Whether it’s frequency, fetish, fantasy, or partners, “normal” is a myth. Let’s talk about what sex looks like in a healthy relationship and get past taboo.
“I have to be up early tomorrow, let’s just forget about it for tonight.”
“I thought we had a great relationship but after a few years, we just stopped having sex”.
Some couples experience ease with regularly engaging in fulfilling sexual activity. For others, this topic evokes panic, shame, feelings of inadequacy, or even anger. How do we approach the notion of the importance of sex in a healthy relationship?
Weirdly, sex is still taboo.
People don’t really talk about sex in our culture—but you wouldn’t know it from Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry music videos. The media is full of explicit images, pornography, movies, and messages that make us believe sex is an open topic; yet, many people do not feel comfortable approaching their sexuality or talking about sex openly with their friends or partners.
There is STILL no such thing as normal.
Statistics can give us averages, but there is often no contextualizing this data. Each partner comes to the sexual relationship with different expectations, assumptions, experiences, family message, and identities. Cheri Huber, psychotherapist and author of Sex and Money…are Dirty, Aren’t They? talks about the many different ideas about sexuality we are exposed to while growing up. One must be attractive and alluring, sex is dirty, not having sex means missing out, and good people are not interested in sex, are ideas we are all exposed to at one point or another in modern culture.
And what do we mean by sex anyway?
Sexuality has many definitions. Sex is penetration of a penis into a vagina or anus. Sex is the presence of an orgasm. Sex is pressing bodies against each other under the covers. Straight sex, queer sex, phone sex, masturbation, cybersex, group sex; all of the terms connote different things depending on who you are and what you like. If you happen to rub up against (pun intended) a different definition of sex compared to that of your partner(s), difficulty is imminent.
You want me to do…what?
We sometimes have different needs than our partners do. Judith Martin cheekily touches on this issue in her book, A Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, noting “a situation where one marriage partner is feeling playfully amorous and the other is taking the bar examination in the morning is an etiquette problem of dangerous proportions.” Most couples have ebb and flow in their sexuality in the level of energy/sex drive, and in their connection with each other. Respecting your partner is about understanding and acknowledging their personal preferences and it is integral to being able to have openness, safety, and comfort. Safety and comfort is where eroticism can grow.
Sometimes less is more.
Sexuality can take a back seat at times in relationships. Sometimes sex is not possible or healthy in a relationship—especially in instances when there has been violence between partners, when one or both partners is struggling with a physical health issue, or when there has been sexual trauma experienced by one or both partners. In other scenarios, partners make an intentional choice to abstain from sexual intimacy for religious or spiritual reasons. A healthy partnership is one in which one or both partners are able to reconnect and reestablish sexual intimacy.
There are a few warning signs to take note of:
- The possibility that you’ll encounter non-consensual sex
- Your partner feels unsafe when approaching the topic of sexual intimacy
It is not helpful to force your partner into something they are unwilling to do, feel unsafe or triggered doing, or is painful or harmful to them. Blaming and shaming your partner has the opposite effect of helping you to get what you need.
Boundaries and trust, the old standbys.
The ability to trust and tolerate vulnerability in a relationship is directly proportional to the depth of intimacy possible. This includes sexual intimacy (whether that looks like cuddling together in bed or dressing up in leather). Often times, when there are problems in the relationship, there are problems in the expression of the couples’ sexual dance. Shirley Glass Ph. D psychotherapist and author of Not Just Friends (a book about infidelity) talks about the many ways in which partners unintentionally stray from their relationships and the costly emotional work required to fix sexual trust. Clear boundaries in the relationship, whether you choose monogamy, polyamory, or celibacy, are necessary for trust to develop and thrive.
Getting it on with dialogue.
The ability to communicate is essential when it comes to discussing the nuances of sexuality—what you fantasize about, what scares you, what turns you on and off. Intimate sex does not work if you are expecting your partner to read your mind. Also, assumptions about gender and tastes can lead you to see your partner not as an individual, but as a stereotype. Many of the advice columns or online news feeds talk generically about what turns a man on or cite research studies about what women are really thinking. While this can be titillating reading material, it is no substitute for talking directly to your lover about sex. Whether a new connection or a long term relationship, our sexuality, needs, and desires are dynamic and shift over time. This is all the more reason to have conversations about sex with your partner to help understand how they are interested in expressing their sexuality.
Set up a time to talk and take steps to be honest with one another. Lovers are made, not born. Really listen to what your partner says and expect to feel a variety of emotions, ranging from inadequacy, hearing about their previous experiences, to feeling turned on. Try not to judge yourself or your partner about their experiences. And remember, the best measure of the adequacy of your sex life depends on how comfortable you are with yourself and how comfortable you become with your partner.