Being in a relationship where it doesn’t feel like there is enough sex sounds like a trivial and somewhat comedic luxury problem, as though someone were complaining there wasn’t enough tennis or yoga between a couple.
But an absence of sex isn’t trivial in the least, it is humblingly serious and might even be what either guarantees or dooms the relationship itself.
One statistic stands out. In an average year in the OECD countries, 70% of those who initiated divorce cited a lack of sex as the first or second reason for parting. If there’s one generalisation we can make about couples, it’s that a lack of sex – by which we mean, less than four times a month – is an alarm bell we should listen to.
Why is sex such a key part of keeping two people close?
Because in sex, two people accept each other in the most profound of ways. The apparently dirty and shameful sides of us, the wayward fantasies and the unusual longings, are legitimated through sex. Someone else witnesses and accepts us as bodily and psychological beings. Sex symbolises an end to loneliness and a reaffirmation of trust. Not daring or wanting to have sex with a partner is tantamount to admitting that one can’t be oneself in their presence.
A lack of sex is bad enough, but far worse is the way in which the unreciprocated longing for sex manifests itself. Typically, the person who wants it:
- doesn’t ask very clearly: maybe merely sliding a hand over in a timid, half-hearted search for reciprocation
- they don’t complain calmly, don’t deliver an eloquent self-confident speech about how difficult they are finding it – and don’t enquire sympathetically as to what might be going on in the partner
- they tend to quickly move on to symptomatic behaviour wherein their disappointment and sense of humiliation are acted out rather than discussed: they bang dishes. They get mean.
A whole raft of conflicts then develops that has ostensibly nothing to do with sex and yet is caused by its absence. One starts squabbling over the in-laws and the state of the kitchen. The one who has been let down sexually behaves so badly, they start to seem like a monster; further reducing the chance of sex ever taking place.
Eventually, the sex starved party may simply go off on and have an affair, not because they don’t love their partner, but because showing their desire has become so fraught with rejection that they are out for a bit of revenge.
The lack-of-sex discussion is so hard to have because, quite simply, it feels so shameful to be unwanted sexually. It plays into every worst fear about unacceptability. It’s bad enough when it happens on a date, it’s even sadder to have to admit that one is being rejected by one’s partner inside the apparent safety and commitment of a long-term relationship. Maybe there’s something wrong with them, but far more likely, there’s something revolting about us.
Key to a process of reconciliation is to reign in one’s wilder feelings of rejection and self-disgust – in order to be able to consider why the other party might have gone off sex.
A key fact: everyone wants sex in principle. When it isn’t wanted, it’s because a condition for sex is not being met, and then not communicated. Privately, the sex-rejecting party has a problem they are not sharing. They might in secret be thinking: I might have sex:
- if only you listened more to my problems with my family
- if you gave me more time to do my work
- if you weren’t so mean to me around domestic chores
There might be kinkier reasons: I’d have more sex if:
- you allowed me to play out certain fantasies
- if you were more broad minded about role playing
- if you were more into kissing
- or wanted it rough
- or could be more submissive.
The person being denied sex hasn’t usually had any chance to hear these reasons in plain unaccusing gentle terms. Or maybe they’ve heard them without a sober awareness of what is really at stake here.
There’s been no proper communication. Therefore, a classic recommendation, deliberately artificial, is that the two parties – aware that their entire relationship probably depends on getting this right – should write each other a letter, titled simply: ‘What I want from sex.’
It’s a chance to be deeply honest about your true sexual identity.
It is then incumbent on both parties to take the other’s words seriously and in good faith.
Two people are always going to be a bit sexually incompatible – but we should not get so scared and angry at this that we create a secondary barrier of hurt, punishment and shame.
We should take the first steps to finding a way in which what you want and what they want can in a modest way be harmonised – and the sarcasm and banged dishes can stop.
Every time such a conversation about sex happens in the quiet of the night, the angels of relationships hover over the bedroom and sound their silent trumpets in celebration – because another couple have just critically improved their chances of lasting a little longer together.