I just finished a wonderful book by Peter Lovenheim called In the Neighborhood; The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. The author laments that we don’t really know the folk who live on our block. So he goes to his neighbors’ homes and spends the night, just like we did as teenagers. Each time he invites the adults to really “open up” about their lives and values. The one thing he avoids discussing is sexual intimacy—how sexual a relationship is and whether or not the partners are happy with their current level of intimacy. My own friends know I’m a marriage therapist and clinical sexologist, but none of them have ever spontaneously opened up to me about their sex lives. Most people are just not comfortable talking about sex.
What would we ask? What would we share? The big question in our highly quantitative culture is probably, are we having enough? Most sex therapists concur that a sexless relationship is defined as one in which the partners have sex less than once a month or less than ten times a year. My colleagues are, of course, referring to “pivi” (penis-in-vagina intercourse). This eliminates same-gender couples and heterosexual couples who prefer other forms of sexual intimacy. I’ve certainly worked with many couples happy to have “pivi” less than monthly who would not describe their relationship as sexless!
After all, sex isn’t the only way to express love or show affection.
I’ve also worked with dozens of women over the years who “submit” to pivi once a week because their partners demand and expect it. These women become increasingly resentful and even hostile, which certainly doesn’t make for a mutually satisfying and trusting relationship. Compare this to the couple that makes time at least once a week to truly connect in ways that might not be overtly sexual. If sharing time, feelings, and needs without pivi truly meets both partners’ intimate needs, they will be quite happy.
Do you believe that you and your partner are mutually satisfied? If you’ve never talked about it, you’re not alone. We often assume that talking about sex will lead to our partner wanting more or wanting it with someone else. And we don’t want to embarrass, wound, or create tension by admitting that we yearn to have our partner bathe or shower before sex or would prefer to be approached in a more romantic way. So we silently comply, disengage, or withhold.
By the time people make it into my office this silence has usually become deafening. You might find yourself in these examples: a man who is worried that he might be impotent, so erectile problems lead to his withdrawal; a woman who feels rejected by his lack of overtures and says nothing; or a woman who fears she’s becoming “frigid” (yes I still hear this term!) and avoids intimacy by staying up late doing Facebook or going to bed hours before he does.
In my office I’m constantly looking for ways to help my couples become more comfortable talking about sex. One of the most important ways to approach this difficult subject is through appreciation. “Something I really enjoy (or enjoyed, even if it was a long time ago) and would like more of is ______.” Regardless of the rate or type of expression of intimacy in your relationship, appreciate it when and if it occurs. “I really loved it when you tenderly stroked my cheek just now…it makes me feel that you truly care.”
Sexual intimacy comprises so much more than genital contact. It’s about how we embrace, touch, chide, celebrate, lean on, listen to, nickname, and especially laugh with one another. Sometimes cake is even tastier without the icing!
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