Physical and Emotional Intimacy in a Relationship

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In our work, we often coach and teach couples about physical and emotional intimacy in a marriage or long-term relationship. In preparation for our Possibilities of Sex workshop, Sonika wrote an email to our subscribers where she transparently shared how she used to dread intimacy.

In response, a client sent us a link to Michele Weiner-Davis’ TEDx talk, The Sex-Starved Marriage. This is a topic well known to us because it’s a common issue couple bring to us.

In her talk, MWD says, “A sex-starved marriage is one where one spouse is desperately longing for more touch, more physical closeness, more sex, more physical affection, and the other spouse is thinking, ‘What is the big deal? Would you just get a life, it’s just sex!’”

Just this week, I was coaching a couple where the husband said, “I just want more intimacy, but you keep saying no. I feel totally rejected; it’s like you don’t even like me”. The wife replied, “I feel like you don’t even notice when I say yes. And I know I’ve put up a lot of walls because I’ve felt so pressured by you over the years like it wasn’t ok for me to say no”.

There are a lot of reasons why one partner has a low interest in sex while the other has a seemingly insatiable desire for it. There are too many to cover in this post, however, we will offer you a few poignant questions and tips to move beyond the stalemate that often develops in a sex-starved relationship.

One of the biggest factors that perpetuate a lack of physical and emotional intimacy is that partners ascribe reasons to their partner’s motivations.

The partner who wants more touch and sex is likely to ascribe reasons like these to the partner saying no:

  • You don’t love me anymore
  • You don’t find me attractive
  • You don’t want to spend time with me
  • You only care about work, not our relationship
  • You’re selfish … you take care of yourself, but don’t care about my needs

The partner who has a lower interest in sex is likely to ascribe reasons like these to the partner who is pulling for more sex:

  • All you care about is sex
  • You’re never satisfied
  • You’re just using my body to get off
  • You don’t really want ME … you just want sex
  • Whenever I give in, you just want more … it’s a void that can’t be filled.
  • When you want sex, you come to me; but you don’t want to spend time with me, talk to me, or do things together
  • You’re not safe to open up to

If you want to have a chance to create more physical and emotional intimacy in your marriage, you have to get beyond these “reasons”. Worst case, they are flat-out wrong and damaging; best case, they don’t tell the full story.

Whether your partner is saying no to sex or wanting more sex, s/he has valid reasons and concerns. So do you. And I can almost guarantee you that those reasons are NOT to deprive you, reject you, use you, or humiliate you. Yes, sometimes that’s how you feel but that does not mean that’s what you or your partner is trying to do.

When you talk about why you feel the way you do – maybe you share some of the reasons outlined above to your partner – they come out sounding like accusations instead of what they really are: a plea for understanding or connection.

To get at what’s really going on with your partner, ask him/her: “What’s it like for you when I say no to sex?” Or, “What’s it like for you when I ask for sex?” And then just zip it and listen.

When you ask the partner who says no, you might hear something like, “I feel pressured. I have so many things on my mind already, when you want sex I feel even more stressed. If we haven’t talked or connected all week, I can’t just jump into sex. And when you get angry, it’s even harder for me to open up. I know you’re frustrated but I don’t feel safe to open up”.

Asking the partner who’s longing for more touch and sex, you might hear, “I miss you. I miss us. I feel so unwanted and unattractive when you say no. I wonder if you even like me anymore. When we make love I feel connected and bonded with you; I feel we can handle anything together. I feel loved and I love you even more”.

Does any of that sound true to you?

If you can share what’s going on for you in a non-accusatory manner, and listen to your partner with patience, you will start to build emotional intimacy and understanding, which is much more likely to lead to physical intimacy.

The next question to ask your partner is, “What makes you feel connected?” Ask it several times to hear more than one answer. You might learn that what makes your partner feel connected is totally different from what has you feel connected.

In her TEDx talk, MWD makes the point that you not only need to know how you feel connected, but you need to become an expert in how your partner feels connected. She acknowledges that it’s not necessarily easy to do, but if you want to mutually take care of each other, you must also be willing to do what makes your partner feel connected.

If you learn that your partner feels connected by having conversations about your future, then have such conversations. If it’s by sharing kisses and hugs all throughout the day, then do that. If it’s by doing projects together around the house, find such projects to do. And if it’s by cuddling naked in bed, do that.

Typically, the partner who wants more sex is the one to hear a lot of No’s. She or he is likely to feel angry and rejected. As MWD says in her talk, “anger is not an aphrodisiac”. Quite the contrary, anger is likely to make your partner feel even less safe and inclined to open up. If you’re the one feeling angry, you must find ways to deal with that anger productively and not use it as a weapon to force your partner to give in. Harnessing your anger and instead of connecting emotionally and conversationally with your partner is much more likely to promote more sex and intimacy.

Conversely, if you’re the one saying No a lot, it’s likely that you feel pressured and resistant to entering into naked cuddling or sexual intimacy. You might have experiences from your recent or distant past that get in the way. Or you might simply have a very low libido. Or maybe you are fine to not have sex at all. Still, if you want to have a happy partner, look for ways you can participate in intimacy and sex. If you’re not ready to jump into full-on lovemaking, what are you ready or willing to do?

In conclusion, being in a low-sex or sex-starved relationship is difficult. What we’ve suggested in this post is a good place to start in terms of opening up a dialogue, and by no means the full solution. Sex is a delicate matter and it’s absolutely okay to need professional help with physical and emotional sex and intimacy in your marriage. Talk to us or any other professional you trust. Or check out some of our self-study mini-workshops, like How To Revive Your Intimacy or How To Get More Intimacy, Sex, And Affection. The mini-workshops can be done from anywhere, anytime, and they only take 90 minutes.

Remember, there’s always an appropriate next step, even if you’ve been feeling starved for sex or intimacy. What’s your next step?

Christian Pedersen

Sonika Tinker, MSW & Christian Pedersen

We are a married couple, husband/wife team, who have devoted our lives to studying and teaching love and relationship, and we are still happy and in love after many years of being together (we walk our talk).

Our clients say we are wise, experienced relationship master trainers and relationship experts – we like to think of ourselves as “relationship awesome-izers”.

We are the co-owners of LoveWorks, a leading-edge transformational relationship training company, where we daily delight in empowering couples and singles to transform their relationships from stuck to soaring in a fun, positive, and practically useful way.

https://loveworkssolution.com/