Is There Sex After Marriage?

Is There Sex After Marriage?
A Special Report from
Kate the Sex Therapist

A fine romance with no kisses,
A fine romance, my friend, this is.
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes,
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.
-Jerome Kern

Sadly, marriage without sex seems to be an ordinary phenomenon of modern life, the focus of numerous advice articles and fodder for late-night TV show comics. About 20% of married couples are not having sex; this estimate, however, does not include those with infrequent or unsatisfying sex, or unmarried heterosexual or gay/lesbian couples who are non-sexual. Lack of desire has been called the “common cold” of sex therapy, so we know that many couples are living with awkward distance, loneliness or bewilderment about where all the passion has gone.

Relationship conflict is often blamed for lack of sexual activity, but is among many other, more complex causes that are worth considering:

 Body image concerns
The vast majority of women, and an increasing number of men, are unhappy with their physical appearance and may be uncomfortable with being seen naked.

 Sexual inhibition or shame, which may be related to sexual history or experiences of abuse.
Sexual experiences in childhood or young adulthood for which we were not developmentally ready can interfere with sexual confidence and self-acceptance, even as we mature.

 Ignorance or inexperience, lack of confidence or knowledge
Many of us lack anatomical knowledge, especially of women’s bodies, and are unsure how best to please our partner or to let them know what kind of stimulation we prefer.

 Low or declining hormone production, or other effects of aging.
An increasing concern as the population advances in age, this affects both physical energy and sexual interest.

 Physical impairment, such as chronic pain can interfere with desire for sex or ability to perform
Another increasingly common limitation that can be accommodated, but all too many people concede their sexual activity and assume they can no longer continue enjoying sex; this is particularly unfortunate as sex and orgasm decrease pain and discomfort and contribute to overall well-being.

 Medication side-effects
Antidepressants such as SSRIs can impede sexual interest and functioning, as well as create difficulty with erections or lubrication, or delayed orgasm. Commonly-prescribed blood pressure meds, over-the-counter medicines and drug interactions can play a part; some of this may even be related to the way body odor is affected by the medicine. Adjustments in dosages or types of medication can ameliorate the problem, but patients have to have the comfort to speak frankly with a physician in order to address this.

 Relationship discord
Disagreements about sex and money are the most common concerns couples face, and certainly contribute to lack of sexual satisfaction. Disputes about in-laws, children or other causes of anger that are not effectively communicated may interfere with the emotional openness and trust necessary for great sex.

 Apathy or exhaustion
Women in previous generations reported an average frequency of intercourse twice weekly, but many now working outside the home say they do not have enough energy to have sex weekly. Men and women report working longer hours than their parents, as much as an additional workday every week- and computer tasks and voicemail take time, intruding on home life. This can cause sex to be a low priority.

Naturally, ruling out medical causes of these problems is essential in dealing with low desire, or discrepancies in desire (when one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t). People may choose hormone replacement therapy, or seek alternatives to antidepressants, such as exercise or spiritual practices. Those who are determined can be resourceful in finding ways to get around erotic limitations.

The subversive aspect of an active sexual life is that, in a world focused on and driven by productivity and efficiency, sex, like play, is just for enjoyment.

Sometimes lack of desire is a matter of a scheduling or communication problem, but because the sexual self resides in a deep part of the mind, these are often overly-simplistic answers. We put considerable pressure on intimate relationships at this particular point in history. We rely on one person for needs that were once addressed through a complex community network, and then we want torrid, romantic and emotionally engaged sex from that one person too! It’s a lot to ask, and it’s no surprise that couples are often in despair about their colliding needs.

When a man and a woman marry, they become one. Of course, they must decide which one, and that is often where the storm starts.
-Pierce Harris

In order to create an atmosphere of gratifying and creative sexual expression, couples need to air their disagreements without blame, and set a mutual intention to renew their physical connection. Making time for physical contact that is not focused on orgasm, and affirming the difference between affectionate and soothing contact and sexual touch can help set clear expectations.

