Remaining Open to the Possibility of Sex

Overcoming a sexless relationship

At a recent couples workshop on intimacy, I asked the participants what helped get them in the mood for sex. What followed was a lively discussion about each person’s turn-ons and turn-offs, but soon the conversation veered to the important issue of when one partner is sexually raring to go while sex is the last thing on the other partner’s mind. Many of the couples eagerly nodded their heads to acknowledge their struggle with this sensitive and common dynamic. A few went on to share the emotional pain of living in a sexless relationship or marriage.

But there wasn’t clear agreement about how to handle the issue of when one person desires sex (and sexual intimacy) and the other doesn’t. Some voiced the opinion that if you are not in the mood you should always have the right to say “no” without fear of backlash; others felt the person not wanting sex should try to at least be flexible on occasion, especially if this is a common relationship pattern; and a few couples even said that the responsibility of each partner is to the relationship and since sex is good for a relationship, saying “no” should be a rare event. Some couples rolled their eyes regarding this last sentiment.

I’m Not in the Mood!: One Woman’s Perspective about Her Sexless Relationship

At this point Lacy, a thirty-eight-year-old married woman shared her viewpoint and challenged the group with the following analogy:

She asked, “Did you ever force yourself to eat something even though you weren’t hungry and you really didn’t want to eat?”

Maybe your spouse/partner was hungry and wanted you to join him at his favorite restaurant, so you decided to push through your satiation and eat simply out of camaraderie; or maybe you agreed because you knew he would be disappointed or feel rejected if you declined, so you forced additional food down just to placate him.

Lacy was trying to capture what it’s like for her to have sex when she isn’t in the mood. She was highlighting the discomfort she felt when she didn’t listen to her body and gave in to her husband’s requests (which, she explained, sometimes felt more like demands). It’s clearly not pleasant forcing food down when you’re already full and, her point was that for some people, the same can be said for pushing yourself to have sex when you are totally not in a sexual mood.

Do you feel that Lacy’s food analogy fully captures your experience if you have sex with your partner when you’re not feeling aroused?

The Decision to Have Sex: Yes, No… Or Possibly?

In Lacy’s analogy, she is caught in a bind—it’s an either/or decision: she can either say “yes” in order to please her partner (which would require her to ignore her lack of desire and what she prefers in the moment) or say, “No, I’m not in the mood,” thereby taking care of herself (though possibly hurting her partner’s feelings).

Staying with Lacy’s food analogy, could there be other options that she could explore?

Issue of timing: Lacy could say to her husband that she isn’t hungry at the moment but might be a little later; so if her husband could wait, she might be hungry later and more open to eating with him. Sexually, there may be particular times in the day when you feel more sexual (mornings rather than evenings), so you might suggest waiting until the time of day that suits your sexual rhythms to engage in sex. Or, if you are feeling particularly out of sorts (stressed out about a particular issue) when your partner makes a bid for sex, letting him/her know that you are currently not in the mood (but might be later on when you feel more centered emotionally) might be just what you need to get in the mood.

Levels of participation: Maybe it was the thought of a full-blown meal that was too much for Lacy, and if so, she might have agreed to join her husband to just snack a little or drink something while he ate. Sexually, Lacy may not have been in the mood for intercourse but she might have been open to other sexual activities that required less of her emotionally and physically. For instance, she might have masturbated her husband or kissed and held him while he pleasured himself.

Counter-option: Lacy could have also suggested an alternative restaurant or food option if she wasn’t fully into the type of suggestions her husband was making (maybe what was holding her back was the thought, “We always eat Italian food, I’m so tired of the same thing. A little variety would be nice.”). Couples often get into sexual ruts, those repetitive routines that are physically, emotionally and sexually numbing. Sexually, if Lacy anticipated a sexual scenario that felt ho-hum at best (“He’ll kiss me for two minutes and then we’ll have intercourse like we always do”), there is nothing exciting or adventurous enticing her sexually. And this is a problem for many couples in long-term marriages and relationships, getting stuck in sexual ruts without any attempts to alter the sexual landscape. If this is the case, Lacy could have said, “I’m open to the possibility of having sex and I was thinking I’d like to try something a little different this time…”

Remaining Open to the Possibility of Sex

The reality is that sometimes we’re just not in the mood for sex, no matter what. But…

What is being highlighted above is that the desire to have sex exists along a continuum, and at either ends of this sexual continuum lie the definitive, “NO, I don’t want to have sex” and the absolute, “Oh, YES, I thought you’d never ask!” What gets lost for many couples is that between these two polarities exists the land of sexual possibility.

At one point in the intimacy workshop, Luke addressed the issue of possibility in reaction to Lacy’s position. He stated:

“There are times I’m not necessarily feeling sexual and I can tell that Michelle wants sex, and what ends up happening is that she turns me on, seduces me, and gets me in the mood. This doesn’t work all the time, but if I wasn’t open to the possibility of sex, I would shut her down each and every time she wanted sex and I didn’t.”

What Luke is describing has to do with the middle part of the sexual desire continuum—and in the land of sexual possibilities a “no” can easily turn into a “yes” (and the reverse is also true). When we remain open to the possibility of sex, we take on the following attitude: “I’m not really in the mood now, but under the right conditions and circumstances, I can get into a sexual state of mind.”

So rather than holding the “yes” or “no” mindset when it comes to sex, you might say something like this to your spouse/partner: “I’m really not in the mood at the moment, but that could change if you’re willing to try __________.” And then describe to your partner what can get you in the mood. When you view sexual desire through the lens of a continuum rather than a rigid yes-no dichotomy, a new world of sexual explorations just might open up for you and your partner.

(Featured [top] image  “Yes/no buttons” by Digitalart/