A good marriage is best friends with passion. Without the passion, you just have a friendship. For some, being companions is sufficient. But for most, it is not. One of the major casualties of the harried pace of modern marriage is the loss of sexual intimacy. It is too steep a price to pay. While communication is the most frequently mentioned issue in troubled marriages (see April 2005 article on “Improving Marital Intimacy”), inevitably I find a diminished sexual relationship at the center of most troubled marriages.
What follows is a brief tour through the world of marital sexuality with a focus on how to understand the issues and strategies to repair the damage.
Gender and Physiology
Men and women are different. While these differences get debated in some circles, when it comes to sex, they are real and very clear. Unfortunately many couples fail to reflect on these differences and integrate them into an understanding of how to be successful partners.
Start with arousal patterns. Men are quick to be aroused and relatively quick to achieve orgasm. The “spike” rises sharply and drops off just as sharply. Men are especially aroused visually; brain research documents this. So looking at other women, at magazines, videos, and online pornography play a much bigger role in the sexual life of men.
Women are aroused more slowly and after achieving orgasm, tend to remain at a high plateau of arousal before dropping off. These are very different physiological patterns. No wonder it is a challenge for couples to really experience mutual satisfaction. These differences must not be ignored; instead they must be incorporated into the lovemaking process.
The simplest way to do this is, regardless of who initiates the foreplay, is for men to focus on pleasuring their wives, bringing them to an initial orgasm before focus is given to bringing the male to orgasm. It is also critical for men to understand what will help their wives achieve orgasm. While clitoral stimulation is usually a key component, many women still “get off” on intercourse, especially if the angle is such that it also stimulates the clitoris or that clitoral stimulation is being done manually by either partner during intercourse.
It is also important to understand the psychological implications of the different genital anatomies. For men, sexual intercourse is an external act. This has evolutionary implications about the need for prehistoric men to “seed” many partners in order to insure survival of the species. It is part of what allows men to more easily separate sex from love. But, for a woman, to have intercourse means allowing a man to enter her body. That is a deeply personal act and men need to appreciate this. It is why women complain about the need for emotional intimacy before they can be sexually active. Combine this with the difference in arousal patterns and it becomes much easier to understand why it is so important for women to experience meaningful foreplay.
Yet there is a trap here for women that becomes a key issue for so many of the couples who come to see me. When couples are struggling, women insist on emotional safety and closeness in order to be actively sexual. That creates a prohibitive barrier to improving the marital relationship, since the lack of sex, especially for men, but a lot more for women than they recognize, is one of the central underlying problems in not resolving their issues. Women act as if sex is still a process of servicing men and often deny that they are sexual beings who need to be serviced at least as much if not more. While some female readers may be dismissing this because it is being written by a male author, this concept is a central theme in books written by some of the best known female professionals in marital work such as Betty Carter, Ellen Wachtel, and Susan Scantling.
Women need to have sex! For themselves! So it is important to overcome the excuse of emotional disconnection and have sex with your husbands as frequently as possible. It will allow BOTH partners to feel closer and create a more intimate context in which to resolve other issues. I am, of course, not suggesting that this can happen in relationships that are verbally and, especially, physically abusive.