A marriage is about dealing with the sweet and sour sides of our partner with love, patience and belief. It is usually a source of companionship and support, never mind the occasional arguments. Sexual companionship and compatibility forms an important area of marital satisfaction. Apart from being a basic biological need, it also helps in making the bond between two people stronger (This is of course with the exception of sexual abuse)
At the same time, we all have differences in our need for sexual intimacy. Though sex is a fundamentally physiological need, there are differences in the degree to which each one of us desires it. Yet, because sex is a shared activity, when two people with a differing need for sex come together, it can at times create stress in the relationship. Some individuals are able to adjust to the sexual needs of their partners. Fortunately, a good number of times, the degree of adjustment that partners need to make is not overwhelming.
However, some couples could find this adjustment difficult to make. One partner could want sexual intimacy much more or much lesser than the other. At times, one partner could even dislike having sex or lack sexual desire. Whatever the nature of differences may be, sexual incompatibility if left unaddressed can create significant stress in the marriage. This article describes why sexual incompatibilities occur and why they are often left unaddressed for long. Following this, it attempts to provide you with a detailed understanding of how both partners can deal with a situation where one partner has aversion towards sex or lacks adequate sexual desire.
Sex therapy also can be a meaningful intervention if conflicts stay unresolved for long.
What contributes to Differences in Sexual Desire?
Sexual desire is more an interplay of both physiological and psychological factors. To a good extent, differences in sex drive or libido are natural and even normal, just like there are individual differences in appetite or requirement for sleep. At times however, people may have extremes of sexual desire. Either they may desire sexual intimacy much more or less than average. Let’s gain an understanding of what factors can influence sexual desire.
Factors related to Upbringing:-
As we grow up, we unconsciously inculcate a lot of messages that our parents and other important people give us. Your parents’ outlook and approach towards sexual intimacy and how they dealt with your emerging sexuality in your teens play a part in determining your attitude towards sex. Those of you who are especially close to your parents and have always wished to emulate them are more likely to borrow from their approach. If an adolescent is repetitively taught that sex is dirty and that it would distract him from focusing on his career and life, chances are that he would develop anxiety when he feels sexual urges, at times making him avoid sex or experience displeasure during sexual intimacy.
Most of the time, the influence of parental messages is not as direct and easy to decipher as in the example above. For many people, parental messages have subtle and roundabout influences on sexuality. For example, if you were sub-consciously taught to be perfectionistic and your parents reacted with anger and shame when you didn’t do well, you may internalize this attitude towards yourself. You start by being perfectionistic about school studies, then higher studies, followed by work, household chores and then eventually, even sexual intimacy. You may want to be in the perfect mood and make love ‘correctly’, causing you to be upset when anything goes wrong. Though this may sound far-fetched at first glance, this is often how attitudes operate…swiftly and sub-consciously.
Negative Sexual Experiences:-
Sex is a process which intimately involves our bodies and our personal space. For some of us, this extremely private space has been invaded and violated in a way we would never want. When this happens, our minds and bodies learn that sex is unpleasant, that sex is painful and hurtful. Forms of sexual abuse such as rape, molestation, assault or any form of sexual contact that is non-consensual can make one very aversive to sexual intimacy. The younger we are when negative sexual experiences occur, the more its impact is likely to be. This is because sexual abuse (this is more an umbrella term for all kinds of sexual violence) hugely invades our whole sense of security, not only in our minds, but also in our bodies. This leads us to somewhere, sub-consciously associate sexual contact with negativity, fear and unpleasantness. It is very important to note here that nobody does this consciously or deliberately. Working with oneself to unlearn this association is difficult and usually needs professional help.
The overall quality of your relationship matters a lot in determining sexual desire. Problems or stress between the couple can, beyond a point, affect your sex life. Sex is a very intimate form of sharing. Feelings of inner dissatisfaction, anger and sometimes even hatred towards the partner can interfere a great deal with sexual desire. Rarely ever will a sexual problem be just sexual in nature. It definitely has some undertones of relationship stressors, which need to be addressed and worked with.
