The answer may surprise you.
There is research showing that marriages with good sex tend to be happier marriages. But of course, this begs the question: Is it the good relationship that produces better sex or is it better sex that results in a better relationship? As a sex therapist, I’d say that the answer is more complicated than you might think. And just like “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” I can argue that both are a bit true.
The idea that sex creates greater intimacy sometimes gets lost in our society which seems to have decided that the only way it “should” work is the other way, with closer intimacy encouraging good sex. If you go to a traditional couple’s counselor because you and your partner are having sexual problems, often the counselor will suggest working on the rest of the relationship and focusing on communication issues, with the assurance that good sex will follow.
Essentially, it seems like we’ve bought into the narrative that that sex always follows the relationship and intimacy. How many times have I heard something like this from my clients: “We went to a couple’s counselor. She told us we should work on the relationship and then when the relationship was stronger, we’d have better sex. Well, the relationship is pretty good right now, except we’re still not having sex and honestly, that is creating problems!”
Ironically, there is often even a subtle bias against using sex to create intimacy. “She only slept with him to get him off her case.” “I’m not gonna have sex if I don’t feel close to him,” “I can’t believe she had sex with him when she wasn’t in the mood.” These are phrases we hear often spoken critically and just accepted as “the way it should be.” But maybe that is a bias that is worth re-examining.
Of course, if one person really does not want to have sex at a particular time or place, that is always their right, and to suggest otherwise is to open the door for abuse. Let’s start with an assumption of a mutually respectful relationship. It is important though, that we acknowledge that it is also perfectly acceptable to suggest that sometime when you are in neutral or “slightly negative zones” or if you are just plain feeling lazy, it may actually be a good thing to see if you can turn that around and have a fun, fulfilling sexual encounter anyhow. Because here’s the real deal, sex in a relationship is a good thing.
Many of us in the field know that sex affects relationships, big time. And hard as it may seem to accept, I have seen many relationships improve dramatically as the sex improved. Good sex promotes intimacy, laughter, joy, and acceptance. Good sex makes people feel loved and apreciated. One of the themes that tends to show up time and again in my practice as I speak to women is this: If I come home and find my partners (fill in the blank: dishes in the sink, socks on the floor, wet towel on the bed) and we have had good sex recently, I just (wash the dishes, dump the socks and hang the towel) and laugh. But if we haven’t had sex in a long time, I want to (smash them over his head/stuff them down his throat/strangle him with it).
The truth is that sex can be the glue that holds a couple together as a couple, rather than just roommates. It sets a stage for being more open to paying attention, for listening, for trusting and for talking. The bottom line is that good sex in a marriage often just makes everything better. Maybe if we start to think of sex, not only as a means of expressing intimacy when it already exists, but rather as a tool to help reintroduce or recreate intimacy it might give us a new, more practical framework.
So many times I see couples with sexual issues get stuck in a complicated tangle of “working out issues,” or “working on their communication” which can take years. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it doesn’t. Ironically, I often see couples have gone down rabbit holes trying to patch up the normal irritation and annoyances of long-term relationships simply because they assume that must be what is causing their sexual problems, rather than addressing those sexual problems head on. And sometimes I see couples spending months or years focusing on solving problems that were actually caused by the lack of sex!
When you get the cycle moving in a positive direction, that is when you help a couple move back into the bedroom, often that behavior can begin to heal a relationship and put it back on track. What follows, as a result, can be more intimacy and better communication. Perhaps we should all be more open to using sex to help heal a relationship. Sometimes a behavioral answer can address a problem more directly and quickly than long term analysis.
So, before you are quick to dismiss the idea of sex because you are not “in the mood,” or things have been tense with you and your partner recently, consider the idea that sex may help heal and build the intimacy between the two of you. I’ve seen it work with so many clients and it’s certainly worth a try.