When you first met your sweetheart, chances are that sexual attraction was part of the draw. Sexuality is a wonderful part of our humanness, yet its importance in the success of a relationship is often overlooked or simply avoided. In the months and years leading up to marriage, a couple’s sex life can be hot and steamy, adding a heady level of passion to the relationship.
After the honeymoon, couples often find that their sex life diminishes as the rigors of daily schedules take their toll. Once children are added to the mix, a couple’s sex life can diminish into nothingness with the added duties and strains of the child rearing years. At least one spouse is often left feeling hurt or angry when the essential element of sexual intimacy is removed from the equation. In fact, when couples seek marriage therapy, sexual problems are often an underlying issue.
When addressing sexual issues with couples, I have often likened a couple’s sex life to an automobile engine. In the early stages of a relationship, sexuality is often the engine that keeps a relationship exciting and purring along. As the relationship progresses, it becomes more like the oil that keeps the engine running smoothly. When a busy couple’s sex life is drained and little lubricant is added, the engine simply doesn’t function well.
Over time, long term damage can result by oversight and neglect. As negative as that situation may sound, imagine what happens when a couple’s sexual relationship goes awry as a result of unhealthy behaviors that sabotage the engine. Consciously and unconsciously, sexuality is all too often used as a tool to gain power or control in a relationship. Envision the harm that can be done when oil isn’t added to the engine as a means of punishing a partner. It’s easy to picture the damage that occurs when the engine oil is withheld intentionally out of anger or hurt. As well, problematic malfunctions occur when negative tactics and power struggles contaminate this essential lubricant. It is also understandable that no relationship will be in top form when the oil of sexual intimacy is offered only as a reward or special favor. In the worst of cases, both partners can become entrenched in the power struggle, and a full scale war is silently waged. What was once a shiny, purring engine becomes nothing more than a pile of metal scraps used to wage a war.
Just as a consistent level of open and honest verbal communication is an essential element of a healthy marriage, communicating about sexual issues is also vital. Sexual intimacy is an important form of communication within a relationship. No marriage can function well when the beauty of sexuality is used in a harmful, controlling manner. Not only does a couple’s sexual relationship allow for physical release, but the intimacy component of sexuality provides a bonding element that is critical. Sexual intimacy offers couples a time to be emotionally close and open. A couple’s sexual relationship can provide a connective “safe haven” from the outside world. When functioning well, a couple’s sexual relationship creates and reinforces feelings of deep love, commitment, and trust.
Indeed, these elements are the most rewarding aspects of sexual intimacy. Long after individual orgasms are forgotten, the deeply bonding energy of true intimacy remains. On a neurobiological level, sexual intimacy causes a surge in oxytocin, often termed the “cuddle hormone.” A key hormone in sexual intimacy, research evidence shows that oxytocin creates strong pair bonding. Interestingly, oxytocin also counteracts anxiety and fear, both of which are associated with stress and high levels of cortisol, a hormone often referred to as “public health enemy number one.”
Many articles focus on women’s need for emotional closeness and safety in sexual relationships, yet men also thrive in relationships that offer a sense of emotional security. Although a male’s sexual drive and tendency to compartmentalize emotions may allow him to engage in sexual activity without feeling close or safe, some women also operate in the same fashion. It is important to note that the misuse of sex within relationships does not confine itself to males or females. Both men and women can learn to use sex to create greater intimacy and, conversely, both sexes can learn to use sex as a weapon within a marriage.
When Sex Is a Weapon
When sex is used to make war rather than to make love, the effects can be devastating. On a neurobiological level alone, the body is deprived of the truly positive effects of several neurochemicals, including the bond-building oxytocin. Instead, negative sexual war tactics build levels of stress-related neurochemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
On a more visible level, partners that utilize sexuality for power and control find that the marriage suffers in many areas. In general, open communication is often diminished, conflicts tend to arise readily, and arguments often remain unresolved. Unhealthy passive-aggressive or openly aggressive behavior patterns often become the norm.
“…When sex becomes a weapon of physical or emotional aggression, lasting harm can be done to the vital sense of trust and safety in a marriage.”
Passive-aggressive behaviors are common and include tactics such as intentionally withholding sex or only offering sex as a reward when the partner has “done something right.” Worse yet, when sex becomes a weapon of physical or emotional aggression, lasting harm can be done to the vital sense of trust and safety in a marriage. If the level of aggression rises, physical abuse can result, leaving the relationship completely unsafe.* When a couple’s sexual relationship goes awry, the level of tension in the household can be palpable. Not only is the couple often miserable, but children, friends, and other family members may also suffer as a result of the unresolved problems.
At this point, you might be asking, “What’s the fix for this private, painful problem?” The truth is that there is no simple resolution. Most “sex wars” come about as a result of longstanding communication issues that surface through sexual relations or the lack of sexual relations. In either case, the dysfunctional patterns that surface through “sex wars” take a toll on the overall health of the marriage. The key to healthy sexual intimacy is found through steadfast commitment and clear, solid communication. As easy as the following 10 tips may sound, the repair process takes time, focus, and dedication.
10 Tips to Make Love, Not War
1. Style Matters!
Become familiar with your communication style and that of your spouse. If you and your partner are having difficulties with sexual intimacy, chances are that you might need to make adjustments. Whether addressing general matters or those related to sexual issues, the most healthy communication style is known as “assertive.”