Apart from parental influence, negative sexual influences and relationship stress, there are some factors that are unique to the person. Body image and self esteem are important ones that come to mind. Our comfort with ourselves and our own bodies play an important role in determining sexual desire. At times, dissatisfaction with ourselves indirectly expresses itself through disturbances in sexual need or lack of sexual desire.
Differences in the need for sexual intimacy usually pose a tough challenge to the couple. You need to pay heed to your partner’s needs as well as your own and this is very difficult and emotionally demanding, more so because it involves not only mental and emotional, but also bodily adjustment. For the partner who lacks sexual desire, it usually provokes anger, guilt and anxiety all at once. You probably feel forced into the act, at the same time, you also understand that this is a genuine need in your partner, making you feel conflicted and torn within. There may have also been occasions when you both have argued over the situation, making you feel like your partner is giving too much importance to sexual intimacy or is discounting whatever else you stand for. Adding to this is the painful and worrisome sense of inadequacy you could feel. Even if you try to shake it off, you still feel very anxious about your body. ‘Why is this happening to me?’, ‘why don’t I feel like it?’ and ‘will this ever get better’ are some questions you repeatedly ask yourself and seek answers to. Later in the article, we have described ways in which you could deal with the situation.
For the sexually more active partner too, this situation is frustrating. You don’t know how your partner would react to your desire to be intimate, which makes you unsure about how to and whether to initiate intimacy. Gradually, sexual intimacy stops occurring naturally in the course of lovemaking, creating uneasiness in you and your partner. Moreover, you have your share of anxieties too. You wonder if there is something about you that your partner does not like and you worry that you aren’t able to satisfy him/her enough to want to be intimate. All this while, your own need for sexual intimacy does not get met. Clearly, this is a difficult situation to be in for both partners.
What can be done about such a situation? Are there some healthy ways of coping with it? Are they within your reach?
The answer to all these questions, is ‘yes’. However, as you read on, you might find yourself internally thinking that this is too much for you and beyond your reach to execute. We understand that working with yourself is genuinely difficult. You would encounter a lot of mental resistance. However, aren’t you already putting in efforts at some level to improve the situation? When you, on your own are trying so hard to make things better for you and your partner, a little bit more guidance always helps.
As you read what we have to say, be open and receptive in the comfort of your own spaces. Introspect and make choices that are truly good for you. At the same time, be gentle with yourselves. We’re talking about a part of your life that is very sensitive. So gently think through what you read.
How Can We Work With Ourselves To Mentally Deal Better With Such A Situation?
Work on Your Acceptance of the Situation –
–For those of you Experiencing Lack of Sexual Desire:-
If you are sexually aversive or have lowered sex drive, the fact that you do not enjoy sexual intimacy itself would be bothersome. If your marital relationship is largely healthy, you would really wish to overcome your difficulties and enjoy a healthy sex life. That you do not wish to have sex or satisfy your partner makes you feel very guilty within, and so you decide to give in and engage in sexual intimacy even of you don’t feel like it. You decide to ‘shut out’ that side of you that doesn’t want sex, suppressing it and pushing it under the carpet. The reason why this is a counter-productive choice is, choosing not to address the problem does not extinguish it. In fact, you have probably experienced that your discomfort with sex only increases if you attempt to suppress the fact that you aren’t enjoying it. So, instead of helping you overcome the problem, suppression only increases it. Also, your partner begins to realize that you aren’t enjoying sex. Differences crop up and you both probably end up arguing or fighting about it.
Why don’t we Accept that we don’t enjoy Sex?
Sex is an integral part of marriage. Not only that. Sexuality generally has definite repercussions on our self esteem. Also, because sexuality is a natural biological mechanism, not enjoying it puts one in an immense state of ambiguity. You just don’t know why this is happening to you. Moreover, because arousal and stimulation during intimacy happens almost automatically or involuntarily, you don’t know if you will be able to do anything about it. This thought is very discomforting and overwhelms you. Therefore, you decide at the back of your mind to try and ignore the fact that you don’t enjoy sex. But this harms more than it helps.
Another important reason why we don’t address this issue openly for long is that we fear our partner’s reaction. This is a justified feeling. Both partners need to work on their acceptance of the problem. We have elaborated upon how the sexually more active partner can work on his/her acceptance of the situation a little later in the article.
What will Acceptance do for you?
