Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win. -Jonathon Kozol
Most of the arguments that couples have about their sex lives are not about sex. Sex is the container, where we are most acutely aware of the spaces in our relationship that fail to connect, that make us feel small, unloved, invisible, and that reflect our deepest conflicts. It is a little ironic that our potential for our deepest pleasure also contains our most intense turmoil, but not that surprising when you consider the “sexophrenic” culture we live in, which is split between shameful prudishness and the blatant exhibitionism that occupies media, music and mainstream advertising.
Perhaps the most universal of sexual arguments is the one that involves conflicting desire. This issue is often a precursor to many relationship endings and, while there is an extensive laundry list of medical reasons that explain low libido issues, there are probably more mental, emotional and spiritual issues that are expressed through the divergence of sexual desire. My new book, Love that Works, examines and breaks down sexual conflicts to its basic elements.
The drive to create and sustain an intimate fire is based on what I call the ground of the relationship. The ground is reflected in the kind of thinking we engage in about our partner and our relationship. It is the foundation for our fire. Even if you don’t express your doubts or resentments aloud, you can be sure that your partner feels the effect of negative thinking and the resulting sexual relationship is like trying to start a fire in a swamp.
Taking the discussion out of sexuality and expanding your questions is a good way to broaden the conversation and gain a wider perspective. When you talk about wanting more sex- consider what that means to you. When you turn away from sex, consider what you are refusing.
Communication is the currency of your relationship and what I call the air, which allows a fire to start and be sustained. As hard as it is for many people to talk about what they like or don’t like in their sexual encounters, this is sadly not the most significant communication that is missing. Our willingness to self-disclose is the breath that connects us to the life of our connection. Ask yourself what is not being said or heard in your relationship. Consider when you became aware of or resentful about the sex drive issues, what else was happening or not happening. What do you most wish your partner would listen to or express?
Feeling safe in one’s relationship is perhaps the most vital ingredient in moving towards an intimate fire. Our sense of safety in our relationship comes from the daily assurances that there is someone there for you. This safety issue explains why orgasm rates are so low in casual sexual encounters. It is almost impossible to deeply tap into our sexual fire when our sense of security is compromised. This issue often looks like withholding sex from our partner or, in the inverse, asking for sex as a way to get some other need met. When you and your partner are asking for sex or wondering why you don’t feel the same urge, how does your feeling of being seen, cared for, or valued come into the equation?
Sexual satisfaction is not really ever about quantity, although this is often the way we track and measure our connections. How else can you think of your intimate relationship that doesn’t have anything to do with quantity? Many a sexual argument focuses on issues that create more defensiveness and shame, neither of which contains opening to the more interesting questions that can shift your relationship. Encountering the issue of conflicting desire is practically guaranteed in any long-term relationship. Thinking about it as a defining passage in your relationship begins with addressing the real questions that are at the foundation and feed your intimate life. Approaching our times of conflicting desire from the broadest perspective of what it feels like to love and be loved is a path that will more likely arrive at compromises that are workable for everyone.