Research shows that about 80% of couples experience some degree of conflict related to mismatched sexual desire. Some couples manage this mismatched desire well while, for others, differences in desire can become a huge marital issue. What separates between these two groups?
Libido Not the Cause of Conflict
It turns out that mismatched sexual desire may, by itself, not be necessary contributor to marital conflict. New research suggests that it is the couple’s response to mismatched desire that matters more than the discrepancy in libido itself. Specifically, couples who demonstrate what researchers call, “sexual communal strength” find ways to resolve this mismatch peacefully. Sexual communal strength is defined by both a deep generosity and respect between the partners around sexual issues. When couples display this quality, the partners delight in making each other happy and tend to be willing to make at least small sacrifices to their own comfort levels to facilitate their partner’s happiness. But, because that sacrifice comes from a genuine, as opposed to grudging, place the sacrifice actually contributes to the happiness of BOTH partners. According to the researchers….
People who are high in sexual communal strength—those who are motivated to meet their partner’s sexual needs without the expectation of immediate reciprocation—were less concerned with the negatives of having sex — such as feeling tired the next day. Instead, these communal people were more focused on the benefits to their partner of engaging in sex, such as making their partner feel loved and desired. In turn, these motivations led the communal people to be more likely to engage in sex with their partner in these situations and also led to both partners feeling more satisfied with their sex life and relationship. This means that even though they engaged in sex to meet their partner’s needs, they reaped important benefits for themselves. In fact, communal people maintained feelings of satisfaction even in these desire discrepant situations.
Generosity NOT Resentment/Coercion
Of course, that doesn’t mean that couples who exhibit sexual communal strength are just doormats who can’t set limits or never say “no” to their partner. Again, the researchers note…
It is very important, however, that this motivation to meet a partner’s needs comes from a place of agency, where people feel that they are able to meet their partner’s needs, and a delight in seeing ones partner happy. Situations that involve coercion or where a person ignores their own needs in the process (termed unmitigated communion) do not lead to the same benefits. In fact, an important part of communal relationships is that both partners are attuned to and responsive to each other’s needs. At times this may also mean understanding and accepting a partner’s need to not to engage in sex.
In other words, sexual communal strength is a shared virtue where both the husband and the wife work hard to be sensitive to each other’s needs and, by virtue of a kind of unconscious relationship algorithm of mutual generosity, are able to intuit who has the greater need and the greater emotional resources to respond to that need. Any one exchange between a couple where one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t could, in fact, go either way, but because both husband and wife are convinced of this underlying generosity and mutual respect, they are content to know that all of their separate needs will eventually be attended to. That makes it possible to make a “safe” sacrifice in the present moment.
Holy Sex and Self-Donation
In my book, Holy Sex! The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving I describe a process couples can use to resolve sexual differences, including differences around libido. Essentially, this process involves different ways the couple can cultivate what Pope St. John Paul the Great referred to in his Theology of the Body as “mutual self-donation.” That is, the kind-of heroic generosity that commits two people to seeking little ways they can use everything God has given them–including their bodies–to work for each other’s good. When a couple practices this mutual self donation–both in and out of bed–both the husband and wife’s needs get met without either one having to make too much of a fuss because both are trying to be mindful to look for ways to make each other’s lives easier or more pleasant. Rather than this being an unattainable ideal, research like the study I’m presenting demonstrates that mutual self-donation is a reality that helps couples negotiate the most challenging aspects of their lives together, including their sexual lives.
Sexual Problems: Always Rooted in the Marriage
The other thing this study really drives home–and it is a point I spend a great deal of time on in Holy Sex!—is the idea that sexual problems are always, always, always rooted in the wider relationship. A couple can’t develop sexual communal strength if, in the rest of their relationship they tend to live parallel lives, are generally hostile to each other, or tend to love their comfort zones more than they love each other overall.
The upshot is that just because you and your spouse have different libidos, it doesn’t have to be a point of contention if you can learn how to manage those differences with generosity, respect and a spirit of mutual self-donation. This is just one example of the many ways a couple’s sexual life can be the catalyst deep and profound spiritual growth.
Of course, if you are experiencing conflict about sexual frequency, it’s important to realize that the problem may not actually have its roots in your sexual relationship and it will be important to look at how you respond to each other’s needs in general. As the saying goes, “sex begins in the kitchen.” The more generous, respectful and self-donative you are in every other room in the house relates directly to how generous, respectful and self-donative you will ultimately be to each other in the bedroom. The good news is that even when sexual differences are causing major conflict there is a great deal that can be done to find peace and sexual fulfillment. For more information on ways you can have a more joyful, grace-filled, and satisfying sexual life, check out Holy Sex! A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to see how our tele-counseling practice can help you experience the passionate love you deserve in your marriage.