Why Conventional Advice for Improving Your Sex Life Doesn’t Work and What Else You Might Consider
Has your sex life dwindled over the years? Was it a dramatic crash and burn or more of a slow, steady decline? Regardless of how it happened, it happened and, if you’re reading this post, it is likely still happening. It can be an incredibly painful issue and one that has many couples completely baffled at what to do. As I have suggested to my clients for many years now, how the problem is defined determines how it is treated. Conventional therapy defines a dwindling sex life as caused by not enough of a safe connection. It suggests a rekindle-the-flame kind of approach with suggestions to get vulnerable, to go out on more romantic dates, to be kinder, etc. Sometimes the suggestion is to do more of your fair share of the house work or child rearing. Sometimes the suggestion is to explore non-demand touch. The idea behind all of these is that the flame has gone out and it needs rekindling—a little more log on the fire, if you will. (Ya, I went there!) The problem is, and one reason that these don’t often work, is that the problem is generally not a lack of flame, but a lack of awareness of the flame that’s already there. It’s not, perhaps, the flame you are thinking of, but it’s a flame nonetheless, and a powerful one. In our efforts to rekindle the flame, we just end up pouring gasoline on a fire that’s already burning—but perhaps in an uncontrolled, chaotic way.
Rekindle the Flame?
What I refer to as “the flame” is an emotional process that can run hot. What I mean by “hot” is that there is generally a kind of emotional intensity that runs under and through and around every family and every marriage and across generations. Emotion is life’s energy. Life’s energy is emotion. And nowhere does it run more freely and hot than in families—whether those families are human or something of the furry or feathered kind. Emotion runs the show. Even though we can do a little more thinking than our fury friends, most of the time, we don’t.
An emotional kind of life force is what gets us up in the morning. It gets us to the kitchen to make the coffee (cuz, lemme just say, sometimes we’re running low on that life force stuff). It gets us pouring the cereal or making the pancakes for the kiddos (if we have them…either kiddos or pancakes), and it gets us to work—whether that’s in or outside the home. Emotion and emotional process gets us through school, on to more school, married, and with child. It’s a flame that never goes out. No matter how hard we try. Until death do us part. Literally. We don’t need to rekindle the flame. We need to understand the underlying principles that govern how it is exchanged in important relationships. And perhaps, eventually, the part we play in that exchange not working so well.
If you’ve been at this for any length of time, chances are you have tried just about everything you can think of to change this painful process. I invite you now to consider doing a little more thinking before you try to jump into action. To perhaps think in a new way about an old situation. The less you think, the more you are ruled by the automatic or instinctive side of the emotional life force I’ve described above, and the more difficult it will be to make a long-lasting shift away from the problems in your sex life.
Self vs. Other
Humans are constantly navigating and calibrating a kind of emotional energy exchange in their important relationships. A kind of lending and borrowing of self takes place. It is not a personality issue or a psychological issue. It is a human issue. It is often difficult to discern who is lending and who is borrowing. That’s probably, in part, because both individuals are both borrowing and lending at the same time. For example, at the same time the lender is lending, they are often doing a subtle kind of borrowing. The lender tends to appear as the more capable spouse, thus borrowing an inflated sense of self from the other. The borrower is both borrowing, and by acting and feeling like the less capable spouse, they are also lending an inflated sense of self to the other. Lenders often look and (either secretly or not-so-secretly) feel a bit self-righteous. Borrowers often look like the one with all of the problems. The process is depleting to both parties.
But make no mistake: depleted energy doesn’t point to a dwindled flame. The exact opposite is happening. It takes a powerful emotional process to keep this emotional gridlock going. No need to rekindle the flame. Rather, what’s needed is a working understanding of its forcefulness in our lives.
The key question to wrestle with is whether one can be for self without being selfish and whether one can be for other without being selfless. Can one move towards being 100% for themselves in the relationship and also 100% for spouse? I don’t think any of us can do this completely, but we can make the effort. That effort would start with attempts to observe how this goes now. Remember to make efforts to not over think it. Try for that 30,000-foot view. Do you tend to be the lender or the borrower? Do you tend to overfunction for others emotionally in the system or underfunction emotionally? Being more of a self in marriage can move one towards a better sex life. But it can also lead towards a more difficult sex life temporarily. If you’d like to dig deeper, have a look at this video from The Bowen Center about this see-saw kind of dynamic.
The Parental Triangle
There seems to be no greater dynamic in a family than the emotional triangles that are formed with our children. The impact on one’s sex life is profound. If you don’t have children, then as you read, consider the relationships your parents had with you and the relationship your in-laws had with your spouse. Perhaps I can address this part of the equation in a future blog post.
I have been a marriage counselor for 21 years, and I ask almost every couple who comes in for help: When did the problems seem to arise or get worse? Almost without exception, people say that things changed when the first or second child was born. The couple may have some problems before the children are born, but often they are much less intense, and the couple is able to manage them more or less successfully. When children arrive, the emotional exchange that I described above shifts. Most often, the wife’s energy shifts towards the children, and the husband feels left out. Perhaps for a modern couple, mom is working, and dad is involved, but this powerful process still takes place.
Here’s how I often see it. Mom loves that dad is involved, but perhaps feels critical of how he is doing things. She starts by making comments that are meant to be helpful, but it doesn’t seem to work, so her frustration grows. It leads to conflict and more and more criticism on her part no matter how hard she tries to allow her husband to do it his way. Eventually, the husband begins to feel either inadequate, angry, or helpless (or all of the above) and he checks out of the parenting more or less. The more he checks out, the more she checks out, the more he checks out. Her emotional energy moving away from him and either towards the children or towards work…His moving away from the children and either towards her (often times in begging for sex) and/or towards work. Sex can become difficult for both parties as their emotional energies are being hijacked by this automatic emotional process. Kids and teens play their part in their levels of capableness or neediness.
It is challenging to deal with the marital relationship because the emotional reactivity each has toward the other has a lot to do with how each thinks parenting should go—and the constant demands of parenting keep this dynamic on the front burner. Advice to rekindle the flame seems totally ignorant of this powerful process. Resolution of these powerful feelings and automatic reactions is a more effective route to take.
Are you interested in exploring this more personally? You can check out materials from The Bowen Center or you can invest in your own sex therapy or marriage counseling. I’m happy to speak with you to see if we are a good fit, and I’m happy to refer to others in town.