When we think of foreplay and the building of sexual desire, we often think of the touching, licking, sucking, and kissing that happens directly before sex. But this process can start much earlier on, in platonic settings throughout the day. There’s the old joke that men are like microwaves and women are like crock pots, but both sexes enjoy being “primed” for a sexual connection. After all, the brain is the biggest sex organ.
A male friend recently told me about his wish to feel sexually desired by his wife – he spoke about it like he was in a desert, searching for water. They have been together for some time, but she has never initiated sex (of any kind) at any point during their relationship. He talks about how he constantly showers her with attention. He regularly creates romantic situations he thinks she might enjoy. Like making a home-cooked meal and eating by candlelight, and then afterwards taking his time turning her on and going down on her for as long as she likes. He has always held onto the dream that she will return the act, but she doesn’t, and at this point, he is too afraid to ask because he believes that an outright rejection would devastate him. After the dinner and oral sex, he either initiates full-on intercourse or they go to sleep. Lately, they’ve been going to sleep more and more. He wanted to know if there was any hope for them.
Without knowing her take on the situation, it’s difficult to paint a picture of the whole story, but I asked him a few more questions: has he ever asked her to initiate? No. Has he ever told her what turns him on? No. Has he ever asked her what turns her on? No.
There is no question he loves her very much, but their lack of communication and some of his actions prior to his romancing are sabotaging his genuine efforts. He is either really romantic with her or somewhat distant. The way I perceived it, there is not much no-strings-attached-affection for the sake of being close and connected. For example, when they are packing their bags to go somewhere, instead of being patient with her and working together as a team, he gets stressed out and snaps at her to grab this thing or that thing and did you print out our itinerary? By the time they are on the plane, she is so put off that they don’t have any sex the whole time they are away.
Another friend of mine yearns to be touched more by her husband. Sometimes they go months without having sex. It doesn’t help that they have young children who sometimes sleep in their room, but the real problem is that she has called the shots 95 percent of the time (about everything) since the beginning of their relationship. I can see how this plays out in their dynamic: he doesn’t know where his place is and he’s always waiting for instructions from her. Unlike the couple above, she has told her husband that she needs more touch from him. One major issue for them, is that in the beginning of their relationship, she would initiate sex most of the time. Gradually, she initiated less and less and expected him to initiate more and more, but he has not done so. For him, there never seems to be a good time or place. When he does finally try to take the initiative and make something happen, she isn’t very receptive, so he waits for her to tell him when it’s okay – on her terms. Here too, is the issue of control – she is inadvertently sabotaging what she wants by always needing to control the situation.
The set up at their house is another part of the issue – it is a place for children, not adults. They have not created an adult space or given themselves permission to have alone time.
How can couples change these patterns that keep replaying themselves? We need to be mindful about how we set the tone from the very beginning of the relationship (if possible), as well as the beginning of that day, or that evening. We also need to be mindful about whether or not we instill confidence in our partners. Do we help them feel confident to take the initiative – do we give them the space to be responsible for something so that they can build their own confidence? Do we show them that we trust their abilities? Do we allow for spontaneity? Or do we undermine their confidence because we believe we can do something better, or think we are being kind by relieving them of the burden of a task?
Keeley and I were chatting about how couples can change a pattern that has been present since the beginning of a relationship but is no longer serving them. She says one of the first things you can do is start changing your own behavior.
She was working with male client who wanted sex to happen more often in his marriage of 15 years. He and his partner would only be close and intimate on vacations, and that simply was not often enough for him. She suggested that he try touching her with no agenda other than to feel close to her. After three weeks of affectionate touch, it was like she cracked open and they started having a lot more sex. He just needed to be more patient with her and prove to her that he wanted to be close to her whether sex was going to happen that evening or not.
It is not always this easy to change old patterns, however. By the time most couples show up in a therapist’s office, they need to dig a little bit deeper.
Keeley has found the most effective way to move past a more ingrained issue is to bring it fully into the light. Nothing can change if you are unaware of what is going awry. It is very important that as these “problems” (if you will) come to the surface, it is not in a blaming or mean way (i.e. understanding that your partner is not trying to intentionally hurt you and BOTH people are playing a role in how things have gotten to where they are). This unhealthy pattern has been built, often over a long period of time, and it is not serving the relationship any longer, and therefore needs to shift. Holding someone else solely accountable without seeing your own hand in the pot can keep relationships very stuck. She advises making a plan of action for how things can be different and talk with your partner about resistances or fears to the change as well as discussing how you will handle it when one person notices the old pattern sneaking back in. Lastly, she says, be compassionate with your partner. Change takes time. Do not expect it to happen overnight.
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