Editor’s note: This article contains mild sexual content.
Dr. John Gottman is not only a ground-breaking relationship researcher and theoretician, he’s also really funny! I highly recommend taking a look at this video for a comical depiction of an all-too-familiar dynamic between men and women in the bedroom:
Problems in the Bedroom?
Usually sex isn’t an issue in a new relationship. Pheromones are flying, excitement abounds, and couples don’t need to talk about sex because they’re too busy having it. At the beginning of a relationship, couples are sometimes in a bubble and don’t always pay attention to other areas of their lives as much as usual. As they come up for air and start tending to work, family, and other obligations, sex still happens but maybe with less frequency and/or intensity.
Then major life changes occur. For some, this might be the death of a loved one. For others, the decision about whether or not to have children is one example that usually changes physical intimacy dramatically. For couples who are attempting to become pregnant, spontaneity is often replaced with calendars and ovulation kits. Many couples complain during this time that physical intimacy no longer feels like an expression of love, pleasure, or emotional connection. Sadly, it’s sometimes hard to recover from this change to find a “new normal” that works for both parties.
Gender Differences? (Not as simple as you might think)
Whatever a couple’s sex life looks like, if both partners are satisfied with it, there is no problem. The problem arises when one or both partners are unhappy with the quantity and/or quality of sex. The most common complaint therapists hear is that one member of the relationship (statistically more likely to be male) wishes they were having more sex, and one member of the relationship (statistically more likely to be female) wishes his/her partner were more romantic, and emotionally expressive.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. When it comes to arousal, Dr. Gottman says, “Men are like microwaves and women are like slow-cookers.” This dynamic is not exclusive to straight couples. Most people – regardless of gender – like both long, tender foreplay and the excitement of a quickie. As time goes on, it’s more likely that partners will become polarized between these two extremes. No matter what, it’s very unusual for both partners to have the same biological urges at the same time and with the same level of urgency.
What About the Porcupines?
What strikes me about the “Porcupine Sex” video is that it might not seem fair that one sexual partner (in this illustration, the male porcupine) has to accommodate the other sexual partner. What is the female porcupine doing to accommodate the male’s potential need for spontaneity and passion? Should the slow-cooker try to speed up, or is it the sole job of the microwave to slow down and be patient? This question comes up a lot in my office.
No One Likes to Be Rejected
We are very vulnerable to emotional injury in the bedroom. It hurts to seek out intimacy and feel rejected by the person we love most in the world. Our romantic partners are supposed to be the people with whom we can be the most open and real. After getting stabbed several times, it can be hard not to resent one’s partner for not putting the metaphorical quills down. Then hurt gets expressed as annoyance, impatience and anger. It feels rotten to believe your sexual partner has to “work” to become aroused, and it is easy to take this personally.
Likewise, many people want to be aroused, but try as they might, it just doesn’t always happen naturally. It’s very common to feel attraction, love, and respect for someone without feeling a primal sexual desire. Many things can contribute to this, such as hormonal change and stress. The arousal will be more difficult to ignite when one is feeling pressured or criticized.
Before long, couples end up in a paradoxical dance. Trying to get turned on works about as well as trying to fall asleep. Both are more likely to happen when we are relaxed and not actively pushing our bodies. As soon as we push, we have an agenda, which works great in a boardroom, but horribly in a bedroom. Similarly, trying not to be angry is like trying not to have curly hair. It might start off from a desire to be connected and close but the perceived rejection triggors a biological fight/flight response.
What Are We Supposed to Do?
Once couples find themselves in a non-verbal fight like this, it’s hard to know how to start a different dance. Attempts to talk about it are often well-intentioned, but can cause re-injury.
I believe this answer is more complex than the original question posed about whether it is the job of the microwave to slow down, or the job of the slow cooker to speed up. Both of those solutions require work, and in this case, the work itself is part of the problem. Here is my proposed 3-step alternative:
1. Do not take your partner’s biology personally.
In the video, Dr. Gottman says, “It’s all about emotional communication.” We cannot change how we feel and we cannot change the speed of our libidos. Humans can’t consciously change the ways their hormones are interacting at any given moment so it’s important to focus energy on things that we are more likely to be able to influence. The good news about the mind/body connection is that even though we can’t change our biology, we can change the way we talk about what is happening, which can lead to closer sexual connection. This is how the emotional communication works.
2. Let go of the story in your head.
The next step is to challenge the negative assumptions in our heads. Any story becomes more and more real as it is repeated, especially in one’s own mind. In order to change your sexual connection, it is essential to challenge any negative assumptions you might have about your partner. Perhaps you are thinking that your partner is no longer attracted to you, that he or she is having an affair, that he or she “only wants sex.” Believing the negative story you are telling yourself will increase the distance between the two of you.
When we let go of our assumptions and insecurities, we become free to see others in an entirely different light. We are then looking at our actual partner rather than the jerk we have been imagining. It’s not unlike waking up from a dream and being mad at someone who mistreated you before reminding yourself it was a dream.
After that mental exercise, we will be more open to the information we know to be true. Perhaps you know that your partner feels loved through affection, especially when he or she is very stressed at work, and home is a place where he or she feels safe and comfortable. Or perhaps you know your partner feels like the whole world is demanding his or her attention all day and once the kids are asleep or the boss’s cell phone is turned off, he or she needs some time to re-group.
As soon as you replace your narrative with authentic interest, you are taking a step toward both emotional and physical connection. It might not be the same fireworks as on your honeymoon, but the work is to get to the place you may have been in the early stages of your relationship. As life gets busier we need to actively create the blinders to tune out the rest of the world and look for your partner. As if to say, “Where the heck are you? We’re together every day but I haven’t slowed down enough to find you!”
Expand your gaze to remind yourself that your partner (however flawed) is the person you can’t live without. If both of you are wearing your blinders, your affection will be more about making love and less about “working on your sexual relationship”.
4. Share this article with your partner right now! (Optional)
Author’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Main Line Counseling Partners blog here. I am very appreciative of all comments I receive from my readers. It has come to my attention that the primary mating ritual between porcupines involves the male urinating on the female. While it appears true that females are much more receptive to being stroked and touched during the mating season than during any other times of year, scientists describe the behavior as “boxing,” not specifically “stroking” during the courting process. Here is a link to an article I found online.
It is in no way my intention to present myself as an animal behavior expert, nor to forward erroneous information. This story is intended to be symbolic in nature. Please take it as such.