Editor’s note: How do egalitarian couples with a shared goal of equal partnership navigate differing work demands? This series will consider common power struggles in such relationships, tools for peaceful communication and establishing mutual support, and how to seek outside help when you need it. Part I of this series approaches the topic of sex and physical closeness when one partner is under a huge amount of work-related stress.
I’m a license-eligible marriage and family therapist who is also the partner of a second-year resident in obstetrics and gynecology. I love the stories my partner brings home, but there are days where I’ve struggled with feeling like her day-to-day reality is bigger than mine, feeling like there’s not enough room for her commitments both to residency and to me. Of course, these quantifying metaphors of time and space aren’t literal—rationally speaking, she is quite committed to us both. It’s clear she’s made sacrifices to her career for our relationship, and vice-versa. Still, it took us time to get accustomed to how the stress of residency would impact us, and it’s always a work in progress.
This experience has also helped me to think about my own expectations for relationships and where they come from. Following the feminist movement and national strides toward marriage equality, romantic partnerships are increasingly diverse and egalitarian. There is liberation in knowing we get to make conscious decisions about how we “do” relationships, putting deliberate thought and flexibility into the roles we occupy within them. Change happens naturally, too: within the course of a year, a partner may move from the role of primary caretaker to that of primary earner. A partner who once wanted sex less often may find he or she wants more, or wants sex differently.
Same-sex and queer partnerships have the benefit and added confusion of lacking traditional scripts and standards. Who initiates sex? Does the more masculine partner become the breadwinner, or does being the breadwinner put that partner into a more traditionally masculine role? What if there isn’t a masculine partner to begin with? What if both partners are unemployed?
No matter how we’re employed (or how masculine we are), my partner and I are committed to a mutually respectful partnership. I’m not touting us as the golden standard of happy couples, but I like to practice what I preach. We’ve commented to each other that this year’s work-life balance feels better for many reasons: I’m happier, she’s happier, and the way we communicate has improved. If you’re in a relationship with a partner whose job is more demanding, or if your job is more demanding than your partner’s, all hope is not lost! This series is for you.
My first shared post in this series is about developing and maintaining sexual intimacy.
Some days when my partner walks in the door, details of her day just start pouring out of her. It’s compulsive, the result of being “on” for more than 12 hours straight that day. Sometimes I’m afraid I won’t be able to interrupt her stream of consciousness, so I’ll make my announcements first. This might make me a hypocrite for bringing up the bigger problem: that it’s hard to connect when there’s no room for us to exist independently of the day’s work. We’ve approached different ways of dealing with this—some more successful than others—but usually our favorite is to greet each other by wordlessly holding one another. Sometimes it’s a short hug and sometimes it’s longer, but keeping up with this ritual gives us the ability to connect before one of us becomes the word sponge for the other person’s experience.
I take the stance that emotional intimacy and sexual practice go hand in hand. Some people do indeed use sex to escape their differences, and people can be emotionally invested in one another without being sexually intimate, but for the most part, sexual health is predictive of emotional health and vice-versa. Like everything else covered in this series, keeping an open line of communication helps. Be honest with your partner about your comfort zone and interests. As a general rule, you probably shouldn’t anticipate hours of marathon sex, but maintaining an active, mutually supportive emotional connection lends to better, more sensual physical relationships.
It’s important to understand that your sex life will be impacted by demanding work schedules. During residency and major time-constrained work projects, it’s normal for couples to go one or more weeks without having sex in favor of sleeping or watching an hour of a favorite television program. When resources are limited, the frequency of sex won’t be at its all-time high. This doesn’t mean the quality has to suffer, however.
With this in mind, some couples may choose to wake up an extra hour early one day a week or stay up late in favor of having sex. Be honest when you’re not in the mood or too tired, and look to your partner for signals before propositioning him or her for sex. Understand, too, that sleepy sex or “period sex” can be awesome sex. Other days, you may only want to masturbate side by side, and that’s OK—it’s not an inferior expression of sexuality. Masturbate alone, too, and if you don’t know already what works for you, learn. Having an intimate sexual connection with your partner is great if that’s what you’re after, but it’s not fair to rely on your partner to meet all of your sexual needs in the instant that you have them.
Obviously, much of this applies to all sexually active couples at one time or another. Dropping glamorous expectations for sex can take some of the pressure off if you feel you and your partner are in a rut or a “dry spell.” Practicing nonsexual touching and brief periods of intentional abstinence can also help couples who are struggling with sexual intimacy. Sometimes, though, despite your best efforts, you might feel like you’ve reached a dead end. If you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, facing the same problems over and over, but you’re both committed to making things work, a couples and/or sex therapist might be a good option.
Obviously, communicating openly and effectively is critical for good sex and good relationships at any stage. Having a third party present to guide the session can keep loaded conversations digestible. Chances are, if you’re on GoodTherapy.org already, you’re in a good spot to research therapy options in your city.
I hope you enjoyed Part I of my series about balancing relationships with unmatched work demands! Stay tuned for a chapter next month on a brand-new topic.
In the meantime, check out the resources below.
- Imago Relationships International (2013)*. Same sex couples. Imago Relationships International. Retrieved from http://pub.imagorelationships.org/AboutImagoTherapy/FreeResources/SameSexCouples.aspx
- Ludwig, R. (2011). How to cope when your partner’s job comes before you. com, A Production of NBCNews.com. Retrieved from http://www.today.com/id/44842820/ns/today-today_health/t/how-cope-when-your-partners-job-comes-you/#.VF1hrDTF_Yl
- Rogers, B. M. (2006). Keeping love alive during medical school. The New Physician, 55(4). Retrieved from http://www.amsa.org/AMSA/Homepage/Publications/TheNewPhysician/2006/tnp39.aspx
*Imago therapy provides a great dialogue style for discussing loaded topics at a mutually agreed-upon time. You can learn more about it in the book Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, or at an Imago couples workshop near you.
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