One of the most common concerns sex and marital therapists see are problems with couples’ sex lives. Frequency, behaviors, types of sex acts, masturbation, appoved or disapproved fantasies – these all play a part. There are millions of internet advice pieces on this topic. I have a different take on solving this problem than most. To me, the tactical tips offered by many of these internet sources are not helpful. I believe that, while well-intended, they are premature. Unless you first address some underlying issues, these quick fixes won’t work for long.
1. Recommit to having a better sex life
Remember when you first became sexual with your partner? It was easy, frequent and hot (or at least that’s how many folks remember it). Now, it takes planning, juggling, and determination, happens rarely (if at all), and is often far from hot. What happened? More importantly, what can we do?
A lot of “experts” give you a list of tactical suggestions about new positions, new places, or similar ideas. These are great, but extremely limited. They assume that any underlying issues getting in the way of having the sex you want either don’t exist or have magically been resolved. Applying tactics when you haven’t dealt with the root causes is an exercise in frustration. Having sex in a treehouse isn’t going to improve your relationship if one (or both) of you doesn’t really want to have sex anywhere!
The Affirmative Intimacy™ approach to relationships is designed to help you with the skills to get the relationship you want. Central to achieving that is helping you accept complete responsibility for yourself and for getting what you want in relationship. This includes your sexual satisfaction.
An essential first step is recommitting with your partner that you both want a vibrant, fulfilling sex life together. This is a root cause matter. There are those who have so little sexual desire they simply don’t much care about having a partnered sex life. Others have let their desire waste away from disuse. Or they’ve pushed their desire to the back of their emotional closet for so long they’ve completely lost touch with it. There sometimes are physical challenges that must be addressed, especially as we age. And, there are many “unrelated” issues that can erase your sex life if not addressed.
But research demonstrates that a fulfilling and satisfying sex life is strongly associated with good health and relationship satisfaction. There are powerful and important benefits to be had by getting this right!
So, you and your partner must first have a thoughtful and detailed conversation about your respective willingness to recommit enthusiastically to the sexual component of your relationship. My Safe Space, Structured Dialog, and Mindful Reason techniques can help with this. You then need to work together to demolish any obstacles to prioritizing this aspect of your relationship.
If you can’t master this, no amount of “date nights” or “sexy texts” are going to restore the health of your relationship. There are other measures you can take if you’re deadlocked, but those are beyond the scope of this post.
2. “Normal is just a cycle on the washing machine” – Whoopi Goldberg
Own your desires, turn-ons, ideal partner preference, fantasies and preferred approaches to sex. Collectively, these constitute your lovemap. Forget everything you think you know about what’s “normal.” Each of us is perfectly individual; we all have different life experiences from birth. Even identical twins raised together will have differences in their lovemaps. My point here is to avoid self-shaming, and to build resistance to shaming from others, about your lovemap. Unless your lovemap leads to abusive or criminal behavior, it’s ok.
What is a lovemap? The term comes from a 1986 book by Johns Hopkins University researcher John Money. Money defined it as “a developmental representation or template in the mind and in the brain depicting the idealized lover and the idealized program of sexual and erotic activity projected in imagery or actually engaged in with that lover.”
As we grow up in a particular culture at a particular time, cultural norms shape our sexuality. So do life experiences and family-of-origin norms. We each develop a detailed lovemap that incorporates these inputs and our own reactions to them. Money believed this process begins as early as five years old. Whenever a sexual or potentially sexual situation occurs – real or virtual – we unconsciously consult our lovemap to see if we find it arousing. This then leads us toward satisfying our sexual needs in ways consistent with what we’ve learned and internalized.
3. For better sex, share your fantasies with your partner and ask your partner to do the same
Once you’ve identified your lovemap and associated fantasies, invite your partner to do the same. When they’ve finished, it’s time to share with each other! Research proves that doing this is good for your relationship. It can be an incredibly hot experience for both of you, if you’ve correctly set the stage. My Safe Space training might prove very valuable in getting this right the first time!
4. Accept your partner’s desires, turn-ons, fantasies and preferred approaches (It doesn’t mean you have to do them)
Here’s where a lot of conversations around sexuality and lovemaps go off the rails. To allow vulnerability and honesty, we must commit to unconditional acceptance of each other. It doesn’t matter if we find our partner’s lovemap appealing or appalling; it’s theirs and they have every right to it. Resist any temptation to express disgust or to practice shaming behaviors. It’s perfectly fine to ask for elaboration or clarification, so long as it’s not a setup for launching a put-down.
