The power struggle for emotional intimacy often plays itself out in the bedroom.
I hear the same complaint over and over again from clients: "Why doesn’t my wife want to have sex with me?" Or: "We’re just not on the same page sexually."
Rebecca, a willowy blonde dressed in casual jeans and a stylish blouse, has been married to Ethan for over seven years and they have a beautiful two-year-old daughter. While they are a relatively happy and successful couple, they seem to be locked into a power struggle between Rebecca’s need for emotional connection and Ethan’s need for space. Early on in their marriage, they both report being somewhat compatible but over the last several years, they are drifting further and further apart in their needs for emotional connection and sexual intimacy.
Ethan, a self-employed contractor, works hard all day and desires more sexual contact than Rebecca is comfortable with. As he describes his frustration with his wife's lack of libido, tears well up in Rebecca’s eyes and she defends her lack of sexual desire. With intensity in her voice she says, "We just never have time to connect anymore and I don’t feel sexy after working all day, changing diapers and running errands. Ethan just wants to jump right into having sex without caring about my need to talk and spent time together."
Rebecca and Ethan's intimacy struggle is not uncommon for many hard-working couples who are balancing jobs, parenthood and intimacy. "Most sexual concerns stem from an interpersonal struggle in the marriage," writes sex therapist Laurie J. Watson, author of Wanting Sex Again: How to Rediscover Your Desire And Heal a Sexless Marriage. She describes the tug-of-war between being too close and too distant from a partner as a repetitive pattern of one person being the pursuer and another being a distancer.
Like many couples, Rebecca and Ethan have reached an emotional gridlock. Neither one of them can validate and accept each other’s needs. In his landmark book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch, Ph.D. says that both spouses are confronted with the difficulty of holding onto himself or herself while being part of a pair. The instinctual reactions that kick in when individuals frantically seek their own interests without considering the feelings and interests of their mates can lead to adversarial relations.
According to Laurie Watson, "With or without children, all couples need autonomy and closeness." She explains that two distinct partners emerge in an intimate relationship. She writes, "One spouse becomes the 'pursuer,' favoring closeness and the other becomes a 'distancer,' favoring more separateness." It’s not uncommon for the person who is an emotional distancer to crave more sex and vice versa. For instance, some couples swap roles over a particular issue—such as a woman who wants to be closer emotionally to her husband may not be interested in sex.
The irony of the pursuer-distancer pattern of sexual intimacy in a relationship is that when couples try to talk things out, it can actually make things worse. For instance, pursuers have a tendency to evaluate and criticize their partners — making them even more likely to distance themselves. Likewise, distancers may feel the pressure of their partner’s preoccupation with having sex — intensifying the power struggle that exists. For example, Ethan admits to making biting comments to Rebecca when she shuts down sexually, causing her to go further into her shell. Keep Reading...
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