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Negotiating Sex In Your Relationship

Image of gay male couple - Oakland Therapist EMDR Therapy

It is common knowledge among psychotherapists and researchers that the areas of highest conflict in couples are money, division of labor, and sex. I’d like to write some thoughts about sex in relationships because it has been arising as a frequent topic of conversation in my practice, and I believe the issue is so much more complex than most people tend to think it is.

A couple disclaimers: First, this blog post is mostly concerned with intimate monogamous romantic relationships, as many folks in polysexual or polyamorous relationships are able to circumvent some of the issues described below (though not necessarily.) Second, this information is applicable to all sexual orientations and genders, though of course gay and straight couples each have their respective unique challenges.

Next, a reality check:

  • Most Americans make the erroneous assumption that other people are having more sex than they are (obviously, not everyone could be right about this.)

  • According to some research, the average sexual encounter lasts about 7.3 minutes.

  • 50% of Americans are unhappy with their sex lives.

  • The happiest couples report having sex 2-3 times per week, but this varies with age, with people between 30 and 50 tending towards twice per week and those over 50 tending towards once per week or less.

So, in other words, if you’re struggling with a difference in desired frequency or quality of sex in your relationship, you are not alone. In fact, you are experiencing something quite common. This may feel like good news or bad news, depending on your outlook.

Components of Sexual Desire & Expression

Popular discussions about sexuality in relationships tend to reduce it to libido, the raw biological drive most of us possess to copulate. Thinking of sex in only these terms often causes confusion, hopelessness and miscommunication. Why? Because sex is about much, much more than biology. There are ways of thinking and talking about sex with your partner that can expand the conversation and create deeper understanding and empathy. Consider this:

Sex is about intimacy.

Sex is about attachment.

Sex is about power.

Sex can often be related to past trauma or abuse.

Sex is about feeling loved and desired.

Sex is about giving, and it is about receiving.

Sex is about communication.

Sex is about pleasure.

Sex is about release.

Sex can be related to shame.

Sex is about fantasy, and about disillusionment.

Sex is about needs, and about wants.

Sex is about energy, which is affected by stress, life circumstances, time of day, etc.

Sex is about quality as much or more than it is about quality.

Sex is about our human need for physical touch.

As is the case with most problems in life, there is no magical formula, no one-size-fits-all prescription for easily resolving sexual incompatibility between you and your partner. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. On the contrary, opening up a conversation that includes an examination of all of the above-listed factors is an invaluable opportunity to get to know yourself and your partner better, and to create even deeper intimacy. Take the plunge!

If you and your partner are struggling with disparate sexual needs, you can have a structured conversation that includes each of you answering the following questions:

  • What does sex mean to me?

  • How important is sex to me in a relationship?

  • What does it mean to me when I want to have sex and my partner doesn’t? Vice versa?

  • What are my wounds around sex?

  • What are our respective attachment styles?

  • How does my attachment style play out in our sex life? How does my partner’s?

  • What are my fantasies about sex?

  • Are there power struggles in the relationship that get enacted in our sex lives?

  • How much is sex about giving and how much is about taking? Receiving?

  • How connected is sex to love?

  • Am I being totally honest with myself and my partner about my sexual needs and desires?

  • Growing up, what were my models for sex in relationships?

  • What about my personal sexual history might be showing up in my current relationship?

These questions are just some of the ways you and your partner can begin to deepen your relationship to your sexual selves and to each other. Good luck – and don’t forget to have some fun!

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