Shrink Rap: Sex And Marriage

(editor's note: Quiet offseason in Telluride? Let's shake things a bit with Dr. Susannah Smith's next installment of Shrink Rap: Sex and Marriage.)

by Dr. Susannah Smith

Most comedy routines eventually target marriage and sex.  The joke usually goes like this: if you want a good sexual relationship, don’t get married. The bare naked truth is we all know married couples who complain  they never have sex, and one partner who wants more sex than the other. So, what’s going on?
The human sexual response is a complex one, especially when love and intimacy enters the equation. Erica Jong wrote that, for many, including the heroine of Fear of Flying, it is easier to have sex with someone we barely know than with our own mate.  The sexual response requires a degree of abandon and emotional freedom that familiarity often belies: with our mates, unresolved emotional issues build walls.

Women in particular have been raised to believe having sex when feeling distant from their spouses puts them in the position of being untrue to themselves, compromised, or forced.  Women (not always – sometimes it is the male in a relationship) believe that they must be communicating and emotionally close for sexual intimacy to feel appropriate and good.

Men on the other hand, tend to turn that idea on its head. They often do not find closeness through words and desire sex in order to bridge whatever gulfs exists and reclaim the intimacy they once felt.
So we have what amounts to a stand-off: the woman wants to feel close before she has sex, and rightly views her mate’s attempts to have sex as devoid of emotion: “you just want sex and that’s why you’re doing all these nice things.”  The man, usually baffled by this response and unsure how to defend himself, often becomes angry.  Either way, after many rebuffs from one, the other often stops trying.

I have a close friend who once challenged the woman’s typical response, mine included,  as I am one of those women who feels that having sex when not feeling close is a personal betrayal.  The challenge went something like this: If he’s your husband, and you know you love him, what is the betrayal?  If you love him, why can’t you reach out to him, regardless of how you’re feeling at the time, and try to touch, hold, make love, and be close?  (My friend, by the way, is a woman with an extremely successful marriage – and a very sexual marriage.)

Women are often accused of “withholding” sex for control.  I started thinking about this.  Even though the decision not to have sex is based upon genuine feelings, and there is no conscious desire to control the situation or to punish, nevertheless, we must look at what we are doing.  The pressing question to me was WHY does a woman believe she must feel close in order to have sex?  The traditional answers were not adding up.

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we understand our emotions are a result of the way we view any given situation.  If I believed having sex with my husband when things were tense was the “right” thing to do, I would be very inclined to try to make love each time we argued.  If, on the other hand, I believed that  doing so would dishonor to my female essence, I will stand my ground and refuse sex.  I would not FEEL like having sex, so there would be no cognitive dissonance.  Something to think about.

In future columns, Shrink Rap will continue to examine the timeless subject of love, lust and marriage, exploring the obstacles and ways to overcome realities such as children, financial stress, not making time for one another, not having time, and unresolved anger and hurt.  Stay tuned.

Susannah Smith, Ph.D.
P.O. Box 3258
Telluride, CO 81435

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