Shari sits in my office and tells me a story I have heard countless times. She and David have two small children, five and three. Shari is what we call "the low desire partner" in their marriage. Although, I am not sure that is a fair or accurate label. Both sit on the couch stiff and cold - you can all but see the wall between them. Shari begins by saying, "He is always pestering me for sex. The baby isn't sleeping through the night yet, and I hardly get any sleep. Then when I finally am asleep, he is getting out of bed for work, and wants sex before he showers." David pipes in, "Well, if I didn't bug you, we'd never have sex. You never, ever touch me anymore!"
"So that's how it is", Shari says. "I just roll over and give him some, so he'll leave me alone."
I ask David, "How is that for you, that Shari reluctantly "gives you sex" so you will leave her alone?"
David smirks and jokingly says, "Well, I'll take it if that is all I'm going to get."
I ask again. "But how is that for you, really? Emotionally?"
David looks at me. "I hate it. I don't feel like she wants me. I don't feel like she desires me at all any more. I don't feel any love between us when we make love. I miss her. I miss us." David's eyes get teary.
Both men and women lonely, exhausted, wanting desperately to reconnect with each other - body, mind, soul and spirit. But truly not knowing how to, given how little resources they have, and the mandates on them for sex to look a particular way. Neither understand that they both want touch - she does and he does. Neither understand that they both want heart intimacy - he does and she does. She assumes he wants - wam, bam intercourse, and he assumes she wants to cuddle in his arms and go to sleep. But he wants to feel her and see her. He wants to see her pleasure, see her playfulness, see her heart. She wants to feel his tenderness, see his heart, his care for her, his desire to protect her, his desire for all of her not just her body. She wants to feel her heat, erotic desire again. She can hardly remember what it was to really feel alive. Underneath her exhaustion and his worry, they both want to return to their more playful, erotic, relaxed selves. They just don't quite know how to get there.
This story is so typical.
Approach reasons were defined as things like "a desire to get closer to one's partner." Avoidance reasons were defined as things like, "to avoid disappointing one's partner." What the studies found is that whether a person was imagining having sex for approach reasons or actually having sex for approach reasons, they reported higher levels of sexual desire, sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction, then those people who either imagined or actually had sex for avoidance reasons. Another even more interesting finding was the un-suspecting partner whose partner had sex with them to avoid disappointing them, ALSO reported lower levels of sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. This study demonstrated that the avoidance reason had an effect on the willing partner as well, subsequently diminishing their experience. A caveat was presented in the study showing that in the short term, avoidance reasons are better than a sexless relationship, however, over the long run, avoidance reasons will erode the fabric of the relationship. Within four months these willing partners were less satisfied and less committed overall (Muise, 2013). We know from other studies that when a sexual relationship is satisfying to both partners it accounts for 15-20% of the overall sense of relationship contentment. But if the sexual relationship is not satisfying for one or both partners it will account for 50-75% of the unhappiness in the relationship (McCarthy, 2015).
Recently I read a couple of research studies that looked at what was called approach and avoidance reasons for having sex with one's partner.
Given these studies it is worthwhile to try and find a way to both come to each other with an approach motivation. So how do you do this if you are exhausted, preoccupied with work or other responsibilities, or just plain not in the mood? I suggest you begin by having a conversation about connection and pleasure. There are many, many ways to share connection and pleasure ... just as there are many different foods that are both delicious and nutritious. If you want a balanced diet that is also not boring - you want to eat different foods each day - foods that are different colors, textures, elements, flavors, etc. And you want to vary how you prepare them. From here you can create a buffet of delicious possibilities. The same goes for creating a wide array of ways to share connection and pleasure. Some forms of touch will be short, some long, some soft, some hard, some involve some parts of your body, some others, some will involve only small fractions of your body, some will involve lots of parts of your body, some will be fast, some will be luxuriously long. If you can remove the "goal" from sex (intercourse and/or orgasm) and make it about connection (heart/intimacy) and shared pleasure - you can design a varied vocabulary of touch that can accommodate you no matter what mood you are in and what mood your partner is in. We are not needed in our partner's life to help them "relieve sexual tension" - they can do this themselves with masturbation. This idea has only added obligation to the sexual dance ... and obligation kills sexual desire ... every time! We need each other for shared intimacy and pleasure. To create together a shared erotic secret life that belongs to us alone - one that is varied, personal, accommodating, loving, and personally and perfectly crafted to where we are in that moment in time.
Increasing the Approach
When we do this, we are making love ... in every sense of the word. And lord knows, the world needs more of us to be doing this every chance we get!!