Unlike the other styles, the “assertive” communicator is able to speak openly and clearly about his or her needs, thoughts, and feelings. This ability to communicate honestly reduces the guesswork and game playing that often occurs in the other communication styles. “Passive,” “aggressive,” and “passive-aggressive” communicators tend to experience more difficulties in their personal relationships. A troubled sex life is often symptomatic of unresolved issues that can be healed with open communication. Sexual intimacy can be restored when sex is not used as a weapon or tool to gain power and control. With awareness and focus, you can shift away from unhealthy communication patterns that harm you and your relationships. If you don’t know your communication style, refer to “The Basics of Fighting Fair.”
2. Commit to Open, Fair Communication!
Once you’ve firmed up your understanding of your communication style, make a commitment to yourself and your spouse to strive for healthy communication patterns. Ideally, your partner will share in your commitment, and the two of you can work in tandem to build open, loving patterns of communication. In building (or rebuilding) sexual intimacy, it is critical that communication be fair, nonjudgmental, and respectfully accepting. Make consistent use of “I messages” that focus on your feelings (“I feel sad that you spent your rare free time with your friends instead of with me!”). Avoid attacking your spouse; instead, strive to understand, address, and resolve the actual problem.
3. Take Your Finger Off the Button!
It can be tempting to get into the old habit of “pushing your partner’s buttons,” but such patterns erode a sense of safety in a relationship. Rather than using your intimate knowledge of your sweethearts “buttons” to cause harm, strive to be extra careful of your loved one’s sensitive areas. Remember, a sense of emotional safety and connectedness is the foundation of healthy sexual intimacy.
Whether you tend to avoid “hot topics” or fight constantly with your mate, many marriages falter when couples cannot agree to disagree. By focusing on your partnership and the overall health of the relationship, you can work with your husband or wife to resolve new or longstanding issues. Rather than focusing on who “wins” and who “loses,” true collaboration has one goal: the long-term success of the relationship. With this in mind, you can both focus on what is best for your spouse and leave your personals agenda behind. As underlying issues are resolved openly and honestly, the war games that have plagued your sex life will steadily disappear.
“Remember, a sense of emotional safety and connectedness is the foundation of healthy sexual intimacy.”
5. Build on the Basics!
Get back to the basics of building a friendship with your spouse. Make time to talk privately and enjoy quiet time together. When possible, make time to talk daily about your relationship; during this special time, avoid talking about stressful topics including work, finances, or other difficult topics. Whether you take a walk around the block or have a cup of tea before bed, commit to sharing gentle moments together. When a couple suffers from a lack of healthy sexual intimacy, it is vital that each partner focuses on creating a trusting, caring friendship.
6. Prioritize Your Spouse!
Let your partner know how much you care by showing through actions, not just words, that they are a deeply meaningful part of your life. Sexual intimacy is based in on having a sense of safety and emotional connection. Whether you make a bubble bath for your sweetie or wake early to brew a special cup of coffee, simple shifts in behaviors can show your spouse that you really care.
7. Clean Slate, Fresh Bedroom!
Make a pact with your sweetie that you will start with a clean slate. Agree to avoid rehashing the old, unhealthy behaviors of the past. Instead, commit to focusing on the positive, fresh behaviors that will fill your marriage with love and respect. By creating new, healthy patterns, you will naturally keep destructive arguments out of the bedroom. With the idea of a starting fresh, you might even invest in a few new bedroom items, such as candles and pillows to give your bedroom environment a gentle, intimate glow.
8. Date Again!
Make a point of remembering what attracted you to your spouse when you first met. Make a list of everything that drew you to your sweetheart and every positive quality you can possibly find. Instead of paying attention to your partner’s faults or weaknesses, strive to focus on what you love about your mate. By shifting your attention to what you love and adore about your spouse, you will automatically become more connected. With a healthy shift in attitude, you can rekindle that special, bonding love. Make time to take your sweetheart out on dates. Go to the movies. Take a moonlit walk in the park. Kiss on the couch. Let your imagination go wild.
As your marriage heals and you’re feeling closer to your spouse, it might be tempting to rush straight into hot, passionate sex. Try to avoid the urge, for the end result is worth the wait. Sensate Focus, introduced by the famous human sexuality researchers, Masters and Johnson, is a technique for developing sexual intimacy. Initially, the focus is on gentle touch that avoids the breasts and genitals. Intercourse is prohibited, as the goal is to attend to the sensations that arise from touching your partner’s skin. In the second stage, touch can include the breast areas, yet the focus remains on your partner’s body rather than creating pleasure. Even in later stages that include intercourse, the focus is not on orgasm, but a fuller awareness of sensuality and sexual intimacy itself. It takes time to build new patterns. By not jumping back into sex right away, you’ll allow healthy patterns time to form and grow.
10. Look for the Magic! Oh, Baby!
With concentrated attention, your intimate relationship will slowly transform. It won’t happen overnight, but you will see incredible changes if you and your sweetie make dedicated efforts to build a healthy sexual relationship. Over time, you will notice a sense of sweetness in your love life and your overall relationship. As you create a safe, loving relationship with your spouse, your sexual connection will grow stronger and healthier. The sense of intimacy and bonding that arises from healthy sexual interactions will bring you closer than ever before. There’s nothing like the power of intimacy to keep your love life in top form.
The above guidelines and tips can bring the most beautiful intimacy into your love life. If you are struggling, never hesitate to seek the guidance of a professional therapist who can offer knowledgeable, nonjudgmental assistance. It’s never too late to learn to make love, not war.