by Phillip Lee, MD Co-head of Marital Therapy at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City
For a look at his new book, click on Argument Addiction
Why Scheduling Sex Beats Waiting To Be In The Mood
There are no couples where each wants sex the same amount. There is always someone who wants sex more, and someone who wants sex less. To be fair, the roles can switch: perhaps Dave wanted sex more often before the enforced diet of sex when the couple were trying to get pregnant. But in any case, it would be safe to say that right now, today, someone wants sex more, and someone wants sex less.
Things certainly didn’t start out this way. When the couple first met and — as Shakespeare would say — first started coupling, everyone was eager.
Of course, this dynamic is the same with same sex as with heterosexual couples. To make it simple we’re going to talk about Dave and Jen. When Dave and Jen first met at work, or on Tinder, or at a party or on blind date, or in a bar, or wherever — when they first met they were “hot” and sex was great.
What happened? How did we get from there to here?
When they first met the potent chemicals of infatuation flowed through their brains and bodies. It was almost like a visit to the crack den. Dave was amazing, thought Jen. Jen was fantastic, thought Dave. They were in love.
The crack den is great, the people are great…until the crack wears off. Then the place is full of cockroaches, the people have rotting teeth…
When the chemicals of infatuation wear off, it’s not as bad as in the crack den. But certain characteristics of your partner, to which you may have been blind (or deaf) previously, now come to bother you. Furthermore, there may be characteristics of your partner that he or she was not rushing to reveal in the infatuation phase. Same for you.
In any case, you are less enamored.
All this is natural, and not that far from normal. The question is how you deal with it.
Both people are less happy, and they start to blame the partner.
Now think about this: If last night they went to a cinco de mayo party, drank half a bottle of tequila, and had a jolly time…then today they would not be blaming each other because they were now less jolly. They would realize that last night jolly came out of a bottle. But no one says, “Gee I’ve got a hangover from those infatuation chemicals.” Instead they blame their partner. He/she/they used to make me happy. Now not so much.
After that, the arguments start:” All day and still you didn’t take out the garbage!”
“This is how you stack the dishwasher? The spoons are nesting with each other.”
“Late again? Can’t you ever be on time?”
There are countless arguments, and as the relationship sinks into argument addiction, sex very commonly gets added to the pile of disagreement.
“Let’s fool around.”
“I’ve got a headache.”
That is so common that it has become a punchline for comedians. Over time it becomes less comedic for those who live it
Let’s say Dave, because that’s how this would be portrayed in most dramas, wants sex. Jen is tired, or not in the mood, or has that “headache”, or the kids are still up, or may wake, or whatever.
He continues to push it, she fends him off, and so it goes.
He either becomes more angry or more sulky.
She becomes more convinced that he doesn’t understand her feelings. becomes more convinced that he doesn’t “really” care about her, doesn’t appreciate her, and becomes more determined not to “give in.”
Then sex turns into a power struggle. He wants it, she doesn’t.
On top of this is the fundamental difference between men and women regarding sex.
Men think: We’ll have sex, then we’ll feel close.
Women think: First we’ll feel close, then we’ll have sex.
Sex turns into a point of contention. Worse yet, it turns into a competition: if you win (and have sex) I feel like a loser. Meanwhile, if I win (and thus no sex) you feel like a loser.
We have the zero sum game, someone always loses.
Wouldn’t It would be so much better if sex was like the Mexican/Italian argument?
Dave: I’m up for Mexican food.
Jen: I was thinking of pizza.
Probably this will get resolved: ideally Mexican, and then next week Italian, or vice versa.
What would work best is if sex got resolved the same way.
Ideally, this would be relatively easy to resolve. (Mexican this week, Italian next week, etc)
The difference is that personal self esteem is tied up in sex. If she doesn’t want to have sex with me I’m not worthy, If he just wants to have sex with me I’m a doormat.
The argument about sex usually revolves around frequency. The argument can be like an
expansion of the old New Yorker cartoon.
Dave: How about sex?
Jen: Not now.
Jen: How about never? Does that work for you?
Better to get the competition and the self esteem out of sex. The problem is that other disputed areas bleed into sex.
Jen is angry about the kids, or the division of labor, or something, so now she doesn’t want sex.
Dave is angry about how she berates him, or how she watches cable news and won’t talk to him, so now he is “turned off.”
Now, let’s step back. In the real world if you have a problem in one area, you don’t want it to spread into the next area. In a large office building, if there is a fire, everyone will shut the fire doors so it doesn’t spread.
In a hospital, if someone has a contagious disease, the effort will be to contain it, to use an isolation room,and prevent spread.
In marriages, there needs to be an equal effort to prevent the spread of discontent.
If Dave and Jen disagree over where to eat, there is no need for that to spread into a disagreement over what movie to see.
The target is to contain disagreement, as opposed to encouraging its spread.
The same is true with sex. Sex at least was fun; let’s keep it that way.
It should be the opposite of you didn’t do x so I’m not interested in sex. It should be you did x but I’m not letting that affect my interest in sex.
That said, there is tremendous argument over when sex will occur.
Obviously, we propose that the couple schedule sex on a mutually agreed basis.
How would this work?
Let’s imagine that Dave wants to have sex once a day, and Jen comes up with once a month. Suppose they settle on once a week.
We maintain that marital happiness will markedly improve.
Doubters most often complain of the “loss of spontaneity.”
The question is what spontaneity?
The spontaneity of demanding, pleading, threatening — and the inevitable responses of evasion, denial, and postponement? For many couples the spontaneity ship has already sailed.
If you were having a bounty of spontaneous sex you wouldn’t be reading this.
Forget spontaneity. Focus on preserving a source of nourishing fresh water well in a possibly increasingly arid landscape.
Sex can be a positive in your relationship. Couples that are having a sexual relationship generally get along better than their counterparts who aren’t. You may feel that scheduling will inhibit “stick your finger in the wall socket” sex. But if that isn’t what you are having then you are not giving that up. Stop swinging for the fences, and striking out.
Of course, both partners have to enthusiastically undertake this plan, or it will devolve into the old conflict. If the “once a month” partner starts finding excuses to avoid the once a week, encounter things will soon return to where they are now. Likewise, if Mr. once a day continues to complain that once a week is not enough, then the partner will lose interest.
But if both partners enthusiastically embrace the compromise, then the relationship will markedly improve, and not just sexually.
Surprisingly, degree of compatibility and satisfaction in your relationship can dramatically increase in short order when sex is scheduled.
To explore the book, click on the title, ARGUMENT ADDICTION
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