By accepting, I don’t mean endorsing or committing to act upon your partner’s lovemap. In truth, many of us entertain fantasies that we’d really never want to enact in real life – and that’s ok! They can still be hot and juicy stimuli during a somewhat tamer sexual encounter.
Also, QTIP – quit taking it personally! Resist the urge to judge your partner’s disclosures as a reflection on you, your looks, your skills, or your physical endowments! It doesn’t matter where they came from. This sexual lovemap formed long before your partner ever knew you! Lovemaps typically can be changed only around the margins.
5. Agree on boundaries – then agree to push them a little!
As I said, once you’ve shared your fantasies and lovemaps, you can have an honest conversation about which, if any, might be fulfilled. Set forth your boundaries and limits as clearly as you possibly can. That said, I invite you to give serious consideration to pushing your own boundaries a little. Sometimes our baggage around sexuality causes us to be so limited in our sexual repertoire that we never experience some very interesting and pleasurable variations.
Pleasurable and enjoyable sex is first and foremost about mutual consent and consideration. That said, rigidity denies so many opportunities in the bedroom. Strive to be flexible and willing whenever possible. It can pay off in mind-blowing sexual experiences we would have missed out on if we stubbornly stayed within our safe, quiet shell.
6. Reclaim a healthy sense of sexual entitlement!
As an adult human being, you are entitled to a fulfilling sexual life. That’s what I mean by a healthy sense of entitlement. This absolutely can’t come at the expense of others’ well-being! But neither should you easily surrender this basic human right. You have every right to take every ethical step possible toward meeting this human goal. This does not make you a “sex addict” or a nymphomaniac! As I noted above, the path to achieving this goal lies in mutual consent and consideration. Practice both, liberally and frequently. Within reason, do not seek to deny or infringe each other’s rights in this matter.
7. Then do it! Negotiate win-win scenarios and stretch your boundaries (it feels so good once you’ve tried it!)
Enough contemplation! Take action. Have the conversations, negotiate together how you can each meet your goals, stretch your boundaries a little, and have at it! Now you can bring in all of the tactical tricks that the sex advice columns focus on to the exclusion of addressing the bedrock sexual concerns I’ve touched on here.
Want to know more about my approach to keeping relationships fulfilling, happy, and lusty? Get my free ebook, What’s Wrong With Our Relationships?
When I was formalizing Affirmative Intimacy® in 2015, I researched the causes of relationship conflict. I found pretty solid agreement from a lot of sources. I boiled it all down to nine key areas:
- Communication (None or Poor)
- Balance of Responsibilities
- Incompatibility of Attitudes/Beliefs/Feelings/Devotion (Regardless of Cause)
- Caring/Support “Gap” or Imbalance
Now a team of researchers from three universities has just released a new study on the matter. Their list is shorter than mine – only six items – but all of mine are definitely reflected in theirs. This research had some significant limitations. The sample was small (limits statistical power), and only newlyweds. The 3-year follow-up had a significant drop-out rate – about a third. Even so, it is important and it matches my own experience. It also matches that of other relationship helping professionals I know.
This is the list they came up with, and their definitions:
- Inadequate Attention or Affection – included reasons concerning expressions of love and care that couples disagree about.
- Jealousy and Infidelity – includes a partner’s behaviors that may increase the perceived risk of infidelity (e.g., “talking to an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend”), and reactions to an increased risk of infidelity (e.g., “jealousy,” “being possessive”).
- Chores and Responsibilities – includes reasons for disagreements about everyday tasks that partners may share.
- Sex – includes reasons for disagreements associated with sexual incompatibility and disclosure of a couple’s sexual intimacy (e.g., “sexual acts,” “telling private information about relationship to others”).
- Control and Dominance – includes reasons for disagreement over attempts by one partner to manipulate the other (e.g., “Who’s boss”).
- Future Plans and Money – includes reasons for disagreement associated with ability and willingness to invest resources in the relationship (e.g., “children”).
So let’s look at these reasons for relationship conflict. I’m also offering my suggestions on addressing them.
Relationship Conflict – Inadequate Attention or Affection
The study found that women’s but not men’s probability of having an affair within five years was positively correlated with the frequency with which the couple disagrees about Inadequate Attention or Affection. If women don’t feel they’re getting the attention they want in the relationship, they’re more likely to look for it elsewhere!
- Every person needs to define this for themselves – what is “inadequate”? You have to ask yourself if your expectations are reasonable. Do you expect things to be the same in a long-term relationship as they were in the courtship stage? It isn’t likely!
