Being in a relationship where it doesn’t feel like there’s enough sex sounds like a trivial and somewhat comedic luxury problem. As though someone were complaining there wasn’t enough tennis or yoga between a couple. But an absence of sex isn’t trivial in the least. It’s a humblingly serious problem and might even be what dooms the relationship itself.
One statistic stands out: in an average year, in the OECD countries, 70% of those who initiate a divorce cited a lack of sex as the first or second reason for parting. If there’s one generalization we can make about couples, it’s that a lack of sex, by which we mean something like less than four times a month, is an alarm bell we should listen to.
Why is sex such a key part of keeping two people close?
Because in sex, two people accept each other in the most profound of ways. The apparently dirty and shameful sides of us, the way weird fantasies and the unusual longings, are legitimated through sex. Someone else witnesses and accepts us as bodily and psychological beings.
Sex symbolises an end to loneliness and a reaffirmation of trust. Not daring or wanting to have sex with a partner is tantamount to admitting that one can’t be oneself in their presence.
A lack of sex is bad enough, but far worse is the way in which the reciprocated longing for sex tends to manifest itself. Typically, a person who wants it doesn’t ask very clearly, maybe merely sliding a hand over in a timid, half-hearted search for reciprocation.
They don’t complain calmly, don’t deliver an eloquent self-confidence speech about how difficult they’re finding it, and don’t inquire sympathetically as to what might be going on in their partner.
Far too often, they tend to quickly move on to symptomatic behavior, where in their disappointment and sense of humiliation, are acted out, rather than discussed. They bang dishes, they get mean, a whole raft of conflicts then develops that has ostensibly nothing to do with sex, and yet is caused by its absence.
One starts squabbling over the in-laws in the state of the kitchen. The one who’s been let down sexually behaves so badly, they start to seem like a monster, further reducing the chances of sex ever taking place.
Eventually, the sex-starved party may simply go off and have an affair, not because they don’t love their partner, but because showing their desire has become so fraught with rejection that they’re out for a bit of revenge.
The lack of sex discussion is so hard to have because quite simply, it feels so shameful to be unwanted sexually. It plays into every worst fear about unacceptability. It’s bad enough when it happens on a date.
It’s even sadder to have to admit that one’s being rejected by one’s partner inside the apparent safety and commitment of a long term relationship. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, but far more likely, there’s something revolting about us.
The key to a process of reconciliation is to rein in one’s wilder feelings of rejection and self-disgust in order to be able to consider why the other party might have gone off sex. Here’s a key fact: everyone wants sex in principle.
When it isn’t wanted, it’s because the condition for sex is not being met, and then, not communicated. Privately, the sex-rejecting party has a problem they’re not sharing. They might in secret be thinking,
“I might have sex, if only you listened more to my problems with my family,” or, “If you gave me more time to do my work,” or, “If you weren’t so mean to me around domestic chores.” There might be kinkier reasons: “I’d have more sex if you allow me to play out certain fantasies,” “If you were more broad minded about role playing,” “If you were more into kissing, or wanted it rough, or could be more submissive.”
The person being denied sex hasn’t usually had any chance to hear these reasons in plain, unaccusing, gentle terms.Or maybe they’ve heard them, but without a sober awareness of what’s really at stake here. There’s been no proper communication.
Therefore, a classic recommendation, deliberately artificial, is that the two parties, aware that their entire relationship properly depends on getting this right, should write each other a letter titled simply, “What I want from sex.”
It’s a chance to be deeply honest about your true sexual identity; it’s then incumbent on both parties to take the other’s words seriously and in good faith. Two people are always going to be a bit sexually incompatible, but we shouldn’t get so scared and angry at this that we create a secondary barrier of hurt, punishment, and shame.
We should take the first steps to finding a way in which what you want and they want can, in a modest way, be harmonized, and the sarcasm and banging dishes can stop.
Every time such a conversation about sex happens in the quiet of the night, the angels of relationships hover over the bedroom and sound their silent trumpets in celebration, because another couple have just critically improved their chances of lasting a little longer together.