Names of all clients have been changed.
Many couples come into therapy because their sex life has fizzled out. Sometimes one partner is avoiding, sometimes the only sex is obligatory, and sometimes neither party is interested. In all cases, a drought in the marriage bed is a concern for the long-term happiness of either partner.
Sex is an important part of adult love because it is a physical expression of the emotional connection. Sex provides natural stress relief, is a way to experience intimacy, and is an important means of exploring each other and the relationship.
As counter-intuitive as it might sound, a marriage without enough intimacy is not usually because of sex. It is, instead, reflective of unresolved issues in the relationship itself.
Avoiding negative feelings strains intimacy
Michael and Edith have been together for 5 years. In the beginning, their relationship was very dynamic. Both partners looked forward to their time together, and they truly enjoyed sex with each other.
About a year into her relationship with Michael, Edith was fired from her role as an executive assistant and she took the loss hard. Edith’s anxiety about finding a new job was all-consuming and she turned to Michael for support. In the beginning, Michael was willing to listen to Edith, but as time went on, he stopped asking and thought that Edith should have let it go by now. When Edith brought it up in conversation, Michael was frustrated that she was still upset, and changed the subject quickly.
This was not the only time that Edith noticed Michael shut down when she expressed how she felt. Whether she was upset about something her mother said, frustrated when a waiter got her order wrong, or sad that she couldn’t attend a friend’s wedding during the pandemic, Michael’s response with the same. He suggested that Edith “get over it” and “look on the bright side.” Edith felt disregarded and ignored.
Eventually, Edith lost her interest in sex with Michael. Before long, it had been months since they had been intimate and Michael was frustrated and confused.
When Edith and Michael came to my office, they hadn’t really discussed why they were there. Michael had simply asked her if she would come to see a couple’s therapist with him, and she had agreed. When they sat down, Michael began by saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong, but she doesn’t want to have sex with me anymore. I thought our relationship was pretty good, but I don’t want a relationship without sex.”
Over time, Edith and Michael discovered how to hear each other again. They learned something they hadn’t realized before: there is a strong connection between their emotional life and their sexual life. When they are able to share how they feel about their lives, their sex life improved. In therapy, Michael learned that Edith needed to share and feel heard and
Edith learned that it’s hard for Michael to open up, but he’s willing to try. Even without addressing the sexual tensions directly, a deeper connection and comfort together naturally led to more intimacy in their relationship.
When one partner feels like a secretary or caretaker, intimacy suffers
Fred and Alice had been married 4 years when he finished dental school and started his own practice. They already had two young children and another on the way. They decided that it made the most sense for Alice to quit her job as a high school teacher and focus on the care of the children and home.
Alice handled most of the household labor: planning, childcare, housekeeping, decision-making around family vacations and routines, and the family finances. Fred worked to establish himself professionally and engaged with the children and his wife primarily on weekends. Such a division of labor felt natural to both of them.
At first, they remained connected, as they always had, sharing stories about the ups and downs of their day, once Fred was home and the kids were in bed, But, as Fred’s practice grew, he began to rely on Alice even more. He often asked her to run errands for him, reorder supplies for the office, and take his car in for inspection.
Alice felt depleted and exhausted, even though she appreciated Fred’s hard work to be a good breadwinner for the family. Fred longed to feel the comfort of their sexual connection at the end of his long day and sought her out night after night. But, because Alice began to feel their relationship was more of a business than a romance, she turned off sexually.
It was this dilemma that brought Alice and Fred into my office. In therapy, it became obvious that the real problem was the strict roles they had developed that were keeping them separated. It was an examination of the division of labor, boundary setting, and effort on both of their parts to connect as adults that rekindled their intimacy.
Emotional struggle can deflate a sexual marriage
Sam and Nina are actors who have shared a passionate, active life together for the past 12 years. They have always enjoyed the same hobbies, restaurants, and events. Nether wanted children, and they were comfortable talking openly together about their hopes and dreams, disappointments and worries. Their sex life mirrored their personal connection: it, too, was active and passionate.
And then something changed. Though their personal connection remained strong, their intimacy began to wane. Nina was just as eager as before, but she noticed that Sam stopped initiating sex, and eventually began to reject her advances.
Nina feared that their relationship was slowly ending. When she tried to talk to him about it, he said he was “just a little distracted” and then shut down the conversation. Nina became angry wondering why “everything was always about him.”
Nina asked Sam to join her in couples therapy, and with some coaxing, Sam agreed. During therapy, Sam admitted he has been feeling an overpowering depression for some time. Even the simplest acts of regular functioning were overwhelming. Sam felt dread when he woke up in the morning about facing the day. He didn’t want to burden Nina with his distress, so he kept quiet.
Sex with his wife, whom he loved, was the last thing on his mind.
Because I regularly work with both individuals as well as the couple, both partners were able to explore their individual needs, as well as the needs of the relationship. In individual sessions, Sam had time to work on his depression and learned how to not hide his distress and Nina worked to increase her understanding of Sam’s mental health concerns.. In our couple sessions, Sam and Nina both worked to share their feelings more clearly. As Sam’s crisis eased and Nina’s empathy increased, their sex life came back to life.
The Sex in a Marriage Isn’t Usually About Sex
When a marriage struggled with intimacy, it usually has very little to do with sex. Instead, sex is a natural extension of the relationship. If you are struggling to find intimacy in the bedroom, couples therapy will help you to reconnect.
Please reach out to me here and we can discuss how to begin,