Sexual Intimacy and The Big Disconnect

Cupid’s big day has come and gone once again. You may have enjoyed a romantic night out for Valentine’s Day accompanied by flowers, cards, candy or jewelry. But did you bring that passion back into the bedroom? Unfortunately, for many the answer is no, and although many couples express their love by going on special dates, holding hands, kind gestures, and exchanging gifts, they often lack true sexual intimacy.

Married men and women, on average, have sex with their spouse 58 times a year, a little more than once a week, according to data collected from the General Social Survey, which has tracked the social behaviors of Americans since 1972. But there are wide variations in that number. Married people under 30 have sex about 111 times a year. And it’s estimated that about 15 percent of married couples have not had sex with their spouse in the last six months to one year, according to Denise A. Donnelly, associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University, who has studied sexless marriage.

Why does a marriage become less passionate? Does it start out that way? Or does sex fade?

According to the General Social Survey, some people never had much sex from the beginning of their relationships, while others identified a particular time or event (childbirth, affair) after which sex slowed. Some people became accustomed to their spouse and their sex life diminished. For others, it was the demands of raising a family or establishing a career. And then there were people with low sex drives; they may have enjoyed sex with their partners early on, but then it became unimportant to them (and perhaps not so unimportant to their spouses!).

Let’s review a few scenarios.

Gary and Melissa have been married for ten years. For the first years of their marriage, they were very intimate with each other, having sex two to three times per week. Melissa was a stay at home mother of two and Gary worked on Wall Street. Unfortunately, Gary lost his job, so Melissa needed to get a full-time job in order to help support the family. Eventually, Gary found a new job but the pay wasn’t enough to support the family on one income. Ever since this major life change, their passion in the bedroom slowly diminished – they’re lucky if they have sex twice a month. Sadly, they hardly get to spend quality time with one other. The couple is stressed out, overworked and constantly busy.

Just a year ago, Carol and Marty always seemed to find a way to fit sex into their day. But after the recent diagnosis of their son’s autism, Carol seems to be making any excuse to avoid the bedroom including the old “I have a headache” statement. She feels she needs to be there for her son, but in the meantime she’s turning away her husband.

Sam and Susie fight all the time. He is very critical of her housekeeping and her child- rearing. In addition, she doesn’t like the way he speaks to her during the day and as a result when he’s interested in sex, she finds a way to avoid the situation. This is not uncommon. Women are unlikely to have sex at night when they don’t like they way they are being treated during the day; men, on the other hand, may view sex as a way to apologize or get closer.

And what about those friends who boast about all the great sex they’re having?

In a recent New York Times article, author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz noted that people lie about their sex life so the available data is not reliable. Men who have never been married claim to average 29 condom uses per year. This is more than the total number of condoms sold in the United States to married and single people combined.

Married people probably exaggerate how much sex they have, too. On average, married men under 65 tell surveys they have sex once a week. Only 1 percent said they have gone the past year without sex. Married women say there is a little less sex but not much less.

Men and women most likely exaggerate their sexual activity because of social pressures. Click on the television, and you’ll see a commercial about the blockbuster erotic movie 50 Shades of Grey. Or what about those commercials that promise the perfect relationship if the man just takes a little blue pill? The world seems to be having sex all the time.

So what about the people who are having sex? Are they satisfied?

Two recent studies from the University of Toronto probed the underlying reasons married couples have sex. Researchers found that it’s not about lust, boredom, bribery, or just plain good times, but that most of our motivations fall into two camps: approach or avoidance. Common reasons included: “I want to avoid conflict,” “I don’t want to feel guilty,” “I want to increase intimacy with my spouse,” and the always-promising “I want to feel better about myself.” For some, it seems that sex is something they merely check off their “to do” list and not something that they are talking about with one another.

Partners share so many intimate moments from tripping over one another in the bathroom to being present at the birth of a child. Many, however, are tongue-tied when it comes to talking about sex.  Acknowledging the factors that keep a couple from experiencing a healthy, happy and exciting sex life is important, and is first step to turning the heat back on in the relationship.

Before you begin thinking about how you can bring passion back into your relationship, reflect on what might be keeping you from being intimate. There is often not one easy answer.

Consider the following reasons why people don’t have sex:

  • Talking about sex can feel taboo
  • Inability to articulate sexual needs
  • Fear of being criticized
  • Leaving it up to the partner to know what turns you on
  • Lack of time due to a busy lifestyle
  • Stress due to relationship conflict
  • Lack of confidence about physical appearance
  • Lack of privacy
  • Negative emotions, such as depression or sadness
  • Physical disorder
  • Sexual performance issues
  • Loss of libido
  • Differences in libido
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Age-related changes
  • Medication or drug use

Once you acknowledge the obstacles holding you back from experiencing intimacy, review ways to overcome them. If it’s a lack of time, then reprioritize your busy schedule. So what if you skip the laundry tonight or the dishes are still in the sink –those things can wait until tomorrow. Perhaps work or hobbies are taking up too much time. Could you spend less time at the office or learn to say no to other commitments?  If it’s your physical appearance, could you make changes to boost your confidence? If it’s a lack of privacy due to shared space (maybe your kids need to sleep with you at night) could you get your privacy back?

How do you refocus on your relationship and rekindle sexual intimacy?

Sexual intimacy is very personal. Each of us has needs and desires, and it is important to explore these with your partner. Talk to your partner about your concerns. Remember to be sensitive when bringing the subject up and pick an appropriate time. Consult your doctor if you think there is a physical problem. Coming up with a plan together puts you on the road to improving your sexual relationship.

There is no study or survey that will tell you how much sex is the right amount to have. In order to determine if you’re being as passionate as you want to be or as your partner wants it to be there is no alternative but to talk to one another. If you think you could use some help with that conversation, please contact me.

And by the way, if you have a chance, check out the New York Times Well Blog from February 23 and read about how married sex gets better in the golden years. So hang in there because you have a lot to look forward to once you pass 5 years together.



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Photo credit: Josep Ma. Rosell