“About how often would you guys say you are physically intimate?”
This question is part of my standard couple intake session, even if the clients have not specifically said they ware coming to work on their sexual relationship. The answer helps me understand a little about what is percolating beneath the surface of the stuff that is easier to discuss, or seems more pressing to address. Often, a couple comes in to resolve a conflict having to do with something like in-law troubles, or money disagreements, but when I ask this question, I find out that it has, in fact been several months since they’ve even touched each other. This helps me understand how estranged the two have become, or maybe even always were. Sometimes problems in the sexual relationship reveal a cause of deeper issues, at other times it’s more of symptom. There is much to be said for examining the dynamics of the quantity and quality of sex as a barometer for the marital relationship, and that would make for a fascinating future blog post (or book). But for today, I want to look at the challenge of timing on the superficial level.
After asking this question countless times, I’ve realized that most couples who are not dealing with acute sexual dysfunction, will describe the scarcity or decline of sexual activity in their union in two basic ways:
Perceived lack of time available
Miscommunication about interest on any given night
When it comes to having time for any given activity, at this point, most of us can readily acknowledge, that what it really, usually comes down to is: making something a priority. For busy people, it’s easy to say “I simply have no time for____” as a justification for neglect. But in the end, we make time for the activities and people we believe are important; it just may require more planning and coordinating.
The other issue of miscommunication is more personal. So often, one spouse will say:
“I used to try initiating more often, but after a while, I just felt like a beggar. I didn’t want to nag, and I didn’t like feeling desperate, so I just stopped. I figured I’ll wait, and eventually she’ll let me know when she’s ready.” But the thing is, no one likes the prospect of being rejected, especially sexually, and so waiting for the busier and/or lower libido spouse to initiate rarely helps the cause. The gaps grow longer, resentment builds, and it often leaks into the other areas of the marriage.
Even when working with couples directly on their sexual relationships, the challenge of sex and timing is an issue that arises frequently. Sometimes the difficulty genuinely is making time to be intimate amid busy life schedules, especially with babies who get up during the night.
Other times, the problem lies in miscommunications or confusion about who was or wasn’t initiating or resisting a sexual overture. In most marriages, there is one party who is more interested in sex than the other, in frequency, length, or style. Therefore, there is an issue of trying to balance the needs of two people.
In Halachic marriages, there is added pressure of knowing that sex dates are only an option for about half of each month. And during prolonged periods of possibility, like pregnancy, breastfeeding, or some forms of birth control, there are physiological and hormonal variables that can sometimes complicate things.
In these and other cases, I often bring up the idea of scheduling specific nights of the week for sexual activity. People tend to have strong reactions to this idea- both positive and negative. I’d like to go through some of the pros and cons of this exercise, to help readers evaluate whether it may be a technique that could be helpful in their marriages. [While both men and women can and certainly do feel more desire than a spouse, for simplicity’s sake, I use the man as the example stronger libido partner, since that is what I tend to see more frequently in my practice]:
The immediate and number one objection people have to set “sex nights” is that it eliminates the element of spontaneity, and doesn’t feel “natural”. Many people like to know that sex is a possibility at any time- they don’t want to be restricted even more than they were.
Another concern is that it could create extra pressure and performance anxiety on the scheduled night for both parties.
Additionally, spouses may feel resistance to the idea that they may need to “say no” to themselves on a night when they are in the mood, but sex is not on the schedule.
They might worry about whether one may neglect the other on a night that is definitely off limits for sex.
They also inevitably question what happens if there is something comes up on that night that needs to delay the sex, (such as a medical emergency, a late wedding or dinner), or if someone really wants to “break the rule”.
Yet another objection: If I know we’re only having sex because it’s scheduled, that doesn’t really make me feel desired, and it’s kind of a turn-off. Clearly, the idea of premeditated, prescribed sex rubs some people the wrong way.
For the less enthused partner, clarity about what is “expected” takes a lot of the pressure off the table for the other nights. She then feels free to enjoy chatting, cuddling, and bonding without wondering “where this is leading” or if he’s “only doing this to get to sex”.
For the partner who has stronger desire, this guarantees at least a specific amount of weekly sexual activity, ensuring that he will not be open-endedly deprived, or limited to the whims and moods of his spouse.
Another benefit is that it helps avoid confusion and ambiguity. So often, a couple builds mutual resentment or even anger, based on mixed messages. “I thought it was a given that we were going to have sex tonight, and then she got on the phone with her sister for two hours!” or: “I thought it was obvious from how late we went to bed last night, that I would be too tired tonight!” There is also usually discomfort to discuss sexual hopes and intentions, on any given day or in general. One may begin to flirt or fondle with the simple intent to play, while the other interprets it as a green light to go full speed ahead. Depending on which direction it takes, someone usually ends up feeling unhappy. If they ended up having sex when she didn’t really want to, she may feel used and resentful. If they ended up not, he may feel deprived and frustrated. And a marriage is only as strong as the less content spouse. Other times, one spouse may have felt he requested a sexual date, while the other completely misheard, and then went to sleep right away, leaving her partner feeling rejected.
A scheduled sex night provides the opportunity for preparation. They can groom themselves, mentally and physically during the day, plan the evening accordingly, to clear time and headspace, and create favorable and relaxing ambience to maximize the experience.
One more important advantage is that when couples know and anticipate a sexual rendezvous, it gives them an easier opportunity to communicate in advance about any feedback or requests they may have to improve their sexual play, rather than just “playing it by” ear and guessing, which is more common, and less effective.
For these reasons, I am generally in favor of discussing and exploring this exercise as a possibility, and I’ve seen it generate substantial improvements for marriage that are reaped in and out of the bedroom.
Generally, when someone raises concerns, I will acknowledge the potential drawbacks, and the fact that this is not a cure-all and not for everyone. But I will also point out that relying on sex to happen naturally hasn’t work out so well for them at this point either, so it might be worth the “risk” of trying something different. If spontaneous sex is consistently working well for both parties, then of course there is no need to change things.
Some couples ask how strict the rule needs to be. I would say that depends on the couple. If someone really needs to feel “safe” from being solicited on certain nights for a while, I would say they should try to stick with the program. On the other hand, if it’s more about making sure not too much time lapses between sexual encounters, but no one has a strong aversion, then laxity won’t do much harm. For the most part, I look at this idea as experimental for each couple, and as a temporary arrangement. Once the couple feels that the sexual relationship has reached a stability and equilibrium that’s happy and comfortable for both, they can always move back to sex on a more organic, “as wanted” basis. On the other hand, if it’s helpful for them, they know that if they run into the problem in the future, they can always go back to this system to tune things up again.