Sex In The Coupledom: A Powerful Absence

Sexual Intimacy MIA?: “A common clinical adage is that sexuality contributes 15-20% to a marriage’s serving of shared pleasure……… When sexuality is difficult or non-existent, it plays an inordinately powerful role, perhaps 50-75%.” (McCarthy & Metz, 1997). When physical intimacy is missing in action in The Coupledom, its importance soars!

No Shame Needed Here: The fact that a significant number of couples are not having great sex, frequent sex or any sex at all, is not just a stand up’s late night joke but a common Coupledom challenge. Sadly, unlike other couples’ issues, admitting that you are not hot and heavy with your life partner feeds feelings of shame, fears of “something wrong with us” and secretiveness. Ridiculous. Can anything this common and legal be that shameful? We have bodily functions that are more embarrassing.

In their book Rekindling Desire, Barry and Emily McCarthy cite inhibited sexual desire as the most disruptive sexual problem in marriages today. A no sex or low sex marriage, they emphasize, “puts tremendous stress on the couple especially if sensuality and affection also cease.”

From the clinician’s chair, that is exactly how it plays out. The low level of sexual contact, of course, is subjectively measured with each partner providing their own numbers. But a good guess is that the absence of sex for weeks, months or years at a time, if not addressed, will damage the relationship. As the McCarthys’ put it, “The longer the partners are in a low-sex or no-sex marriage, the more they blame each other.” (See my post “Hot Potato of Blame“)

Frozen on a King Size Mattress: In the hopefully forgiving atmosphere of the therapist’s office, descriptions of couples lying side by side in bed, anxiously aware of the other, with invisible borders marking the boundaries of intimacy, abounds. These same couples may go for years without sexual intimacy, and pay the price of avoiding the “white elephant” in the room when the damaged relationship can no longer be repaired. Closest friends and family are not confided in because this is the worst secret of all. Really?

The Awkward Conversation: Often stifled by couples as if it were a contagious sneeze, the sexual intimacy conversation is chronically sidestepped while other contentious topics such as money, in-laws, or children are the preferred vehicle for expressing hurt or anger, topics so much less personal, emotional millimeters from the heart, disconnected from the body and experienced as less damaging to the ego, a fragile organ indeed. Or the “conversation” takes place, is so loaded with shame, pain, and blame, the vitriol so toxic, that it leaves lesions rather than provides solace and solution.

Intimacy Gets Complicated: The days of easy satisfaction of lustful hunger, where no other factors but proximity, privacy and hopefully protection constitute all that is needed for bliss, pass as a sacred memory when shared domiciles, marriage, children and mortgages pile on. Sexual intimacy, once so easily met, becomes a maze of disconnected opportunities or misaligned stars. Sometimes it is the hurt around other issues that are masked by sexual withdrawal. Sometimes it is exhaustion, travel schedules, babies or physical manifestations of bodily changes, menopause, medication, depression or anxiety, premature ejaculation or vaginismus.

Perhaps there was always a hint of difficulty, an intimacy disconnect, even in the early stages of The Coupledom when awkwardness or sexual ignorance created a vicious cycle of anticipatory anxiety and avoidance. Shy and ashamed to ask for what might feel good or too fearful to explore where the secret satisfactions might reside, folks can remain fairly uninformed or painfully clueless of their own body’s desires. Memories of past loves or performance anxiety and projections of insecurities and self esteem issues onto one’s partner’s may further befoul the waters when mistaken notions of rejection or inadequacy distort what is frequently a simple need for clarification and sensitivity.

Stop Pathologizing Sexual Imperfection: Our U.S. culture celebrates shared sexual pleasure as the signature element of couple health. That is fine but the downside is that anything short of sexual bliss is seen as abnormal or deviant. To help couples recalibrate expectations and deal with the elements that are not working in their bedroom can become a less daunting task if the culture stops Hollywoodizing intimacy.

Below Standard: Buying into the notion that there is a fixed standard for “normal intimacy” is dangerous. Rubbish! Each couple would be well advised to figure out their own agreed upon standard, rather than be frightened off and self stigmatizing because of some chart or talk show chat. But to figure out an acceptable standard does require a foundation of trust and openness. Therein lies the work.