Acceptance will help you deal with the problem while fully being aware that you are dealing with it. What we mean to say here is, the problem remains at the back of your mind even if you attempt to ignore it. So, you are somewhere internally torn between two opposing ends, one of awareness of the problem and the other of ignorance. This itself fosters a lot of negativity. Imagine yourself being sexually intimate while thinking in your mind
- that you don’t want this and
- that you are supposed to ignore that you don’t want it
Feels extremely discomforting at the first read itself right? Now imagine going through this on most occasions. It is bound to make the whole sexual experience more aversive than it really is.
Also, accepting the situation frees you from a lot of mental burden. As long as you ignore or suppress the problem, you feel a sense of constriction in trying to solve it. Are you supposed to solve it (because it is a problem) or are you not supposed to solve it (because you’ve chosen to ignore it)? Accepting to yourself and your partner that you do not seem to enjoy sex helps you address the problem with more clarity.
What really do we mean when we say ‘Acceptance?’
A lot of times we aren’t clear about what ‘acceptance’ means. What really are you supposed to do? Well, in this context, acceptance is a mix of two things. One is, being compassionate to that side of you that does not like sexual intimacy. That you do not enjoy sex is a side in you that exists as much as the side that likes chocolate, wants a good career or loves children. Try not to disown it. Though it is discomforting, it is a part of you, and only by embracing it will you be able to work with it. This belongs to a larger backdrop of accepting that there will be pain in life. Acceptance does not mean giving up on the problem. It only means that you are able to tolerate the problem better and are able to enjoy other healthier aspects of your married relationship even while the problem exists.
–For those of you whose partner lacks sexual desire or is averse to sex :-
Just maybe, it is a tiny bit easier for you than it is for your partner to accept the situation. However, that does not mean you are any less worried. With those of you whose partners have lowered desire for sex, the anxiety is more about whether there is something about you that he/she doesn’t like. Also, your partner’s lukewarm response at your initiating intimacy irks your basic sense of sexuality. With time, you find yourself wanting and craving for their response all the more, and you are also more irked when they don’t seem to enjoy sex. Gradually, the whole feel of sexual intimacy fades away, and a vague pressure to ‘make it happen’ takes its place. At this point, you need to intervene. It would probably help to distinguish between your partner’s aversion towards sex and towards you. Your partner’s sexual aversion is a situation that needs resolution, just as is his or her susceptibility to flu, fear of lizards or over-perfectionistic streak. It is a situation that you both are faced with and need to resolve. It isn’t his or her rejection of “you” as a partner. Understanding this helps ease the pressure off both of you.
Since low sex drive or a hypoactive sexual desire is an expression of something more unconscious, it’s resolution needs to be a slow and compassionate process. The more pressured your partner feels to be intimate, the greater his/her aversion to it would be. There are a good number of us who don’t compel their partners to be intimate, however, pressure has other, subtle ways of expressing itself. When you are mentally anxious about whether or not you will make love, not only your verbal behavior but also your body would reveal this. Little things like the way you probably hold your partner, your grip, your pace of intimacy would all convey to your partner that you are anxious and therefore unnatural, just as his/her bodily cues that tell you he/she isn’t enjoying.
Acceptance, therefore, for you, would mean working on truly allowing your partner the space and time to work on his/her difficulties. Working on reducing your own anxiety about sexual intimacy would help a great deal in this. Think of it like this –
– As of now, my partner does not enjoy or look forward to sex
– This problem has existed for a long time now
– However, it still is a problem that needs resolution (and not necessarily an expression of rejection)
– It does not necessarily mean that my partner doesn’t love me, isn’t happy with me or that I cannot satisfy him/her
– However, difficult it is, it is true that sexuality is but one aspect of my married relationship. I cannot let it color the other aspects of our bond.
– In fact, truly enjoying each other’s company and liking time spent together will facilitate a better life anyway.
Working on Communication between You and Your Partner: Communicating Truly and Compassionately
In a situation that is as personal and sensitive as differences in sexual need, communication between the couple is very important.
