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Keeping intimacy alive

It’s only natural that the spark goes out of the bedroom at some stage. But rather than signalling the death knell for couples, flagging libidos may actually pave the way to closer relationships.

Keeping intimacy alive

How do we regain our sex drive if we’ve lost it? Some people might try to rekindle the spark through toys, lingerie and new positions – but getting the zing back into your fling is a little more complicated than that.
The sexual part of couple relationships is seldom talked about. It’s not surprising then that there are so many myths about sex and relationships. It turns out people in distressed partnerships are extremely reluctant to get help – research from the Gottman Institute in America shows it takes an average of six years for unhappy couples to seek help.

The clichéd unhappy couple has been together for a number of years and are possibly parents to young children. They go to therapy because her interest in sex has waned over the years. She’s “okay” with this, given she is working and busy with childcare, but misses “the spark we used to have”. This leads to fights, as the man is wondering when things will get back to how they were pre-children. Each time he brings up sex, she feels pressured and soon she begins to see sex as a chore.

Then there are the invisible couples. Men, and not women, who are experiencing low sexual desire represent about a quarter of the hetrosexual cases seen in couple therapy. These people defy our stereotypes. Men may be feeling shame at their lack of masculinity; women are often shamed by their female friends in the context of chats about how much the man “wants it”.

Spending an hour with Nic Beets and Paula Dennan, clinical psychologists and couple therapists with almost 50 years of experience between them, is illuminating.

Among the myths they dispel are the beliefs you can’t get the spark back once it’s gone (you can) and that “it should be easier than this”.

Beets and Dennan also say the natural state of two individuals being together is often a differential level of sex drive. This difference is not restricted to heterosexual relationships – it happens when two people with different needs make a life together, whatever their sexuality.

Desire can be broken down into two categories: the first can be thought of as primarily biological (lust or libido and the result of hormones and chemicals), while the second is primarily psychological (the choice to get sexually involved).

Beets and Dennan find this simple concept can be revelatory in that it allows people to see that everybody’s biological drive changes.

For example, it is common for women’s biological sex drive to change through the course of her menstrual cycle, as well as with certain contraceptive pills, IVF, having a baby or the impact of menopause.

Similarly men’s sex drive waxes and wanes over the life cycle with stress and life-role changes – it would be rare to find a man who has the same high libido at 50 as he had at 20, unless he is in a new relationship (and the chemical rush of falling in love has kicked in).

The take-home message is that biological changes to sex drive are normal. In our culture this is not recognised: the low-desire person is pathologised and made to feel something is wrong with them. Remember, we may be the high-desire person in one relationship but the low-desire person in the next one – it is relative rather than personal.

Getting partners to adopt a curious and non-judgemental approach often comes through correcting misinformation held by one or both partners. Naming one person as the problem misses the point, as each partner’s behaviour impacts the other. Because you share sexuality in a couple relationship, it’s a problem for both partners and a joint way forward is needed.

The psychological part of desire problems, or the choice to get sexually involved, can reflect what is known as desire discrepancy – essentially one person wants more sex than the other.

A stage model of relationships

To help couples understand what’s going on, Beets and Dennan use a framework developed 30 years ago by pioneering therapists Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson. To understand couple relationships is to understand that partnerships follow an evolving process that moves through five different stages. Desire differences and how they play out through sexual activity are typically seen in the first two stages – bonding and differentiation.

When couples first get together, a stage known as “bonding,” everything is new. People present their best selves; they are typically patient. It is a joyful stage and we are on a chemical high.

If desire problems surface at this stage, the reason is often biological. An example would be a 20-something couple, completely into each other, who find sex difficult. The reason might be the contraceptive pill, the effect of an anti-depressant, painful sexual experiences or one of the partner’s sexual history.

At some point (typically between six months to two years) one or both parties emerge from the sense of oneness to the next stage – differentiation. This is when one party starts to define something about themselves. Let’s take Dave and Marie: soon after she was pregnant with their first child, Marie stated, “I only feel like sex once a week”. Because Dave thought this was temporary, he was understanding.

Conflict increased over time as Dave’s ideal, their previous pattern of three times a week, stayed just a memory. Power struggles, blaming/shaming, and emotional and sexual withdrawal are common here as the relationship starts to lose the initial gloss.

What most couples miss, is that the “stuckness” is a sign of differentiation, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the relationship. In fact, it signals that the relationship is at the door of a new stage. The founder of this model of couple therapy, Pearson puts it like this: “All significant growth comes from disagreements, dissatisfaction with the current status, or a striving to make things better. Paradoxically, accepting that conflict produces growth and learning to manage inevitable disagreements is the key to more harmonious relationships.”
Therefore, when many people are ready to call it quits, the relationship is actually calling for deeper connection.

The crucial and most painful part is showing your vulnerability and saying what you want. It’s risky, especially when your partner likes things the way they used to be in the bonding stage. Only by working through disagreements and making room for why your partner holds the position they do, does the relationship mature. The good news is, through this process greater intimacy and better sex become possible.

When a couple has successfully differentiated, their perspective becomes, “We have a problem here, we need to work it out together”. But this can feel like rejection or abandonment to the other partner, who may be still in the bonding stage. One partner still wants closeness (and might want more sex as an expression of this); the other is all about self-discovery. Conversely, the person feeling rejected wants less sex as they are feeling disconnected, while the self-discovery person wants new ways of sexual expression.

Navigating this stage is about owning where each person is at and supporting each other through it. For Dave and Marie, Dave’s task is to understand the shift in Marie that has taken place as a result of becoming a mother and asking how he can help. For Marie, it might be about recognising Dave has felt sidelined. Once they both feel safe in who they are, they will usually feel renewed attraction.

Two languages for intimacy

There are two languages for intimacy: verbal and non-verbal. Non-verbal includes touch, gaze and action. One person might be comfortable with verbal vulnerability (talking things through), while the other might show vulnerability and connection through reaching out sexually.

Both ways are valid, although gender stereotypes tend to get trotted out. Women are often accused of needing to connect verbally before readiness for sex shows up. The opposite stands for men (he’ll be ready to talk after sex). Pathologising either end of the scale is unhelpful. In reality, lots of men use language to connect and lots of women find sexual connection easier.

A change in sex drive or desire within a committed relationship often invites the challenge for new ways of thinking about the relationship. What this can look like in the end is an invitation to a deeper level of intimacy, if we’re ready for it.

The unsexy message is: if you only want hot sex, you might be looking at serial monogamy. Chasing new infatuations will only get you to the bonding stage. But if you are after hot sex and deep connection, it comes through being vulnerable. Then the potential for bedroom excitement and greater intimacy takes off.

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