Content note: Links in this post from 2012 discuss sexual abuse, among other sensitive subjects.
Every couple I know* – in a therapy setting or not – has experienced sexual incompatibility at one point or another in their relationship.
“Sexual incompatibility is a normal and natural part of marriage given the different sexual wiring of men and women, and the unique differences and desires of every individual.” source
So, let’s try a couple of brief thought experiments.
Imagine yourself as a woman, say a 35 year old mother of three children. You were a virgin at your wedding, but that doesn’t mean you were not sexual. You couldn’t wait for marriage. You were shy in talking about sex with your husband, however, and he didn’t know that much to begin with either. So there was a learning curve, but you were getting along OK and hoping things would get better.
Then you got pregnant. And nauseous. Everything made you sick, including the sights, smells, and the up-close bodily contact of sex. To say nothing of what was happening to your formerly trim, sexy body. You felt like a cow – a cow that threw up all the time. Sex was the furthest thing from your mind. And then the birth. Do we even need to describe it? There was nothing pretty or comfortable or “feminine” about that experience – in fact, if there wasn’t a baby involved, you could accurately describe it as brutally traumatizing. Afterwards, you didn’t want anybody to touch anything down there, for a very long time.
Three times you went through this. You love your kids, you love your husband, you’re glad you did it, but sometimes you feel like sex is something you can leave or take. Your body has changed and softened and aged, and the threshold for sexual arousal is higher. Sometimes. Sometimes not, but it isn’t exactly predictable.
Imagine yourself as a man, say the 35 year old husband of the woman above. You love your wife, you’ve always loved her, you’ve always found her sexy, and you’ve learned to be extremely careful about making comments on her appearance or fitness level because of her reaction. You get it – the societal pressure on women about their appearance. You’re patient when she’s pregnant, when she’s nursing, when it’s her period. But then there are also the random famine times, which are so difficult to endure without getting resentful. She’s in your house, in your bed – and she doesn’t want sex. She just doesn’t want it, she doesn’t even have a reason why.
Sometimes you feel desperate. You love her, and you don’t want anybody else. You need sex with her to know that she loves you.
This is only the most stereotypical of the endless permutations of sexual desire that can occur between partners over the course of a relationship. Imagine the complications created by a history of sexual abuse, chronic illness, pornography exposure, infidelity, etc. etc.
Some things to remember:
- Some sexual incompatibility is inevitable, if your relationship lasts long enough.
- Don’t take it personally.
- Try to understand your partner’s perspective. Resentment makes everything worse.
- Practice talking to each other about sexual issues in a loving, open way. You may need couples therapy in order to do this.
- Don’t give up.
- Remember that even in a marriage, no means no.
No person in a sexual partnership should ever feel they should or must have sex whenever the other partner wants to: we have sex with a partner when both of us feel a mutual, shared desire to do so. For partners who really do want to be sexual with one another, and who want similar things — a similar frequency of sex, a handful of sexual activities they both mutually enjoy, a general sexual dynamic of that works and feels authentic for both — even though there will be times when one partner wants to be sexual and another doesn’t, often those times will overlap and intersect enough to leave everyone satisfied with the relationship. When people in sexual relationship aren’t similar in those ways, it’s going to be really tough to have a sexual relationship that works well for everyone involved.
I want to make sure this is clear: consent is not a no or a maybe. Nor is it someone caving into another person nagging, whining, pressuring, goading or pushing for sex. Consent is a big, fat, sure, clear YES. If either one of you are continuing or trying to continue sex with the other with anything but that sure yes, what you’re doing is NOT consensual, and is potentially abuse or rape. This is not a minor thing… this is very serious business. To give real consent, someone needs to be able to make decisions about sex without any feelings of pressure. No always needs to be just as okay an answer as yes, even if someone has to manage feelings of disappointment. source
A brief overview of sexual incompatibility here.
*that is, every couple with whom I am familiar enough to have discussed their sexual experiences (including gay couples) – so not really a large sample – but 100% of the sample that exists.