If you’re married or in a committed relationship, you may have had the fleeting (or not-so-fleeting) wish that you possessed the power to read your partner’s mind. And you can bet if you had that thought, your mate probably has too.
Why is this?
Because sometimes the things that are the most difficult to talk about are the things that impact our relationships most dramatically. So whereas we may want to put things out in the open with our partner, we might feel sheepish or confused or unclear within ourselves. The result? A disconnect in the form of behaviors that don’t line up with our words. Or an attempt to avoid the behaviors altogether.
One area in which this can play out for couples is the issue of men and sex.
At the risk of generalizing (and in essence, talking about relationships in theory requires some degree of generalization), I’d like to discuss the 5 common issues that couples deal with in the category of men’s intimacy. And of course, the concept of “category” is slightly misleading, too, since relationships can’t be parsed out into neat compartments—a relationship issue that one partner is struggling with will impact the relationship as a whole.
And just like with most issues and vulnerabilities, these can be experienced by women, too. Men and women share more similarities in their humanness than they are separated by gender dissimilarities.
(It’s important to note that not all of the issues listed below were self-evident to the men at the outset of therapy. The uncovering process of therapy allowed the men to clarify their underlying struggles).
Sex in long-term relationships: 5 common concerns for men
1) “I am definitely in love with my partner, but sometimes that love scares me…”
There’s a tendency to think that once we find true love, all our problems—at least our marital or relationship problems—will be over. It’s true that romantic love can enrich and enliven our existences like perhaps nothing else we will experience, but with that great gift comes great risk: the risk of losing it.
Because life offers no guarantees, once we experience anything that we deeply want and deeply love, we tend to worry about—even fleetingly or subconsciously—how we would survive if we lost it.
Within a committed relationship, physical intimacy is perhaps the most powerful expression of that love. In essence, it’s a reminder of how much you love and need your partner, and for many people, there’s an underlying fear of losing him/her within that want and need.
And that fear can, at times, lead to men avoiding sex or changing sex from something intimate to something forgettable or rote.
With this issue (and with all of them, actually), there’s nothing to necessarily “do” about it (sometimes the belief that there has to be something done adds more pressure and makes things worse). It’s just helpful to be aware of it. The gentle, non-judgmental awareness itself can be the door opening onto meaningful change.
2) “If I am not able to sexually please my partner, I have failed as a man…”
You’ve heard the stereotype of men as wanting to fix things. And it’s not necessarily a stereotype that’s so far-fetched.
“When my wife tells me she has a to-do list for me to tackle around the house, I don’t sweat it,” said one husband. “But when she tells me ‘we need to talk,’ I cringe and want to say, ‘Can I get a honey-do list instead?’”
Often men can’t switch off the pressure to “fix” things for their mates. And believing they can’t please their partners in the bedroom can be perceived as a major failure and can make them question their effectiveness as men (which can be a very painful, punishing form of questioning).
This, too, can lead to an unconscious avoidance of sex. On some level, not having sex at all might feel preferable to the risk of not satisfying the other.
3) “Maybe I’m using sex as an escape—and maybe my partner isn’t…”
Just because a couple is sexually compatible at the start of the relationship does not mean that they will be compatible at every moment throughout the life of the relationship.
One example of this is when one person uses sex as an escape from day-to-day pressures (in the form of diversion and physical release) while the other person is predominantly using sex as a means of deepening intimacy (and love and trust) in the relationship.
This doesn’t mean that each of you needs to approach sex with the same mindset each and every time you make love. But if a stark discrepancy makes itself apparent, it might be good to talk about it if it feels safe to do so (as with all these issues, they can be tough to talk about because we feel at our most vulnerable around them—in a sense, there’s nowhere to “hide” when we talk about how we feel during sex).
4) “It takes a lot of effort to make love; when I’m tired or stressed, masturbation feels more appealing and accessible…”
Life is undeniably hectic and, quite often, difficult. Giving attention to the part of your relationship where the physical intersects with the emotional often means devoting energy—on the levels of the body and the mind.
And sometimes, we don’t feel like we have that energy to give. Masturbation can be seen as a means of physical release when someone otherwise feels low on the resources that conjugal intimacy would require.
This doesn’t automatically equate to a marital/relationship problem….unless masturbation completely takes the place of sex, and if the other partner is clueless to what is happening.
Although this can be a very difficult discussion to have with your partner, if this is a dynamic in your relationship, it can be a very productive discussion. Also, some couples report that once this is “out in the open,” they can try bringing masturbation into their mutual sex life, rather than keeping it secret or seeing it as shameful.
5) “While we make love, and when it feels most intimate, I often tense up and want to hide…”
We humans might feel like a bundle of contradictions, a living set of paradoxes.
For example, we strive to feel truly and uniquely connected to our partner (in ways we can’t with anyone else), and yet the moments of that connection can inspire fear or panic in us so that we feel we must escape them.
As I mentioned, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to men (though I see it more often in men in my work with couples).
The danger here is that when men don’t know why this is happening, they might mistakenly believe they are with the “wrong person.” Or they might be tempted to have an affair, thinking “no-strings” sex outside the relationship is better for them than love-making that deepens intimacy.
Again, the awareness of this is a powerful way to correct a mistaken perception. And it can lead to being kind with yourself (or your partner) when it occurs.
I have seen men (and couples) experience great relief when they hear that they are not alone in having thoughts or concerns like those expressed above. In the spirit of that, I hope this article has proved useful to you and your relationship.
Wishing you and your marriage/relationship all the best!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D is a psychologist and marriage/couples counselor with over twenty years of experience. He sees individuals and couples in his psychotherapy practice in Georgetown, Texas.
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