vision for the couple/family.
Conversely, I hear men focusing on the present and complaining that they already are putting all their efforts in creating the best future for their wives/families, and that it's unfair to suggest otherwise.
This, to me, is an obvious case of words lost in translation. Men and women speak two different languages and often, even when their intentions are aligned, the way to communicate to each other (or not as the more frequent case is) creates confusion and frustration.
I invite both to be more inquisitive about each others' intentions and dreams.
AND SO WHAT?!?!?!?!?!
You may be wondering, "What does this all have to do with sexual challenges in a relationship?"
Being sexual with a partner is about closeness, connectedness and fun. Can you imagine wanting to be close, connected and having fun with a person who at some deep level you resent or detest? I don't think so!
And therefore, barring any medical condition that may be limiting sexual functions, I deeply encourage you to find ways to recreate GENUINE closeness and connectedness in every day moments... as if by magic sexual activity and satisfaction may increase.
Focusing on the sexual dialogue to arrive at the underlying truths is also powerful. Here is an exercise I often ask my clients to complete to reopen the sexual dialogue in a structured, fun, gentle way.
YES, NO, MAYBE
Complete this Yes-No-Maybe questionnaire individually
Make time to come together with your partner in a moment of quiet, relaxed atmosphere
Share each other's answers and use it as an opportunity to open a dialogues and learn more about your sexual reality
Thank you for reading my article.
I base all my articles on real case studies and research findings that are relevant to my clients.
If you are experiencing something similar and would like to discuss it, feel free to book a free introductory session here or below.