- What are you looking to your partner to provide that you should be providing to yourself? We too often look for support or validation from sources outside of ourselves. We fail to address our own self-care. Remember that you’re the first responder to your own issues, concerns, and emotional challenges.
- This pattern of dependence can be rooted in family of origin differentiation of self issues. Did you always wait for your parents or other family members to pay attention to you or affirm you in some way? Did you expect them always to step in and soothe you when you were stressed, disappointed or upset? As an adult, it’s now time to move away from that habit of thinking.
- I strongly recommend that you do some Five Love Languages research and share it with your partner(s). Maybe you’re just talking different languages!
- Have you even talked about this issue with your partner(s)? Unmet expectations are often unspoken expectations. Whether the expectations are justified or not, failing to talk about them almost always leads to disappointment. Do the essential self-examination. You’ll gain insight into what it is you’re “missing.” You’ll also see where your “lack” is actually coming from. Finally, you’re better prepared to ask for exactly what you really need.
Relationship Conflict – Jealousy and Infidelity
The study found that women’s but not men’s age is negatively correlated with the frequency with which the couple disagrees about Jealousy and Infidelity. As women age, the conflicts about Jealousy grow less. This is surprising, given the pop culture trope about men constantly seeking younger women.
- Resist pop culture’s efforts to define “infidelity” down! There really are no such things as “emotional infidelity,” “financial infidelity,” etc. These are convenient media labels designed to stir your emotional responses (and attract clicks).
- Assess your own thinking about what actually constitutes “infidelity” in your relationship and where that thinking is coming from – insecurity, fear, or anxiety – and work on those emotions first. Then you’re better positioned to have a discussion about your feelings.
- Jealousy is not a unitary emotion, and I believe it is almost never healthy. There are better ways to respond to concerns about your relationship. What we loosely term “jealousy” may serve as a “wake up call” for relationship problems. But jealousy rarely if ever contributes to the solution of those problems.
- You do need to set clear boundaries in your relationship – assume nothing! You have to have the necessary conversations. Be open to changing your views (and expecting your partner(s) to be the same). Without clear and mutually agreed-upon boundaries, you have no standing to complain if they are violated.
- Do not let your internal emotional issues create a climate of distrust and surveillance in your relationship. Encourage a healthy privacy versus a destructive secrecy. Work to be a healthy individual within the relationship and resist emotional fusion.
Relationship Conflict – Chores and Responsibilities
The study found that women’s but not men’s sexual satisfaction is negatively correlated with the frequency with which the couple disagrees about Chores and Responsibilities. This is a long-established observation in the literature on relationships. If women feel that responsibilities are not appropriately shared, this disappointment frequently ends up being expressed in the sexual dimension of the relationship.
- I often find that these relationship conflicts are frequently proxy issues for deeper disconnects (see Dominance and Control). It’s easier to argue about washing the dishes or childcare than about feelings of disconnection, respect, or being valued.
- These disputes are best addressed by honest conversations about expectations and the appropriate division of labor within the relationship.
- This is another area where family-of-origin issues are often in play. We come into our adult relationship with a template of “who does what, when” based upon how it was in our family of origin. Without discussion, we fall into the trap of assuming things. Times have changed!
- One approach is to agree on responsibilities based on who cares the most about a given task, or who hates doing it the least, who’s got the needed skills, etc. Then draw up a schedule you agree on. You can take turns doing the tasks that you both hate equally. You also might jointly decide to leave some tasks off the list entirely.
Relationship Conflict – Sex
Another surprising finding of the study was that women’s but not men’s probability of having an affair within five years was positively correlated with the frequency with which couples disagree about Sex. This seems to contradict the notion that it is usually men who go afield in search of sexual gratification. The study didn’t say exactly what sexual matters caused the relationship conflicts, though.
- I strongly urge you to never “weaponize” sex. Lysistrata notwithstanding, this is always a bad tack to take in relationships. I encourage dealing with the underlying issue(s) forthrightly and independently. Using or withholding sex to get your way is dangerous and counterproductive.
- If you can’t resist the temptation to weaponize sex, you may need to see a helping professional. You might start with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists – AASECT
- If differing desire for sex is a problem, AASECT professionals can help with that, too.
- Lower desire partners, don’t attack your partner with negative labels like “sex addict,” “porn addict,” “sex maniac,” etc. Higher desire partners, don’t attack your partner with negative labels like “frigid,” etc. Doing this never helps. It drives another wedge between you that can be difficult to remove.
