Too Much Pressure To Have Sex Can Kill Desire In A Marriage—Here's What To Do About It

mbg Contributor By Bez Stone
mbg Contributor
Bez Stone is a relationship coach, speaker, and writer based in Santa Cruz. She has a bachelor's degree in social anthropology from Stanford University.

It’s the end of the day. We’re home with our partner after busy days at work. The dishwasher is quietly humming in the finally cleaned kitchen. The kids are in bed. We’re sitting on the couch about to relax, when our partner gives us "that look"—you know the one I mean. The look that means "I want sex."

And we freeze.

Our relaxation evaporates, our skin bristles, or our muscles tense up. We may love and adore our partners—yet suddenly we are on the defensive. We may have even wanted sex before we saw the look, but now we find ourselves backpedaling.

Why does this happen so often—for women, particularly—in long-term relationships?

No, it isn't because men want sex all the time while women don't.

The two standard (and straight-up wrong) answers typically regurgitated on this subject are:

  • The dinosaur-era stereotype that men want and need more sex than women do.
  • The equally archaic notion that "the spark" in long-term relationships inevitably fades over time.

(Imagine a buzzer going off loudly when you hear these types of statements.

However, these outdated perceptions were reflected in the relationship model I saw growing up. I saw my dad trying to grab my mom’s butt as she passed him in the kitchen and her swatting him away. From the outside, it looks like he wants sex and she doesn't—right?

At face value, yes. But there's so much more to it than that.

It turns out the reason for all this freezing and demurring isn’t because women have a lower libido than men or that the spark has simply fizzled out. It’s because the way we're having sex is not conducive to women's pleasure. In fact, it's strangling her desire completely.

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The real problem is the sexual expectations.

The typical, goal-oriented "round-the-bases" approach to sex doesn’t inspire, arouse, or satisfy women.

Round-the-bases sex: you know, the way we were taught to have sex in seventh grade. First you kiss, then you grope each other, then you have oral sex (maybe), then you finally make it to home base! So, there's this perception that sex is one specific sequence of events that, once we set the precedent of having sex, seems to always be the goal.

Many of us have internalized this outdated sexual script. And this approach to sex can subtly dictate our sexual dynamic with our partners. Enter: that look.

A woman may be eager to get intimate with her partner, to be touched, to be caressed. But because of the precedent we've created, we tend to assume that the look comes with strings attached. We react defensively to that look because we expect to be required to engage in certain activities—whether we feel excited by the idea of intercourse or not.

Feeling expected to have sex a certain way, or feeling like you need to have intercourse if you explore desire with your partner, can actually strangle a woman’s libido over time. You think, "What's he going to want next? What is his hidden agenda here? He expects sex, and I can’t tell if I want that right now."

We become accustomed to using suggestive looks and touches to "achieve a result" with our partner, or to "warm them up" for sex. So, "that look" and the touch that accompanies it feels mentally loaded with expectations—and expectations are not sexy. They aren’t sexy because they send us into performance mode. We worry more about whether we’re meeting our partner's expectations than about whether or not what we’re doing feels good.

How to remove the pressure to have sex.

Women don't freeze when their partners want sex because they don't want sex. My client, Jill, said it perfectly: "I felt excited to see my partner all day. I thought about him on my drive home and even thought about having sex. But the minute he looked at me, all that desire just went away."

It wasn’t that Jill didn’t like or want sex. Instead, ironically, it was her husband's sexual overtures that dampened her desire. Simply put, it's about pressure. Round-the-bases sex puts pressure on women—and pressure doesn't turn anyone on.

Many of us don’t know what to do in the face of "that look" because we feel wary of the expectations attached to it. We fear that once we start a sexual encounter—even with a look—we are obligated to "finish” it, almost as if sexual contact were a slippery slope that we had better not step too close to for fear of losing all say in the matter. As if agreeing to acknowledge the gambit turns intimacy into a transaction.

So it's not surprising we start to avoid sex with our partners.

What to do instead.

This morning in bed, I experienced something radically different—and much more fulfilling—with my partner. I started touching him "for no reason." I touched him simply because it felt good to run my fingers along his skin and feel the hairs on his chest under my fingers. I like his body, and it felt warm. I touched him for a few minutes and we both enjoyed it, and then I stopped. And that was that.

We can regain fulfilling, powerful moments of intimacy when we cut those strings and erase from our minds the outdated notion that sex must "progress" around the bases. Think for a moment about the intimacy and sexual fulfillment that might be missing from your relationship because of this mindset.

It’s not the overture that we're responding to negatively. It’s what we've come to expect it to mean. The most powerful shift I made toward my sexual satisfaction happened when I stopped having round-the-bases sex and stopped believing that sex had to go "in order."

Can you imagine exchanging a steamy glance with your partner—and then going about your business without feeling any pressure to have sex? Picture giving and receiving touch without any expectation that something else needs to happen next—like kissing, oral sex, or intercourse. Imagine touching just for the sake of touching. How might that feel?

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Explore touch without expecting sex.

As a couple, learn how to have a new kind of sex that works for both of you by dropping all your expectations about the progression of sex and experimenting with something new.

Explain to your partner that you want more fulfilling sex and to try something new that cuts the strings that are strangling your libido. Set up a time when you both agree to touch each other with no goal—meaning that you aren’t trying to make your touch lead anywhere. Instead, simply be present with the touch as it is—for its own sake.

If it relaxes you, take sex off the table completely for the night so there’s no chance that the touch will lead to something more. See how different it feels when you touch each other with no intention in mind but to enjoy each other’s bodies.

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