When I ask couples what they most crave in their relationships, one of the most common responses I receive is for "increased intimacy." It makes sense--as humans, we tend to crave connection, and don't we all want to be closer to our partners?
Yet, when I ask what increased intimacy means to each partner, I don't always get clear answers. They don't always know what it would look like if their goal for increased intimacy was met. Sometimes, the words sex and intimacy are used interchangeably, but they don't mean the same thing.
Of course, sexual connection matters for many couples. Even when a partner is complaining about wanting more sexual frequency, if we explore more deeply, we may discover that it's about more than the actual physical engagement. It may be about the total focus on each other without distractions; or about being touched with care (not just sexually); or about feeling valued and desirable; or about stress relief, connection, and so much more.
I often see couples who are mismatched in terms of their desires regarding sexual frequency. They often feel stuck. One wants sex more than the other, so one partner feels frustrated and rejected, while the other partner feels harassed and resentful. But if we look more closely, perhaps there are ways to bridge the gap beyond trying to find some magical compromise regarding how sexual encounters per week/month/year.
The way I think about it, when we talk about sex, we have to widen the focus. For instance, if Partner A says "I want to have more sex, and my partner never seems interested," we could explore what Partner A values about sex, and what s/he is missing when the frequency of sex is lower than desired. We could talk about all the needs that sex can gratify, and explore what could also meet those needs. We can also explore what Partner B values about sex and intimacy--what fulfills his/her needs and increases connection? What does s/he like to do--kissing/hugging? intimate conversation? massage and sensual touch? Sex that is initiated by Partner B?
We might also learn about what the requests for sex feel like for both partners. Perhaps there are feelings of unequal power, rejection, guilt, anxiety, or anger. Do those feelings occur in other parts of the relationship? In working through those feelings about sex, we might be able to work through those dynamic patterns in other parts of the relationship.
Then, if we can find ways in which each partner can get some needs met, and where the communication patterns can be improved, we will also increase goodwill, connection, and intimacy. With this improvement, we might find that there is more common ground for negotiation about sex than we previously thought.
Of course, these ideas don't just apply to the therapeutic office. They may also be useful in your own conversations with your partner. I invite you to consider what would happen if you simply asked your own partner what sex means to him/her, beyond the actual physical sensations of the act. You might learn something you didn't know before, and it might open up new ways you can satisfy and fulfill each other, and it may create some movement and openings in conversations about sex that had been stuck. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.