*This post was excerpted from my schmoozeletter email. If you'd like to receive content like this regularly, you can subscribe here: elishevaliss.com/newsletter "
The following is a conversation that comes up a lot with my couples in therapy:
Me: So what would you say are the challenges you're facing in your relationship that you want to address together?
Him: Our intimate life isn't great. We're not "together" often and when we are it seems to fall flat.
Her: For me it's that I'm feeling that we're emotionally disconnected from each other these days.
Him: Well, I feel very rejected and frustrated by the lack of physical affection and sex, so more of that would help me feel more connected.
Her: Well, it's hard for me to feel sexual and open to touch when we're feeling so disconnected emotionally- and I don't like feeling like you only want sex. If we invest in talking and spending time together, that would probably help me access my libido.
So- he needs sexual activity to feel close, she needs to feel close in order to desire sexual activity, and the marriage has become a stalemate, both lonely and waiting for the other to step forward in a bid of some sort of intimate connection.
This is very, very common.
And you could flip the genders in the story if you want; I used these because it's what I see more frequently (and I'm sometimes criticized for writing about these issues in a way that's gender stereotypical. But I write about what I see the most often, and then acknowledge individual differences.)
He uses physical intimacy to feel emotionally intimate; she needs emotional intimacy to desire physical intimacy. The cat chasing its tail.
So- when you're stuck in this loop as a couple, where do we start?
Well, some couples therapists don't take sides, but I sometimes do.
In this case, I believe you start with (re)building emotional connection first.
Why? Because it can be unhealthy and even traumatic for people to force themselves to be sexual when they don't feel psychologically or physically up to it, while creating time and space to connect emotionally generates safety and sets the stage for better intimacy of all kinds. (That's not a guarantee; just an opinion.)
In general, the dance precedes the mating, but there are couples where one partner tries to skip steps and it often doesn't go so well. (Yes, there are exceptions.. cuz: people.)
How do you build emotional intimacy? You start by spending time together that's not interactional foreplay. By reading or watching material about relationship enhancement, discussing it, and processing it together. Or by going for a walk, a date, a meal, having an intentional conversation about things you've been avoiding, and by playing - reinforcing the friendship part of the relationship in a way that doesn't feel conditional to immediate sex.
Better emotional connection often means better physical connection to create a virtuous cycle of love-making.
*For more free content like this, come join us at elishevaliss.com/newsletter