A History of Sexual Abuse, Religious Teachings, Substance Abuse, can be powerful contributors to sexual dissatisfaction and avoidance. Each topic deserves time and attention elsewhere. For the purposes of this post, the emphasis is on lowering the shame and avoidance levels, and beginning to address the sexual conversation, first with the “self” (what am I missing, afraid of, avoiding) and then together as a couple.

A Casualty of Sexual Loss: AFFECTION! When sexual intimacy diminishes, physical affection, the gestures of fondness, fall victim as well. Hand holding; hugs; kisses that are a bit more than pecks; embraces and simple body proximity (what’s the distance between you and me on this couch?) all suffer and make co-existence an artful interplay of feigned familiarity and strained affections. In short, stressful.

Naming The Obvious and Getting Help: Someone has to be brave. Asking couples to do the work falls in to the category of courage. No matter the topic, I find my guidance inevitably begins with the call for courage. Your Coupledom is stalemated or perilously descending in a spiral of doom. Some one of the couple has to step forward and state it: “Hey, we are clearly not intimate, have not been for a while. Let’s deal with it. Let’s begin to have that conversation or else…we will lose something precious here.”

“Just Do It” and “Have Humor”: Sex is serious but we do take it too seriously. Sometimes just doing it relieves the pressure of “not doing it” and actually if done with some humor and playfulness, regardless of who is sated or pleasured more or less, removes the weighted gravity of “not doing it”. The sacred standard of sexual satisfaction, the holy orgasm, even that can be a misleading or much overworked sexual destination. It is not unlike taking those first fearful steps towards crossing a bridge, when bridge crossing is your phobia. One step at a time and voila, you are on the other side. But do it again, and again and again. Develop a mutual language of humor about it. Get used to it, better at it, and begin to see it as, yes, sharing love, reducing tension, and having fun.

Seek Out An Expert: The Courage of Two. We are quite immature about this topic…still childlike and timid, with each other and another. An expert who is trained in sex therapy or couples therapy can walk you through the gates of sexual adulthood. It will take the Courage of Two to team up with the third “stranger” to begin the journey towards that imperfect relational world of intimacy. Always better, sooner than later. Delay can be fatal.

© Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011

10 Responses to “Sex In The Coupledom: A Powerful Absence”

  1. Scott

    Albeit worthy of humor, courage and a third party stranger, why is the newness of, say, an affair so much easier? Rather than helping, time seems to ruin the fix. Why? Are we wired to proliferate the species’ variety until our dying day? Is there a need for a new kind of third party professional perhaps?

      • Scott

        Yes, understood… I just don’t understand how it is that after say 20 years, a response can evolve to “I have nothing left to give!” But rather we are then willing to begin giving “everything” to a total stranger?? Why don’t those 20 years accumulate the strength of the Coupledom and make the stranger less attractive with each passing year?

        Thanks Jill. Wonderful thought provoking articles!

  2. Kim

    Sexual intimacy and affection create powerful emotions, feeling loved and cared for. Can the emotions from these moments cause a road block and detour on the road to saving a marrige? I guess the question is, is it irrational to wonder if the love and the care felt from the intimacy will be mistaken for all that is needed to give. Or even if the love and care that’s felt can get in the way of the love and care needed outside the intimacy.

    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Wonderful observation of a conundrum of sorts. Can sexual intimacy serve for all that is needed in closeness for one partner causing a disincentive to strive for other forms of closeness? Answer: that’s why it takes two to make a relationship. Even if one member of the coupledom doesn’t feel the same urge for other kinds of closeness, as long as sexual intimacy is there, there is that other member who helps to broaden the definition of closeness. You cannot be close if only one of you feels it…impossible. Close to what or whom, if no one is on the other side, feeling it too.

      • Kim

        Okay, closeness provides the way to feel safe, loved and cared for. Sexual intimacy is an easy way to be close, and probably the ultimate in closeness. But it can’t be the only way. Physical closeness is one thing, intellectual closeness another. I spent the last hour laying in the hammock staring through the maple tree thinking. Lots of thoughts, a lot to write down.

  3. Kim

    Hand holding; hugs; kisses that are a bit more than pecks; embraces and simple body proximity are a great benefit of rekindled sexual intimacy. Sharing love, reducing tension and having fun may also open doors to other types of closeness. I’ll admit I underestimated the power of sexual intimacy.


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