Conflict is inevitable in relationships. You’d like to save more money for the future, but your partner would like the two of you to get more enjoyment out of life now. You think your partner is too strict with the kids, but your partner thinks you’re too lenient. You think you already do more than your fair share of the work around the house, but your partner thinks you don’t do enough. Or else, they’d rather you did different chores from the ones you’re used to doing.
Couples frequently have fights about issues like these, and often they can find solutions to these disagreements. At the very least, when they talk their problems out, they have a better understanding of their partner’s preferences. But there’s one area of conflict that too many couples avoid discussing at all costs, namely differences in sexual desire.
Plenty of research shows that couples who have open conversations about sexual issues are also more satisfied with their relationships. However, too many people would rather put up with an unhappy sex life than have that dreaded conversation. Why are so many people afraid to communicate their sexual needs to their partner? This is the question that Canadian psychologist Uzma Rehman and her colleagues explored a recent study of conflict communication in couples.
Conflict communication is always difficult, largely because we’re motivated to avoid negative emotions. Tempers get raised and feelings get hurt. Just as we avoid going to the dentist despite the toothache, we avoid talking with our partner about sensitive issues. So we let problems fester.
With non-sexual problems in the relationship, we tend to reach a tipping point after which we let it all come out. Arguments can be healthy for a relationship, especially when the discussion remains focused on the issue at hand and doesn’t devolve into slinging insults and pushing each other’s buttons.
But even couples who are reasonably good at resolving other types of conflict get stuck when it comes to discussing sexual problems in the relationship. Instead of communicating our preferences and inquiring about our partner’s, we rely instead on cultural scripts that tell us how the sex act is supposed to play out. Despite our urge for a break from the routine, we keep our fantasies to ourselves. No wonder our sex lives get stale after years of marriage.
Past research has shown that couples avoid conflict communication because they perceive it as threatening in three different ways:
- Threat to relationship. People fear the conflict discussion will irreparably damage the relationship. In other words, they value their relationships even when they’re not happy ones. So they’d rather say nothing than risk a conflict that might improve it but could also tear it apart.
- Threat to partner. People fear the conflict discussion will hurt their partner’s feelings. That is to say, they care about their partner’s welfare even when they’re not happy with the way their relationship with them is going. Again, they’d rather muddle through than make their partner feel uncomfortable, even at a chance of making things better.
- Threat to self. People fear the conflict discussion will make them vulnerable. If they reveal too much about themselves, they worry that their partner will disapprove of them or try to make them feel shame. We need our partner’s approval, and the fear of losing it is a major reason why people avoid talking about sensitive issues in the first place.
In their study, Rehman and colleagues asked people in committed relationships to imagine themselves in a conflict situation with their partner. The scenario involved either a non-sexual issue about sharing housework or a sexual issue about frequency of intimacy. Afterward, the partners responded to a questionnaire that measured sense of threat to relationship, partner, and self. On the one hand, the results showed that sexual conflicts are similar to non-sexual conflicts, in that all three types of perceived threat were high. On the other hand, sexual arguments resulted in even higher levels of perceived threat to self than did non-sexual confrontations.
In short, this study showed that the main reason why people avoid talking with their partners about sexual issues is because they view such a discussion as threatening to themselves. Based on responses in this study and others, we can point to some reasons why couples stay away from discussions about intimacy issues.
First, in North American culture sex is viewed as an embarrassing topic of conversation, so we avoid talking about it altogether. Or else we relieve the uneasiness by turning sexual discussions into jokes. Even within committed relationships, we tend to view sex as naughty and not to be talked about.
Second, sexual education is woefully inadequate in the United States. Many Americans are simply ignorant about sexual anatomy—both their own and their partner’s. Although we have cultural scripts about how the sexual act is supposed to work, few of us understand the full breadth of sexual activities that humans engage in. So we have neither the concepts to understand our sexual urges nor the vocabulary to communicate them to our partner.
Because of our embarrassment and ignorance when it comes to sexual matters, we feel especially vulnerable revealing our secret fantasies to our partners. Since we think our desires are weird, we assume our partner will feel the same about them. Furthermore, our urges seem to arise from our innermost core, and we feel we have no control over them. When we dare to reveal secret fantasies only to have them rebuked, we feel that our partner has rejected us as we truly are. So we’d rather keep up the pretense instead.
People who have the courage to discuss intimacy issues with their partners are generally happier in their relationships. But learning to overcome a lifetime of embarrassment about sex and developing a proper sexual vocabulary takes effort. There’s plenty of self-help here on the pages of Psychology Today and elsewhere on the internet or in your local bookstore. Couples therapy can also be effective at resolving intimacy issues.
Conflict is inevitable in relationships, and issues of intimacy are among the hardest of all to confront. And yet, conflict itself isn’t a sign that the relationship is in trouble. On the contrary, if both partners approach the discussion with a desire to resolve the issue, the relationship will be strengthened as a result.