Let's talk level setting expectations around sex for long term monogamous couples.
As a Clinical Sexologist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I work with a great deal of married or long term partners who initiate therapy based on dissatisfaction with their sex life. What I see most often are inaccurate interpretations of what constitutes a “healthy” sexual relationship. Based on these unrealistic determinations, couples find themselves routinely coming up short. They express disappointment in not meeting standards, and therefore their marriage must be inherently flawed. Here’s the thing, while sex is important, it’s usually the last stop on the train. Meaning, there are so many things that influence desire, arousal, and eventual partnered sexual exchange, that measuring our sex life on frequency of penetration alone, leaves for a pretty distorted evaluation. Let’s explore some common misperceptions as they pertain to sex in long- term relationships/marriages.
- There is such a thing as a normal sex life. INCORRECT
Normal and sex do not belong in the same sentence. A healthy relationship can highlight daily sexual exchange or it can be literally non-existent. Sex serves to fulfill certain needs within a partnership. Some of these needs are attachment, validation, physical intimacy, and connectedness. While sex is a great way to satisfy these needs, it is not the only way. Therefore, it really depends on the couple and their unique preferences. What’s more important than the frequency of sex, is that the couple feel similarly in the importance of sex and how often they engage in sexual activity with their partner. They should also be having open dialogue regarding methods of meeting these needs that include, but are not limited to, sex itself. When I work with couples, I always have them complete a sexual inventory that addresses both their history and preferences. One main component of couples sex therapy centers on addressing gaps or mismatch within desire, frequency, initiation, and desired sexual behavior.
- Men want sex all the time and if they don’t they are not attracted to me. INCORRECT
People are under the assumption that if their male partner has difficulty obtaining or maintaining an erection, or does not orgasm, that he must not be attracted to them. Additionally, men come into my office, expressing extreme distress when they encounter these events, believing with certainty that there is something very wrong with them. We can thank societal attitudes and portrayals for reaching these conclusions. However, that does not mean that this notion is valid. Here are some contributing factors that are actually relevant to male sexual complications.
- The fact that there is so much pressure for a man to always be ready to perform and to have an orgasm every time, can actually influence onset of erection/ejaculation difficulties or maintain those complications.
- Partner pressure, expectations, and most importantly reaction to erection/ejaculation difficulties, can exacerbate and cause these sexual challenges. I see quite often how negative and emotionally charged reactions from a receiving partner, which might include blame of infidelity or accusations about not finding them attractive, maintains erectile/ejaculation issues.
- Desire/Libido is always changing. Environmental stressors, age, and medical factors are all highly influential in our ability to perform and to achieve orgasm.
3) For long-term partners to be sexually satisfied, they have to “spice things up”. CORRECT
“Spicing things up” is really just pop culture echoing research findings that show that overtime we respond with less arousal to repetitive stimuli. This research, conducted by Kathryn Kelley and Donna Musialowski in 1986, and published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, further concludes, that variation, which creates novelty, helps to sustain arousal over extended periods of time. Discerning that novelty is key, you might wonder what makes sex feel fresh. Commonly certain ideas arise, things like watching pornography with your partner, role play, costumes and or sexy outfits, different positions, a new location, introduction of sex toys, and change of or inclusion of foreplay. But it can also include adjustment in who initiates and the level of intimacy/connection achieved during the experience.
Sex positions reflect certain levels of connectedness, intimacy, or rawness that depending on the person might elicit a threatening, vulnerable, and or aversive response. For example, “doggy style” or penetration from behind, can allow for a certain degree of detachment, space, or anonymity that helps certain individuals to relax and achieve orgasm more frequently. For others, missionary position, where there is more of an opportunity to elevate the connection or intimacy with kissing and eye contact, might feel more pleasurable. This is extremely specific to each individual’s preference and not applicable whatsoever on any kind of generalized basis. If you gravitate towards one style or the other, it might be helpful to explore alternatives.
4) If we’re not having much sex, we don’t have intimacy in our relationship. INCORRECT
Sex and intimacy are two separate things, even though sex can be part of intimacy and intimacy can be a component of sex. What I will say is that communication is the most effective tool in aiding issues encountered in both arenas. Honestly sharing what your needs are in these areas, provides your partner with both the ability to understand, and the opportunity to actually meet those needs. Most commonly, issues arise when there are differences between partners. Here, highlighting empathy for the other person’s perspective and finding an effective compromise is ideal.
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