During the honeymoon phase of a relationships partners’ sex drives tend to be well-matched. The partners are not only “in love” with each other but they are also “in lust” with each other. They can’t wait to rip each other’s clothes off to have wild and passionate sex. During the honeymoon phase partners can’t help but think about having sex with their partner all the time. The couple in love may be sexually obsessed with each other. A patient of mine, Tim, told me of having sex once or twice a day for two weeks in the midst of a passionate romance with Carol. But on the fourteenth day after having four orgasms in a few hours of love making he burst a blood vessel in his penis and started urinating blood. Tim realized he had to slow down, and Carol was sympathetic to his physical limitations.
Not everyone experiences a sexual utopia at the beginning of a long-term romantic relationship, and even when they do it sadly doesn’t last forever. Once the honeymoon phase is over sex can still be pretty good, but it might never again be as great as it once was. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that romantic love is transient by adaptive design. The biological function of romantic love is to bring two people together so as to achieve pair-bonding for biparental care. Once a baby is on the way it would be maladaptive to be sexually obsessed with one’s romantic partner as both parents must be ready to fall in love with a newborn baby whose care will be paramount.
The honeymoon phase of a relationship generally increases both partners’ sex drives. As the honeymoon phase wanes each partner’s sex drive reverts to its baseline level. As a consequence, the couple’s sex drives become mismatched. Almost inevitably one partner wants sex more than the other. As a consequence, one partner feels sexually frustrated by virtue of not having as frequent sex as desired while the other partner feels unwanted pressure to have sex more frequently than desired. In heterosexual relationships, the stereotype is that men usually want more frequent sex than women but that is not always the case. Younger men’s performance anxieties about assuming adult responsibilities might decrease their sex drives while older men’s erectile issues might create performance pressures that makes sex seem like work. Stress and aging might affect women’s sex drives as well. Nevertheless, some individuals, women as well as men, might maintain an interest in at least weekly sex well into their seventies while other individuals may have become essentially asexual by then.
The problem of conflicting sex drives raises a question that individuals in long-term relationships must answer for themselves. How much sexual frustration is too much frustration to endure in a long-term sexually exclusive relationship and how much is reasonable? How much sex work, sexually pleasuring your partner when you’re not in the mood, is reasonable in a long-term relationship and how much is excessive? Some couples negotiate more open arrangements to manage the sexual frustrations of monogamous relationships. But not everybody is open to sharing their romantic partners with others. Many people are just too insecure and jealous. Some people resort to infidelity to get their sexual needs met surreptitiously but usually exposure of the affair puts the relationship in jeopardy. To make a monogamous relationship work there has to be tolerance for some level of sexual frustration and some level of sex work.
How to Cope with Sexual Frustration
1) Let your sex drive build up. In some ways sex is like eating. We can eat while we’re a little hungry or a lot hungry. Feasting is more pleasurable when we’re starving. If you want to have really good sex it’s not a bad idea to let your sex drive build up until you are dying for sex. Your partner with the lower sex drive won’t feel like they are expected to service you on demand every time you’re just a little bit horny. Your partner might be more likely to be turned on by the intensity of your desire for him or her.
2) Have empathy for your partner who doesn’t necessarily want to have sex when not in the mood just to service you on demand whenever you feel a little bit horny. Do what you can to put your partner in the mood. Usually, that means make your partner’s life less stressful and create the conditions that foster romantic intimacy like being affectionate, being caring, being appreciative, or being humorous. Don’t be angrily demanding just because you feel sexually deprived and frustrated. That’s a turn-off.
How to Cope with Sex Work
1) Nobody wants to feel pressured to have sex when they’re not in the mood. Nevertheless, it’s important to care about your partner’s sexual happiness. Pleasuring your partner even when you’re not in the mood for sex shows you care about your partner’s sexual happiness.
2) Sex work has benefits. It affirms your sexual desirability as well as your prowess that you can make your partner sexually happy by providing them with the sexual pleasure that they need from you. In addition, there is a good chance that you will get in the mood in the process of pleasuring your partner. Your partner’s sexual excitement may kindle your own.
The Importance of Reciprocity
1) Relationships thrive on reciprocity: I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine. I’ll periodically and happily pleasure you when I’m not in the mood if you don’t pester me every time, you’d like sex, especially if you just need sex a little rather than a lot. And if I can count on you to pleasure me on a regular basis, even if it’s not as frequently as I might like, then I’ll happily pleasure myself some of the time rather than burden you with having to satisfy all of my sexual needs when you’re not in the mood.
2) Don’t forget to show appreciation for your partner when your partner shows genuine concern about your sexual happiness. Sexual happiness is not just about getting sex when you want to have sex. It is also about not having to have sex when you don’t want to have sex. And sexual happiness is enhanced by knowing that your partner is sexually happy with you because they are mostly, but not always, getting the sex that they need and mostly, but not always, freed from pressure to have sex when they aren’t in the mood. You have to give a little to get a little.
Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. American Psychological Association. Washington, D.C.