Sex! Human sexual behavior is the ultimate charged topic, more often the subject of conversation and research now than in the past, and the apparent source of many an unhappy or doomed relationship. The University of Indiana National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (2010) found that 61% of singles reported that they did not have sex within the last year, compared with 18% of married couples.
“As the old joke goes: Everything is about sex, except for sex which is about aggression. However, in our case, we think it is about avoiding anxiety connected with intimacy. Aggression can also serve as a tool for avoidance, so the joke remains equally applicable and funny.”Grant
Sounds like married couples have it made, at least sex-wise, right? Well — not really. According to Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of New York Times piece “Searching for Sex,” who analyzed Google search data, the top searches about marriage and relationships are “sexless marriage,” averaging over 21,000 searches per month, and for “sexless relationship”, averaging over 3,500 searches per month. For marriage, “sexless” beats “unhappy” and “loveless”—and add in almost 3,000 more searches for “sex starved” and “no sex”. For relationship, the only search term that had more hits per month (at over 5,500) was “abusive relationship.” And according to a University of Indiana study, 25% of married couples report having sex 2-3 times per week — leaving 75% of married couples having sex once per week or less. According to a 2015 survey by Abby Rodman, couples report several related factors, including having children and time and familiarity dampening desire. Most survey respondents noted loss of interest on the part of wives rather than husbands, reportedly related to stress and fatigue. Most respondents (75%) reported that they are not happy that their marriage is sexless, although 25% reported they were okay with it.
Underlying factors contributing to a loss of sexual activity and vitality in long-term relationships is under-researched and poorly understood. The need for novelty and increasing familiarity over time as well as stress and fatigue, however, are not the whole story. In some cases, people with sexual difficulties require professional diagnosis and treatment, which has saved many relationships. However, despite our cultural “openness” about sex, for many couples, sexual issues are still uncomfortable and discussion of them avoided.
The authors’ work in irrelationship may shed some light on sexual relationship issues. The core feature of irrelationship is avoidance of awareness of anxiety associated with intimacy. By intimacy, we mean all forms of intimacy — emotional, psycho-spiritual, mental, and physical, sexual and non-sexual.
What does sex represent for each member of a couple? Does regular sex lead to greater connection and mutuality as a genuine loving and fun experience, or is sex used to pretend the relationship is “fine”? Does sex foster compassionate empathy between partners or reduce them to non-human objects? Is conflict about sex an ongoing theme for arguments that lead nowhere fast?
“If you don’t learn not to duck, you’ll never receive the gift.”Daniel
Like mutually-satisfying relationships, irrelationship requires participation from all involved parties. In the case of sex, irrelationship requires living out the need to maintain distance from one another in order to minimize anxiety about intimacy. Furthermore, the erotic aspect of this distancing can take several forms:
- Touching and explicit sexual behavior is altogether missing as in the “sexless” relationship;
- Sex may occur out of a sense of obligation, duty, or anxiety about the consequences of withholding, becoming mechanical and unenjoyable, or worse (“bad sex”);
- Sex may become a performance, even an expression of competition, hostility and contempt;
- A partner — often, but not always, the female partner in heterosexual relationships — have sex when they don’t want tocreating problems related to the quasi-consensual component to the shared decision.*
Sex can be used, then, to hide deeper problems in the relationship. When the sex stops, for whatever reason, issues festering below the surface, sometimes for years, are suddenly exposed.
If couples are looking to re-kindle or re-vitalize their sex life together, Emily and Malik’s story may be helpful:
“I don’t exactly know how I got myself to do it,” Emily broke in, “but when you started to fade away in the bedroom, I was so totally crazy about you by that time that I couldn’t just let it happen the way I’d always done in the past. I knew I was repeating my old ‘non-committal’ act. But this time I spoke up before you reached the exit. I still can’t believe I got myself to do it. In the past I’d always just let my boyfriend call the shots: when he’d start letting me know he was having second thoughts or whatever, I just went along.
“Yeah, I know exactly,” Malik agreed. “I was playing it safe by doing what I had always done. But I’d never been called on it before. What a double-whammy it was to get busted by somebody I knew deep down that I was crazy about.” Malik laughed and continued, “You’ve been a real game-changer. Thank God!”
“We find that we—that is the people who are having it—are the cause and the cure of intimacy issues. Issues that are often expressed powerfully in our sex lives..”Mark
By learning to communicate safely and effectively using the 40-20-40 approach, Malik and Emily learned how to create a space in which they could honestly and openly share their feelings about themselves, each other, and their relationship. Without realizing it was happening, that’s exactly how they started building the intimacy that had made them so apprehensive. But the impact of quality communication isn’t confined to the bedroom: once effective, compassionate communication becomes a habit and couples become able to discuss formerly anxiety-provoking issues without fear that exposing their feelings will spell the end of their relationship.
Malik continued, “For some reason, this time I was able to allow myself to be confronted about still wanting to be with you and being scared of it at the same time. I’d been holding on to this half-baked idea that if I came out and told you how crazy I was about you, you’d be on the next train out of town.”
“Yeah, I see that now,” Emily replied. “And my solution to that was a pre-emptive strike: I started withholding because I thought that, any day, I was gonna get a pink slip. Well, now that we’ve worked that out, it’s been a huge relief to realize that, no matter what kind of problems either or both of us have, we’ve got a way through it that takes the pressure off one of us having to figure out how to fix it. The bonus is that being able to share the everyday stuff that way makes the bedroom even better.”
Malik laughed. “Yeah. To think I was hell-bent on making sure the best thing that ever happened to me couldn’t get me!”
* Non-consensual sex in any relationship is rape. Individuals involved in relationships involving rape and related abusive behaviors should seek professional assistance immediately.