In my work as a therapist and my husband David's work as a relationship coach, we find that there are common differences in how partners approach feeling close and feeling sexual towards the other. One partner may have a need to feel close emotionally before they are open to feeling sexual with their partner. For instance, this partner may need words of appreciation, non-sexual affection, or time and space of feeling connected in order to be open to sexual passion. The other partner may experience sexuality as the doorway to feeling close and connected.
Not everyone approaches sexuality and intimacy differently, but we find that many do. And since couples often find themselves in a state of feeling emotionally distant and without sexual intimacy for a period of time, these differences can feel exacerbated at certain points in time.
Emotional distance and lack of intimacy may be pegged to a specific incident, but is often simply due to the everyday stresses and sheer busy-ness of life. Regardless of circumstances, both partners typically still feel a deep inner desire to create closeness and intimacy again. Although these longings are similar, often the approach to connection can be at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Due to these differences, couples sometimes misinterpret their partner's approach to closeness. This misunderstanding can lead to even further emotional distance, resentments and other pain, all of which can sabotage the closeness that both partners are seeking in the first place. One partner may be thinking, "All he wants me for is sex. I feel used and unimportant," while the other partner may be thinking, "I am expressing my love and desire to connect and she is rejecting me. I feel rejected and unimportant."
Society often associates this difference with gender: e.g. the man goes for sex and the woman needs the non-sexual contact first. Whereas this is commonly seen in both of our private practices in working with couples, we also see the opposite where the roles are reversed gender-wise. This difference in approach to intimacy and sexuality also lives in same sex relationships. It is important to steer away from gender or sexual orientation generalizations and look at the truth that lives in your relationship.
Couples often avoid conversations about sensitive subjects in general, and in particular, tend to avoid conversations about sexuality. They may be nervous to have a conversation about sex due to feeling unsure of how to approach the conversation, fear of hurting their partner's feelings or past hurtful experiences.
Given that sexuality is a sensitive subject, how do you have this conversation? Here are four steps to follow:
1. Realize from the get-go that you both desire closeness and sexual intimacy.
Start the conversation with an intimate or sexual appreciation or acknowledgement of your partner. This begins the conversation on a positive note. Express your desire to bridge the gap of distance and to become emotionally and sexually close again.
2. Acknowledge and be honest that there are differences in your approaches and identify what those differences are.
Realize you each have different approaches and neither of you are right or wrong, you are just different. When you stop trying to convince your partner that your way is the "right" way and approach each other with respect and understanding, it stops the fighting and creates an atmosphere of working together. Don't make your partner wrong or try to convince or manipulate your partner in doing it your way.
3. Reframe how you have been interpreting your partner's approach.
A possible way of reframing "All he wants me for is sex" becomes "When he approaches me in the kitchen and passionately kisses me and puts his hand on my breast, he is showing me his desire to connect with me and love me." A possible reframe for "She is rejecting me again" becomes "She does want me and my sexuality, she is not rejecting me, she is asking me to go slowly so she can open."
4. Remember to be open to the intention behind your partners approach.
One partner opens to and embraces non-sexual intimacy, while the other partner opens to and embraces sexuality as a gateway to intimacy. You must each consciously choose to incorporate a bit of your partner's way to meet more in the middle. Take your time with this as it may take awhile to find the right balance for your relationship.
Keep in mind that this may feel uncomfortable for both of you in the beginning. Keep the communication open and be compassionate and sensitive to yourself and to your partner as you navigate your way back to connection with each other. A word of caution, if either partner has sexual wounds we recommend that you seek professional help to assist in the healing process. We encourage you to have these sensitive conversations and follow the above tips to help create a vital and vibrant relationship.