Sex and the Need for Intimacy

One topic that frequently comes up in my sessions with clients is sex. There seem to be some questions I hear more than others, so I wanted to share some frequently asked questions and answers in this article. I hope you find these helpful!

My husband and I are currently separated and haven’t had sex for over a year. I strongly believe that we shouldn’t have sex again until we’re living together under the same roof. But my husband feels differently and says that some of his feelings of disconnection stem from our lack of physical intimacy. What is your advice for us?

In a healthy relationship, sex is never used as a reward or as a way to reiterate that you’re still angry, but rather as a way to more deeply connect with your partner and have fun together. That said, it’s also quite appropriate to take a break from sex, especially if you’re taking space from one another emotionally or reassessing the relationship. Beyond that, particularly if you’re not feeling safe or comfortable enough to be intimate with your husband, no matter how much he might push or prod you, it’s the right thing to hold off. You need to feel safe and protected in order to engage in sexual intimacy, and this needs to be carefully cultivated and reinforced by your husband.

If you are taking a long break from sex (especially one that goes on for months or even years), be aware that it can be that much more difficult to rekindle physical intimacy and connection when it’s been absent for that long. It might even feel robotic or dispassionate to reengage at first. This just means that you’ll have to be that much better at communicating when you’re ready and being really, really patient with one another as your sexual chemistry slowly reemerges in earnest.

My husband and I are newly married. Sometimes I sleep in another room/bed because I’m not able to sleep so soundly next to my husband or because we’ve just fought. This is frustrating for him, as he has strong ideas about a husband and wife sharing a bed together. I’m wondering how best to navigate this hot issue.

The National Sleep Foundation found that nearly one in four married couples sleep in separate beds, so you’re not alone in thinking that this might be a possible solution. There are many reasons why couples might do this, some of which are totally practical, like sleeping better alone, going to bed at different times, having very different evening/night routines etc. But some of the reasons can be more worrisome, like purposefully punishing your spouse after a fight.

If we look at Paul Rosenblatt’s research, highlighted in his book Two in a Bed, he suggests that sharing a bed can preserve a marriage. Rosenblatt found that plenty of couples admitted that they could probably get a better night’s sleep if they slept in separate beds or rooms, but they are reluctant to give up sleeping in the same bed because of what it signifies for them—sharing, security, and perhaps most of all, intimacy.

In the end, there’s no right answer, for it’s not the sleeping together or separately that’s the actual issue; it’s the unresolved thoughts and feelings that come with the sleeping arrangements that could cause deeper problems. For example, if someone is resentful about the sleeping dynamic, this will most assuredly affect the energy in the relationship—and how could that not also affect sleep?!

I’m currently unwilling to have sex with my husband because I’m convinced that he is fantasizing about other women while we make love and I’m disgusted by the idea. What would you suggest?

One of the biggest blockades to healthy human relationships is when one person thinks they know what the other is thinking. Even if there is some kind of accurate awareness that comes from having spent decades together, this dynamic—someone thinking they know what someone else is thinking—shows an unwillingness to be open-minded about another person or give them the benefit of the doubt. Good communication requires listening rather than rushing to judgement. If you’re feeling that your spouse is fantasizing about other people, your first responsibility, way before getting angry or withholding sex, is to be brave enough to communicate your fear and uneasiness to your spouse, rather than to accuse and assume based only on your uncomfortable internal dialog.

Also, consider what feelings or thoughts might be behind your fear of him fantasizing about other women. Are you feeling insecure in the relationship in other areas as well? Are you not feeling at your physical best and, therefore, assuming he must be more turned on by other women? If it’s at all possible that you might have any unconscious issues around your physical appearance or are insecure in other areas, you could possibly be subconsciously sabotaging intimacy because of how you feel. If this is the case, please employ some good self-care (including building new and healthier thought patterns, diet, and exercise) and find your way back to your best self—for your sake especially, but also for your partner.

My husband wants to have sex a lot more often that I do, and I feel selfish for withholding it from him sometimes. What should I do?

Sex is very, very different for men and women. For women, the act takes place within them/inside them, and for most men, sex happens completely outside of themselves. Women have to be in a certain perspective and mindset to be able to be that open and vulnerable to receive another person into their body. This is an amazing willingness to share of themselves with someone else. For men, at least from a societal perspective, they are often the one “doing” sex to the other person, and even this simple distinction, receiving versus doing, can potentially create a dynamic of unequals.

Men and women also experience sex very differently from a chemical perspective. During/after sex, women release much higher levels of oxytocin than men, which makes them bond. Men mostly secrete dopamine, the pleasure hormone, which can be addictive. Women generally know that the act of sex is a bonding experience for them, so they approach it with a bit more trepidation, making sure that they are emotionally prepared to do it (feeling safe, secure, and good about the relationship). Men, on the other hand, at least chemically, are after the next “high” if you will, and that drive can sometimes make us overlook our partner’s feelings and needs.

So, perhaps try to help your husband better understand the mindset of a woman, and get him to see how incredibly comfortable you need to be to receive him fully into your body, literally and figuratively. And the next time he’s frustrated at the frequency of sex in your relationship, remind him of how different the act of lovemaking is for each gender.

Is sex an issue in your relationship?

If you have questions about sex or other relationship topics that you’d like to ask one of our therapists or coaches, please contact our Client Care Team to get you set up with a session to speak to someone!