The conventional wisdom about desire discrepancy in a relationship is “just do it.” I’ve had many clients whose previous therapists have recommended some version of this approach, ranging from “ice-breaker sex” to “it’s like doing the laundry; sometimes you just have to get it done”.
I get that when a couple hasn’t had sex in a long time, it can become difficult to find a way to connect, get started, get vulnerable, or initiate intimacy. People frequently ask me “Where do we start? We’ve forgotten how to find one another”.
The problem is that desire can be a fragile thing, in need of a gentle touch. When desire is fragile, tentative, small, or hesitant, it can very easily tilt over into aversion if emotional pressure is applied, or even perceived.
So, what’s the difference between a tentative sexual encounter that results in a stronger connection, and one that has the unintended consequence of creating an aversion, or increasing anxiety?
Willingness is the crucial ingredient that is required for a sexual interaction to be a positive experience. Notice that I didn’t say “desire.” In fact, desire is optional. Willingness is NOT optional. In order to run the experiment of trying to connect sexually after a dry spell, both partners need to feel willing. They might also feel worried, anxious, concerned, shy, tentative, vulnerable, embarrassed, or anything else. But as long as they are able to identify willingness, there is a good chance the interaction will be successful.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself to help yourself get in touch with willingness:
- When sex goes well, how do I feel about myself?
- When sex goes well, how do I feel about my partner?
- What do I want to express to my partner sexually?
- What makes a positive sexual interaction for me? How do I help create that?
- What types of intimacy sound fun to me right now?
- What types of intimacy would I prefer to postpone for another day?
Remember, you don’t have to do everything all at once. Consider inviting your partner to do something that sounds fun to you. Let them know, for now, your experiment is to keep it simple and stick with what you’re most comfortable with.
If you would like to have a conversation with your partner about having sex, try taking turns with these conversation prompts:
- A part of me wants to have sex because….
- A part of me is not so sure about having sex, because…
Make sure both of you respond to both prompts, so you don’t reinforce a polarized dynamic. Then see if you can work together to come up with a strategy to help you both get something you want from the interaction, while helping one another feel as little anxiety as possible.