- Be open to a wide array of possible solutions to this challenge. It is your relationship. You have the power consensually to do anything you want, any way you want, that makes you happy and satisfied. Kick any haters and judgers to the curb – hard!
Relationship Conflict – Control and Dominance
The study found that women’s but not men’s relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction is negatively correlated with the frequency with which the couple disagrees about Control and Dominance. These issues have a more powerful effect on women, but any partner can be the one triggering these relationship conflicts.
- This construct of Control and Dominance represents a complex set of attitudes and behaviors that are hard to unravel. Some are cultural. Some are personal. Many have large and deep roots in family-of-origin conditioning. We come to our adult relationships with a script written in our family of origin. That script may or may not match your partner’s. Even if it does, it may no longer be a script either of you wants to follow.
- Cultural prescriptions about “who wears the pants” and “you can’t do that, now that we’re together” are eroding, but not as fast as we’d like. We have to work at it ourselves.
- While the stereotype is of a controlling male, research shows that power imbalances and dominance/control struggles exist in lesbian relationships, too. This suggests that these are not necessarily gendered concerns.
- If your conflicts don’t cause physical or emotional abuse – in which case, get out – the solutions are much the same. Self-assessment, conversation, and compromise.
Relationship Conflict – Future Plans and Money
The study found that men’s but not women’s probability of having an affair within five years is positively correlated with the frequency with which couples disagree about Future Plans and Money. We’ve finally found the topic that riles men up!
- Money and finances are great proxy issues for deeper concerns. They tap into Control and Dominance, Inadequate Affection or Attention, and occasionally Chores and Responsibilities. Once again, it’s easier to fight about spending in general than what is really bothering you about where the money goes.
- Money is a symbolic issue for many people. In western culture, we are often more reluctant to talk about how much we make than even sex or illness. When we get into a relationship where sharing resources is socially expected, it can become a minefield. If it’s not ok even to talk about money, how can you reach a common understanding about how to get, save, and spend it?
- People often fail to discuss thoroughly their future plans and goals before entering a relationship. Only later do they find out that there’s a major disconnect. This then becomes a source of ongoing relationship conflict.
- How to address it? Have the conversations! Set aside time to discuss long-term plans and life goals and how they can be paid for. Try to reach agreement on the timing and the financial aspects of your goals.
- There are many tools to address money conflicts in relationships. Check out this website.
- You’re going to have to unpack the baggage you brought to this relationship from your family of origin. That’s where your relationship to money began. Your parents taught you everything about how money is earned, how it is spent, who gets to decide, how to keep track of it, whether it can be talked about or not, individual versus communal assets, etc. If you haven’t brought all this out into the open with your partner(s) and found out the same information from them, then you have your first step laid out for you. After that, you have the information you need to start creating a joint plan.
The recent study brought out some key areas of relationship conflict. I’ve offered you my take on where these problems might come from and some tips about how you can get started in addressing these topics in your own relationships.
It’s the time of year that people focus on the changes they want to make in the new year. Like so many others, we have some suggestions for you. Ours are focused on making your relationship better and more fulfilling, not just for this year, but for the rest of your life!
We’ve expressed our ideas in the form of things you should stop doing. If you’re not doing any of these things, why are you reading this? But really, we find that at least one of these issues tends to resonate with most of the folks we talk to, and many can find multiple “ah-ha’s” among this list. Read on, then, and we hope you have a great relationship year!
#1 Settling for an unsatisfactory sex life – and not talking about it!
Recent research demonstrates that nearly half of both men and women are unsatisfied with the frequency of sex within their relationship. Decades of research shows that sexual satisfaction within a relationship is very closely tied to overall relationship satisfaction. But many people are either afraid or otherwise unwilling to discuss their dissatisfaction with their partner.
We strongly recommend recommitting to a vital, active sex life within your relationship, and that starts with talking about it! Explore what you want in your sexual relationship, find out what your partner wants, and then agree to find ways to work toward satisfying each other’s needs. We know this isn’t as simple as it sounds, but neither is it as difficult as we often imagine it to be. The hardest part is often getting the conversation started, but the payoff will be well worth it.
#2 Keeping secrets because you’re afraid to share
Oscar Wilde said, “The one charm about marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.” Makes for an interesting quote, but it’s terrible practice. Yet too many do it, and mostly for the wrong reasons. A gentle but persistent honesty is an important key to building healthy and sustainable relationships.
