One of my colleagues recently told me how dismayed she was that so many of her clients in long-term relationships or marriages seemed to have given up on sex entirely, or had passionless, unsatisfying sex a couple of times a year at most. (She herself has been married for more than 20 years and has an active sex life with her husband.) For the most part, the sex lives of my own clients in long-term relationships aren’t so different from those of my colleague’s clients. The clients who have managed to maintain active sex lives over many years of marriage share a view that I expressed two years ago, in a post that outlined three pieces of unorthodox advice concerning relationships.
My third suggestion in that post read as follows:
“Sex is both a pleasure and a responsibility.
Now before you get all up in arms, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that women have a duty to provide sex to their husbands, whether or not they like it. What I mean is this: feeling needy and full of desire is a vulnerable state for everyone; many (most?) of us have some issues about being that vulnerable and few people enjoy the experience of frustration. If your partner asks for sex and repeatedly hears “not tonight,” eventually he or she will find the experience unbearable and shut down. He or she may begin to look elsewhere to have those needs fulfilled. Both of you have a responsibility to keep sex alive in your relationship. Sometimes you might simply do the deed as a way of giving, an act of generosity; you might even find you enjoy it more than expected once you get started. Don’t have sex if you’re too angry or full of hatred, of course; on the other hand, never withhold sex in order to inflict pain.
Years ago when I was working in a law firm to put myself through I college, I knew a woman named Sheila who once told me: ‘When it’s going okay, sex is about 25% of a relationship; when it’s not, it’s about 75%.’ I’m not sure if she had the percentages right, or even if I fully agree with her, but to this day I see her point. When sex isn’t going right, it’s the elephant in the room and a huge source of shame for both partners. While I don’t see good sex as the answer to relationship problems, I personally find that having good and regular sex makes me feel more generous. The minor irritations that might become major problems just don’t seem to matter as much. The resentment a partner feels in the sexual arena can easily spread to other areas, transforming everyday relationship molehills into mountains.”
I still subscribe to this point of view, but I’ve also developed some further thoughts on why an ongoing sex life is important in long-term relationships.
Another colleague I respect told me not long ago she believed that, in the long run, “having sex doesn’t matter.” Passion inevitably fades with time, she said, and what’s important in long-term relationships is the ability of partners to bring their shame and vulnerability to one another and be accepted, to reveal one’s damage and be truly “known.” Of course I agree with this latter point of view, but not the former. On the contrary, I think that the sexual arena can be a major place of healing where shame is concerned — another experience where we may bring our shame to our partners and feel accepted.
The sexual arena is generally fraught with shame. As cultural mores and religious strictures have relaxed, we’ve come to view sex as much less shame-ridden by nature, but revealing our bodies and having sex nonetheless opens us to more opportunities for feeling shame than just about any other experience. Does my breath smell? Do my sexual organs have an unpleasant odor? Are they too big or too small? Am I a “successful” lover or a failure? Is my body attractive to you or is it ugly? Do you think I’m weird because of what excites me? For those of us who have struggled with life-long shame in one way or another, being found sexually attractive is a precious experience. I’m not speaking about the earliest days of heated sexual passion, the kind that stems from idealization and unfamiliarity, but desire that abides: You are still beautiful to me, after all these years.
I can imagine few experiences more valuable, more healing or more important in long-term relationships. It’s an ongoing antidote to the sense of inner ugliness many shame-ridden individuals have to live with. It feels good to be wanted, to feel attractive even when we’re no longer young. I don’t think it’s enough in itself, of course; but when both partners strive to be real, open and honest in the non-sexual aspects of their relationship — to reveal their shame and let themselves be truly “known” — good sex can help keep the lines of communication open.
In my experience, in relationships where sex eventually breaks down, it’s because the partners ultimately aren’t able to face their own shame, damage or limitations. The excitement of early sexual passion — the feeling that we’re part of a unique and amazing couple, mutually idealizing one another — serves as a powerful defense against underlying shame, but it eventually fades as the relationship becomes more real. We come to see one another more clearly and honestly. On an unconscious level, many of us then experience a return of the shame we escaped through idealized sex. The exciting sexual arena is no longer a haven from shame but a place where we may experience it even more intensely. Projecting unbearable shame into our partners also makes them unattractive, another obstacle to ongoing sex. Eventually, our defenses against intolerable shame kill off desire and our sex life dies.
By contrast, successful long-term partners manage to keep their particular sexual lives vital, with all their quirks and imperfections. One of my middle-aged clients and her husband have a day each week when they generally try to have sex. Her hair is entirely gray, he’s overweight and has back issues; there are other physical complications, but more often than not, they manage to have satisfying contact that brings them closer. It helps defuse the kind of shame-trading that too often comes to characterize many unhappy marriages. You can often tell the difference between couples who have a satisfying sex life after many years and those who don’t: do they still feel proud of one another, or do they undermine each other in subtle ways, exposing them to criticism and ridicule?
In my opinion, sex matters, even after many years of marriage. Being found “beautiful,” in whatever sense, is a powerful salve to underlying shame.