Some couples spend so much time cuddling, cozy, and domestic that they would benefit by a period of not touching; they have become too familiar to each other, and the thrill of contact by “another” has worn off.

A study says that being married actually reduces the risk of heart attack – or anything exciting, really.
-Jonathan Katz

The desire for stability removes sexual vitality. There are such contradictions in intimate relationship: we seek security and reliability, yet the charge of a new attraction is found in the thrill of the unknown and novelty. We are full of possibility and hope at the start of a new romance, and the passion we feel is partly inspired by uncertainty. Will the attraction continue? Can we offer even more of ourselves and still be accepted? So in order to keep a spark alive, we need to maintain some of that sense of being “on the edge” even after bedding our partner for decades: no small trick.

Since most people want better sex, not just more frequent, it is a matter of reinventing the familiar and staying endlessly curious. This may involve disclosing old secrets or desires, finding ways to increase our vulnerability and showing our partner we are willing to risk still more of ourselves. Partners who are “best friends” may be especially prone to sexual disengagement and boredom. Gays and lesbians have been found as healthy in their overall relationship patterns as straight couples, and in some aspects relate in more skillful ways; but lesbians are particularly prone to developing non-sexual relationships over time. And of course if this is by mutual agreement, that is perfectly fine. But some insecurity actually heightens interest.

Sex is dirty only when it’s done right.
-Woody Allen

Couples who have avoided sex for a while find it difficult to resume, caught up in a thicket of awkwardness and assumptions. Generating romantic feelings when there has been uncomfortable distance is especially challenging. The prelude to thawing out an interlude without sex is to acknowledge it in a straightforward way and take the leap of expressing a desire for something different. Without this antidote, one partner may end up seeking acknowledgment and appreciation elsewhere, imagining it easier to begin again than to confront a dejected partner.

In heterosexual couples, most men believe their sex drive is higher than their wife’s, and experience sex as the most powerful way they have to express emotion and desire to be close. Women only have about 10% of the testosterone that men do. The “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is ten times higher in women. His equals hers only when he is experiencing orgasm. Men are much more visually oriented:
76 % of men want the lights on during sex, but only 36 % of women.

Couples with active sex lives have some unrecognized habits that invigorate desire. The way they fantasize or interact with strangers or co-workers could be hurtful if revealed to their partners, but they are actually acting in the service of the relationship. Harmless flirtations and mild provocative behaviors could cause jealousy, but serve to affirm desirability and vitality.

John Gottman, a prominent marital researcher, has said, “There is no such thing as constructive criticism.” This is doubly true in the bedroom. Frustration, berating or accusing will only backfire, and cannot be indulged. Comparing or even mentioning past partners in an intimate setting is similarly damaging. Disclosing or complaining about sexual concerns to a friend should only be done with the utmost caution. Discuss concerns with your partner only when feeling close and trusting, when defensiveness is less likely. Creating a climate of playful freedom and complete acceptance is best done with as much positive feedback and appreciation as humanly possible.

There is much the straight world could learn from the S/M community,for they have a sophisticated system for communicating about desire and power dynamics. Taking time to talk about what sex means and what pleasures us is the cornerstone of a sex life of delight and imagination. Too often, people find it easier to have sex than to find a language to talk about it. To experience radiance in our intimate life requires maturity, confidence and self-possession.

The requirement that there be a single kind of sexual life for everyone disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment.
-Sigmund Freud

The reality is, much of the time one partner will be more motivated to make love than the other. Finding a way to keep a conversation open and addressing these discrepancies in desire when they occur is a reasonable goal, and expecting seamless synchronicity is a recipe for disgruntlement. Much of the time it will involve little effort for a man to reach orgasm, yet focused effort will be necessary for a woman to do the same. Women who are most sexually satisfied are likely to be those who take responsibility for and communicate with their partner about how they get aroused. Men who are the happiest sexually are probably openly asking and expressing interest in their partner’s needs and initiating conversations about sex.

The primary nature of every human being is to be open to life and love.
Sexuality is not a leisure or part-time activity. It is a way of being.
-Alexander Lowen

Kate McNulty LCSW
(503) 295-6265