Achieving real intimacy requires transparency and vulnerability, not deception. But for that to occur, you have to be open and hold truthfulness in high regard. It has to be safe to be truthful! We certainly don’t recommend cruelty or “brutal honesty” – tact and a loving consideration are still essential. But withholding important truths from each other creates a climate of fear and uncertainty in a relationship that is always toxic and destructive in the long run.
#3 Expecting your relationship to “complete” you
Thanks to fairy tales and popular mythology, too many people go through life as “living tinker toys.” They’re always hoping to find the right other person to join with them to create some magical completeness they don’t feel on their own. If this is your habit, we recommend you give it up. Accept yourself as already complete and whole. You’ll be more attractive to others if you do. You’re also freed up to begin finding others who complement you in one or more aspects of your life and to forge healthy partnerships. You don’t come across as “needy,” and you’re much better positioned to make rational choices about who you get involved with and to what degree.
#4 Taking it personally
When we live in close proximity with another, there’s a tendency – a carryover from our childhood, when we didn’t know any better – to believe that everything that happens in our lives is a reflection on us, or happens because of us. We should outgrow that, but many of us do not. We continue to believe that “it’s all about us” even if not in a selfish way, but rather in a self-absorbed way. We take every event, comment, or situation in our relationship as somehow reflective of our own self-worth, the strength of our relationship, or the security we want to feel in life. This is a prescription for misery.
One way out of this form of self-limiting belief is to begin questioning these assumptions as they occur. If your partner says or does something you find threatening, pause and reflect on whether it’s really about you, or rather about something altogether separate from your relationship or from you as an individual of worth and value. If you find that the situation truly does warrant a conversation with your partner, you’ll be coming from a better place to have that conversation. If you realize it’s not really about you at all, you’ve spared yourself and your partner a needless annoyance. We like to tell our clients to practice the “Q-TIP rule – Quit Taking It Personally.”
#5 Expecting your partner to be your companion at every event/activity/pastime you enjoy – whether they enjoy it or not – because “that’s what partners do.”
Our fairy-tale insistence on eternal togetherness often leads to some pretty dismal real world consequences. Research shows that couples often distance themselves from friends and intimates once they become serious about each other. This has the effect of limiting your exposure to viewpoints and observations that are not forged in the white hot crucible of your blossoming partnership. Over time, the partnership stabilizes and grows routine, but your outside friendships and connections have withered away. This in turn creates a dynamic where we expect our partner to fulfill the role of “best friend” in ways that are ultimately unhealthy and destructive of the relationship.
Humans are social animals. We’re not wired to huddle up in isolated pairs. This is a construct created within the last 100 years in western culture. A healthy relationship is one in which both partners maintain and nurture strong friendships outside the pair. We should refrain from expecting our partners to share every interest, hobby, and enthusiasm, and look instead to others for that social input. We return to our partnership enthusiastic and refreshed by our interactions with others, and we avoid imposing on our partners in ways that actually erode closeness and true intimacy.
#6 Dodging tough conversations about important concerns
As with sex, there are a number of other sticking point issues in every relationship that people are reluctant to talk about. A small number of these will resolve themselves, for better or worse, but most of them won’t. If you’re unwilling to have the conversation, you can count on things not getting better most of the time. You have to ask yourself if the pain caused by the underlying issue is greater than the perceived potential pain of confrontation that keeps you silent.
We find that many times, the “air clearing” conversation actually strengthens, rather than erodes, the relationship, but only if you go about it the right way. A couple of key points: pick the right time for the conversation; have an open mind about the outcome; be prepared to hear your partner’s point of view; know exactly what it is you’d like to see change and how that would look; remember that you can only change your own thoughts, beliefs and actions; and remember that sometimes, you’re up against something that just isn’t going to change.
#7 Wasting mental energy trying to change your partner
Speaking of things that won’t change, once again, we really want to emphasize that you can’t actually change your partner. The best you can hope for is – by making needed changes to and for yourself and your thinking – to influence your partner. This is not to say that you can’t respectfully request that your partner do something differently if that would please you or make your life easier in some way. What we do say is that it’s ultimately futile and counterproductive to expect to change your partner’s fundamental approach to life and living by dint of nagging, hectoring, snide comments, or non-specific, blanket demands. At best, you’ll get temporary, grudging compliance; at worst, you’ll get a letter from your soon-to-ex’s attorney.
By following these suggestions, you’ll lay a strong foundation for an enduring and fulfilling relationship. Avoiding these common pitfalls will free up your emotional and mental energy to engage in developing a true partnership that rewards both you and your partner in many ways.
Happy New Year!