If you’re one of the 23 million viewers hooked on ABC’s Desperate Housewives, you know what happened when buttoned-up, cleanaholic-Bree let her obsession with a messy taco wrapper ruin a last-ditch date with her sexually frustrated husband, Rex. And you saw the upshot of Rex’s reluctance to come clean about his submissive fantasies: a tryst with the friendly neighborhood dominatrix, Bree’s flirtation with a smarmy local druggist, a mysterious potassium overdose, Rex laid out flat in the ICU – and then, just maybe, six feet under.
Though “Housewives” is a madcap souped-up soap brimming with over the top caricatures, the couples on the show have still managed to become poster-kids for the millions of ordinary folks whose sexual differences add drama to less than lethal relationships. If you identify with Bree, you know what it’s like to be so distracted (or obsessed) by the details of daily life that sexual feelings congeal like oatmeal on a cold back burner. If you’re even a little like Rex you harbor the kind of erotic tastes that could add zest to your love life if only you shared them, yet, you can’t bring yourself to utter the words. Both of you wonder if you and your mate are too different to ever mesh. What’s more, if you’re the “high desire” side of the twosome, you fear that you’ll always have to contend with less pleasure than you crave; if you’re on the “low desire” side, you worry that the pressure to be different will never end. Either way, the relationship that should be your safe harbor in a stressful world is the stressful world.
Certainly, all couples deal with some degree of desire discrepancy since even the most compatible twosomes are hardly clones. Disparities can be pretty basic – owl vs. lark, bi-weekly guy vs. weekly gal – and their troubles can be easily reconciled through good-natured negotiation. However, when disparities become the source or symptom of relationship malaise, resentment, or discord, generosity of spirit floats right out the window.
Recently, a flurry of news stories reported that as many as 11 million American couples are in sexless marriages. If these statistics are accurate, we’re talking about an estimated 20% of married couples – plus at least another 15-20% who hobble along in low-sex relationships, where one or both of the partners settle for far less, or less enjoyable, sex than they desire. (And these numbers don’t even account for unmarried long-term couples in similar straits.)
Sex and marital therapists offer a spate of explanations for the phenomenon: time-crunches and fatigue, conflicts and parenting pressures, hormonal dips and surges, and the miscellaneous stresses of urban working life. These troubles, in turn, have given birth to a bevy of treatments and corresponding self-help books for desperate partners.
Given the breadth of this issue, it’s virtually impossible to offer an abracadabra solution to sexual incompatibility, let alone do it in a single article: believe me, it takes a bookstore. What I can do, however, is highlight one of the key problems that affect many out of sync sexual relationships: hidden, unspoken desires. Not only do partners differ in how often they want to make love, but like Bree and Rex, they differ in the kind of sex they want.
Failing to communicate fantasies or needs means one or both partners are operating on misguided notions about the other’s willingness to play in their preferred sexual sandbox. This combination of miscommunication and misattribution eventually sucks the life out of any couple’s erotic connection.
Assumptions breed false arguments, too, about the frequency of sex-play, when the deeper issue, the real issue, is quality. Think about it: what’s the sense of doing more of something that’s unfulfilling in the first place? Unless the kind of sex you’re having is acutely pleasurable, negotiations about scheduling are pointless. Experts who suggest that the low desire partner express his or her love by “just doing it” are missing the boat. When “it” means tolerating an experience that is undeniably bland, unpleasant, or intensifies reminders of the kind of lovemaking you crave and can’t bring yourself to ask for, sexual aversion is a more likely outcome than sexual appreciation. On the other hand, the Bree-style approach to problems – sweeping every last speck of evidence under the living room rug – is the riskiest solution to this dilemma, since unaddressed distance in the bedroom usually translates into lack of emotional intimacy in the relationship. Couples withdraw affection, become more defensive, bicker, and eventually detach. Often, by the time they reach a therapist’s office, the heart of the relationship has gone into spasm and the marriage is in the same condition as Rex in the season finale: gasping a last breath.
Given this prognosis, talking about sexual desires is actually the lesser gamble, risky though it may seem. Even so, silence about these matters is epidemic. Each partner expects the other to speak up, to make the situation “safe.” But not only is safe rarely sexy, standing back and waiting is rarely fruitful. The cliché that successful relationships are not 50-50, rather, they are 100-100 – in other words, each person needs to give 100% – is an utterly valid axiom when it comes to sexual communication. To connect with one another, each partner needs to ante up 100% courage and disclosure.
Self-revelation is certainly easiest when you actually know what you want. The trouble is, some folks don’t have a clue – they only know that, whatever it is, they aren’t getting it. You need fulfilling sexual experiences to tell you what turns you on and to be able to share your precise needs with a lover. But that doesn’t mean you can’t share your truest truths even in the absence of more knowledge. You can still say, “I’m searching; I want to learn more about myself, more about how to please myself, more about how you can please me and we can enjoy each other. Will you take this journey with me?” Reaching out, moving toward your partner, is always a powerful prescription for intimacy.
If you know exactly what you want but fear that the truth will send your partner scurrying to the airport, here’s today’s newsflash: anxiety is simply no excuse for avoidance. Sure, you worry that he might say, You want me to do WHAT?” Or, she might glare at you like she smells something nasty, just as Bree did when Rex’s tryst revealed his yearnings. But in real life – unlike Hollywood dramas that subsist on episodic crises – loved ones are actually more compassionate toward their partners’ erotic confessions. Besides, kind compromise is possible only when you can keep the farthest ends of possibility in view.
It’s important to know the difference between frankness and pressure when readying yourself to share a sexual secret. Speaking up skillfully about desire can sound something like this:
You: “I want to tell you a sexy little secret…would you like to hear it?”
Mate: “Sure, baby!”
You: “When I think about making love with you, sometimes I imagine you doing this and that to me (or me
doing this and that to you).”
Mate: (dead silence)
You: “How does that sound to you?”
You: “Maybe you’d just like to think about it for awhile…we can talk more later.” (Kiss!)
Notice that you sound forthcoming, but not demanding, and you really do make room to listen to your partner’s response, or to let him/her ponder the news. You don’t get agitated or panicked by her lack of initial enthusiasm and you don’t (above all) backtrack when you get anxious, or say your desires really don’t matter anyway.
Anxiety about a partner’s reaction can also lead to exerting counterproductive pressure. Hungry to get a positive response, you forget to consider her feelings or the fact that she needs time to digest new (and perhaps surprising) information. How to tell if you’re leaning too hard or just being enthusiastic? Measure your anxiety level. If it’s high, you’re probably using pressure. Plus, pressure looks and feels a lot like the grown-up version of a seven-year-old asking time and again for dessert before he has even eaten dinner.
To the kid there’s only one “right” answer. Another blitz of demands slams any other response down.
Here are a few additional tips for sharing your desires:
- Don’t blurt out your fantasies or wants in the middle of “doin’ it” in your routine, tried and true way.
- Bring up delicate subjects (and it’s “delicate” if you are nervous about it) when both of you are relaxed and feeling connected.
- Remember: when too much information is aimed at someone all at once, their emotional brain may collapse from the overload. Spread your news gently and slowly, otherwise, an idea that would have been intriguing if introduced sensitively could elicit a defensive reaction instead.
- If anxiety gives you lockjaw, try mentioning the sexy idea you “heard about on TV,” read about in a book or article, or were told about by a “friend.” Where the idea allegedly originated is far less important than addressing it.