Communicating Openly is Different from Focusing Excessively on the Problem
In order to solve a mutual problem, it needs to be discussed. However, most of us unknowingly get into a communication pattern, or rut, over time. You end up asking the same questions, finding the same faults and giving the same explanations again and yet again. You know internally that this isn’t working and that ‘communicating’ is only leading you to discuss the same things again and again. Each time, you try a little harder to listen better, to be more assertive or to ‘control’ yourself from over reacting. You do this in good faith, so does your partner and these little efforts do help.
At the same time, you need to guard against over focusing on the problem. When you are discussing the problem with your partner, be careful to check if you are over focusing on the problem. Ask yourself –
-Is most of our conversation time spent in talking about the problem?
-Are there many other things I want to tell him/her that I eventually don’t?
-Each time we broach the topic, do I feel like ‘how many more times do we need to talk about this’?
-Does ‘talking’ about the problem leave you with lesser time to ‘be’ with each other? To enjoy each other’s company? To know how it feels just ‘being’ with each other?
If you felt that most of the above things happen, both of you are talking about this to the extent of over focusing on the problem. Again, identifying such patterns all by yourself, when you’re already stressed about the issue is genuinely difficult and we completely understand that.
For a start towards changing communication patterns and making them more meaningful, yet some more questions you need to consciously keep in mind while you’re talking to your partner – 🙂
– Am I really, authentically communicating my innermost thoughts and feelings?
– Am I helping him/her understand me better?
– Am I able to understand him/her better as he/she tells me this?
– Am I really open to listening to whatever he/she may have to say? Even if it hurts? Or am I somewhat defensive, not accepting some opinions he/she genuinely shares with me?
A good tip to remember is, ‘communication is about exploration and expression’. As long as these two ‘e’s are met, you are largely on the right track. Seeing sexual incompatibility as a situation that you both need to deal with rather than a problem with you or with your partner as individuals helps immensely in opening up communication.
Be Mindful, Live the Present Moment Completely:-
When you and your partner have sexual differences, chances are that you expect bodily and mental frustration each time you try to get intimate. Soon, the mental frustration stops you from experiencing the present moment fully. You see the future being negative so swiftly that you do not enjoy the present, even if it is fairly neutral or even positive. For example, let’s say you either are caressing each other or sharing a kiss in bed. For the partner experiencing lack of sexual desire, even if you do actually enjoy kissing, the thought that kissing or caressing will eventually lead to sex prevents you from truly enjoying the kiss. Slowly, the umbrella of sexual aversion or lack of desire becomes broader, with all acts of intimacy being aversive to you, not because you actually dislike them, but because of what you think they will eventually lead to.
For the sexually more active partner, it is not very different either. Because you worry about whether you will eventually have sex this time and just whether he/she will respond, the whole happiness and satisfaction out of smaller acts of intimacy also fades away.
Why be in the present? Why mindfulness? Because we need to quieten our minds. Our minds, over a period of time become so habituated to thinking, processing information, judging and evaluating the world, every event and every person, that it is very difficult for the mind to stay rested, to let you feel and experience things around you as they really are, and not how you’ve made them out to be mentally.
The sexual experience too, has somewhere become associated with a lot of tags – irritation, anxiety, pain, guilt, anger and stagnation. Mindfulness, if diligently practiced and persevered at, will slowly allow you, more and more, to feel what is happening now without necessarily zooming into what will happen a few moments later. If you think about it, the negativity of the sexual experience is mental. Its almost like your mind keeps telling you ‘the worst is going to come’. Being mindful will gently quieten this mental chatter. It’ll postpone mental judgement for a little later, slowly opening you up and making you more tolerant of the here and now.
Both partners need to work on this very consciously. Stay in the present more often. If you are wrapped in his or her arms, feel the hug. Feel the pair of arms that embrace you tight, feel your partner’s breath, their skin, its temperature. Let yourself soak in the moment completely.
If reading a description of mindfulness in black and white makes you feel good, (we’re sure it has), think about what truly being mindful can do! Mindfulness not only during sexual intimacy, but also in day to day life will also help you immensely to slowly become more peaceful and rested within. If you want to know more about being in the present, we’ve written some more articles that will help.
Sexual incompatibility is one of the most sensitive areas in a relationship. We understand what it means to you. We had your best interests in mind when we wrote this. Do get back to us with any queries or thoughts you may have. We’d be happy to help.