How desire differences help create a better marriage

Sex and Intimacy

There’s always a low desire spouse and there’s always a high desire spouse – and there’s one of each in every marriage.
The most common reaction to this is to believe there’s something wrong … either with yourself, your spouse, the relationship, or all the above.
For starters, things going wrong and things not going the way you want are two different things.
Second, if there’s nothing going wrong, it’s more likely you can turn things around and make them more to your liking.
Previously we’ve discussed the idea that there’s a low desire spouse and a high desire spouse on every issue and decision in marriage. And, no one is the low desire, or high desire on everything. Positions shift on different issues throughout the marriage.
Fact is, desire differences are going to happen – and the positions you take (low or high) are simply points on a continuum.
There will be a high desire spouse and there will be a low desire spouse. And contrary to popular belief, the high desire spouse isn’t always male. As the comments in the prior post attest, it’s just as likely that the high desire spouse will be female.
While neither the high or low desire position is right or wrong, one thing will be true … the low desire spouse always controls sex. And this is true whether the low desire spouse wants to, or likes it, or not.
Couples have often sought ways around this problem. Or more aptly stated, high desire spouses have sought ways to increase their spouse’s desire.
But, inevitably, the low desire spouse will control sex.
Here’s how this works:

  1. The high desire spouse makes most, if not all, of the overtures and initiations for sex.
  2. The low desire spouse decides which of the sexual overtures he or she will respond to.
  3. Which determines when sex happens. Giving the low desire spouse de facto control of sex – whether he or she wants it or not.

When you look at it this way it seems simple.
The key is – how you experience this, and handle this, will say a lot about you regardless whether you’re the high or the low desire spouse.
The fact that you experience desire differences doesn’t necessarily mean there is something going wrong – and shifting your perspective could change everything.
It could open the door to you both using your sexual desire differences more productively. Desire problems can be useful to people and relationships – they push you to become more solid within yourself.
Being in a committed relationship brings two life forces front and center. The drive for togetherness and the drive for separateness.
The desire to connect and share experiences with another person and the refusal to submit to another person’s tyranny.
When it comes to sexual desire, the low desire spouse understands tyranny. He or she feels oppressed, pressured to want sex and have sex, thanks to the badgering by their spouse’s higher desire. BUT, the high desire spouse understands tyranny too. He or she will feel the pressure to have sex when and how it’s available since opportunities may be few and far between. They must settle for “getting lucky” rather than feeling wanted. And on top of all this, they usually must act grateful for mediocre sex.

Marriage: a state of slavery involving two masters and two slaves. ~ Ambrose Bierce

Sex is a common gridlock issue. And gridlock in marriage is inevitable … but also resolvable.
When it comes to sex, sure, the low desire spouse can stop having it, but there’s usually a limit to how far you can play that card if you want to stay married – particularly happily married.
So what can you do?
Put simply, grow up!
Plus, you must realize that what we’re talking about here is not just sex. There’s a whole lot more going on.
Most of the time, sex is approached from an other-validation stance (also called a reflected sense of self).
Take intimacy for example. Other-validated intimacy involves one spouse disclosing feelings, perceptions, doubts, fears, and inner truths and the other spouse 1)accepting, validating, and empathizing, and/or 2) disclosing in kind.
Other-validation hinges on reciprocity.
In sex this plays out as I’ll do you then you do me.
What this actually does is boosts or shores up your reflected sense of self.
Here’s something you must get straight in your mind: Being intimate with your spouse doesn’t mean you get the response you want.
Marriage is an interdependent relationship – it’s resilience lies in both spouse’s ability to function independently.

Holding on to your self

The balance between your reflected sense of self and your solid flexible self has a dramatic effect on your level of sexual desire and passion – and whether or not you miss it when they’re non-existent.
Plus, there’s more to developing your self than simply staying true to your values and goals.
You may be a good person with fine values and good intent, but if your anxieties drive you to avoid things or act impulsively, you’ll do things that violate your integrity, ideals and goals, and diminish your self-worth. You’ll react harshly to other family members when your anxiety is high, which may go against your ideal of being a good solid parent, which then makes you feel guilty, thus your self-worth takes another hit.
Dr. David Schnarch has created Four Points of Balance (all of which are trademarked by him and can be found in his work) that are part of the people developing process of marriage.

  1. Solid flexible self – This is the ability to be clear about who you are and what you’re about, especially when your spouse (or others) pressure you to adapt and conform.
  2. Quiet mind, calm heart – Is being able to calm yourself down, soothe your own hurts and regulate your own anxieties.
  3. Grounded responding – Is the ability to stay calm and not overreact, rather than creating distance or running away when your spouse gets anxious or upset.
  4. Meaningful endurance – Is being able to step up and face the issues that bedevil you and your marriage, and the ability to tolerate discomfort for the sake of growth. (Schnarch, 2009)

When it comes to sex, like I stated before, there’s more going on than just sex.
Look at it this way – There are many things I can do to get my wife to have sex with me. I can woo her, set up a romantic date, get her several drinks, manipulate, beg, persuade, plus many other things that may work. But, none of these tactics will make her want me.
That’s something I can’t control.
When it comes to being wanted … all I can do is present something worth wanting.
And something worth wanting develops best when you confront yourself, challenge yourself to do what’s right, and earn your own self respect.
A scary proposition, yes. But it’s the way a marriage fully alive really works.
For more on this idea, join Sex On Sundays. The next offering begins January 13th, 2013.

Source: Schnarch, D. (2009) Intimacy and desire. Beaufort Books: New York