Resolving the Affection vs. Sex Battle

Dan is complaining and pressuring Carrie all the time, she feels, for more sex. Carrie’s response is that she is rarely in the mood for sex because Dan is always irritable and always pressuring her. She would like Dan to be more affectionate, and when she is affectionate, not always expect sex and get grumpy when it doesn’t lead to that. Dan says that he is irritable because he is always sexually frustrated, and, no, he doesn’t expect sex every time Carrie is affectionate, but…never?

This is a classic and common female / male battle. There are actually several problems at play:

Problem #1: Different male / female ways of connecting

Carrie’s complaint is common: Unless she feels close to Dan, it is difficult for her to be sexual; To feel close she is looking for non-sexual affection and an overall close, positive relationship. Dan’s his irritability and pressure are exactly the opposite of what she needs and this causes her to pull away. 

Dan, on the other hand, is wired to use sex as a way of connecting: If they are intimate his oxytocin goes up, he feels closer to her and the relationship climate after is usually more positive. Hence, when Dan starts to feel disconnected from Carrie, it’s easy for him to begin to pressure Carrie for sex. When she resists, he feels more disconnected, shows his frustration more, setting off a downward spiral with both arguing about whose reality is right, whose needs are more important, and both feeling dismissed.

Problem #2: They are in a power struggle

Not only do they each have different needs, but when this drags out the battle takes on a power-struggle tone: It’s no longer about creating a win-win around needs, but instead has turned into who is going to win, whose way is coming to come out on top, who is the one to cave in. Compassion, compromise, and mutual need get thrown out the window; it’s now no longer about solving a problem but an issue of power.

Problem #3: Performance pressure

Another added source of subtle tension: While it may be difficult for Dan and Carrie to easily acknowledge this, but it’s common when couples have a gone a long time without sex to have the intimate experience itself turn into performance pressure, a physical version of some Wagnerian opera. One or both feels anxious, there is an awkwardness and high expectations, that, in turn, can lead to a sabotaging of the whole process. Carrie approaches him and Dan says he doesn’t feel well; or as they get closer, but one of them finds some reason to pick a fight that kills any shift towards intimacy.

Problem #4: Sex is really the tip of the iceberg of other underlying problems

Sexual issues can be seen as a concentrated form of other issues in the relationship that are not being addressed. Dan and Carrie, for example, may disagree about kids or money or time together and alone, but rather than tackling these problems, they dump all their frustrations and resentments into the sexual arena, making it even more negative and a fight-to-the-death problem.

While each is blaming the other and pressuring the other to change, the real culprit here is the dysfunctional pattern itself, the tension between them, the power-struggling.  They need to change the emotional climate between them.

What to do?

Problems #1 & #2: Connection & power struggle

To end the power standoff and blame game, both need to understand and accept their different psychologies rather than arguing about them or dismissing them. The goal is to work together to break the deadlock and pattern. Dan’s side of the equation means that he takes responsibility for his irritability, owns his problem, rather than blaming Carrie for it and using sex as his only cure. Here he goes to anger management training, takes medication, does meditation, whatever he needs to do to control his mood. He does this to improve himself and because he cares about Carrie.

While Dan works on his anger, Carrie is going to work on her side of the equation, namely, being more behaviorally affectionate. This is not about her caving in, Dan winning, but her contribution to changing the emotional climate because she cares about Dan. They are cutting a deal; they are both invested in changing the dysfunctional pattern.

That said, when Carrie does step up, just as does Dan when he controls his temper, each needs to be appreciative, rather than not critical, micromanaging and not expecting more. More importantly, as they both step-up, they want to avoid keeping score: I gave you 3 hugs today and you were still irritable; I bit my tongue twice this week rather than getting angry, and you still weren’t more affectionate. This just undermines any gains and maintains the power struggle. Instead, both need to just put their heads down and just do what they can do without expectations. After a period of a few weeks they can stick their head back up and see if it is making a difference.

By both taking these clear behavioral steps, they break the power struggle, the who-is-going-to-give-in-first tension. 

Problem #3: Performance pressure 

While this may undercut sexual spontaneity, scheduling sex is often a good way to break the emotional tension. Scheduling an intimate time gives both more control and time to mentally prepare. And when that time comes around, the key is to start slow and keep expectations low, stepping away from the Wagnerian opera and instead adopting an attitude of “Let’s see what happens, and whatever happens is fine,” removing the performance pressure. By doing this they take baby-steps towards re-acclimating themselves to physical contact.

Problem #4: Underlying problems

Obviously, if other issues are fueling the sex battle, these need to be addressed to reduce the overall tension, the feeling of always walking on eggshells. The starting point is getting issues on the table, and one solution is scheduling business meetings: Schedule short (30-45 minutes) meetings when both are sane (no conversations at midnight or when they’ve had 3 beers) with the goal of discussing and trying to problem-solve unresolved problems — working up a monthly budget, agreeing on suitable bedtimes for kids, etc. The key is each approaching these meetings as they would for a staff meeting at work; both are to work hard to rein in emotions and stay focused on coming up with a workable solution. 

If this becomes too difficult, they need to consider short-term couple therapy to have a safe place to discuss issues, get help reining in emotions, and learn good communication skills.

The affection / sex battle can be erosive to any relationship. Putting it to rest requires stopping the blame and the pressuring the other to change, and instead focusing on compromise, respect, joint efforts at breaking the deadlock to create a win-win outcome.

The essential ingredients of solving any relationship problem. 

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