Why your sex life isn’t better – a thought for spouses and partners

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EVERYONE REMEMBERS the ‘first time’; that hallowed moment when the world opened wide and our overwrought imaginations were prematurely ejaculated into a new reality.

Yet we fail most often to recall how appallingly mediocre that event was. For the typical man, the day of his de-flowering is without doubt the worst sexual performance of his life. It not only failed to live up to his dreams, and what countless hours of pornography promised; his ego – and her enjoyment – were squashed when the party ended before it ever got started.

But that is to be expected, virginity by definition lacks skill and endurance. Further still, when we think back on that day did we care about the other person’s sexual fulfillment anyway? In truth, our first time, was all about us.

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There’s a phenomenon I find very intriguing amid the discussions had on marital and relationship happiness. That while most would agree any romantic relationship built on the physical can not last, we have nonetheless made that very thing – sex – a universal absolute in our relationship happiness.

Show me an article or blog post on marriage or relationships that doesn’t include a commentary on sexual gratification? Sex has become so central to our culture it’s now viewed as the basis for marital success or failure. Furthermore, when we move beyond abstract biological arguments against monogamy and marriage, namely by pointing out the lack of fidelity in our distant cousins the prairie vole and walrus, we discover the premise is centered on sexual fulfillment supported by the belief it can only be achieved in serial form.  Commitment, they say, remains the standard; it’s just unrealistic to think sexual gratification can be attained with life-long commitment to one person. Instead our natural state is more a string of commitment flings, with each getting traded in once the new car smell wears off.

We have proceeded to make sexual fulfillment, rather than emotional stability, spiritual harmony, or deep-rooted connection, as the proving ground of relationship viability. Yet if that is true, it then begs the question, whose fulfillment are we talking about? It seems that answer is now very important when we consider our own relationship happiness.

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A recent Wall Street Journal article sheds an interesting light on the topic of how sexual fulfillment relates to marital and relationship bliss.

“New research from the University of Toronto shows that the reasons why partners have sex in the first place also significantly affect marital satisfaction. And a person’s motive for making love tonight may make a difference to the health of his or her relationship months from now.”

The study included 108 Canadian couples that were asked to keep a daily diary. On the days they had sex each partner completed a 26-question survey whose aim was to learn why the couples made whoopee. Additionally, each person was asked daily to rate his or her relationship happiness, sexual satisfaction, and desire.

The research identified two broad motivations for why these couples made love: approach and avoidance. Approach motives pursue a positive outcome. (“I want to increase intimacy with my wife” or “I want to feel closer to my partner.”). When looked at a deeper level, this motive is as much philanthropic as self-focused. Avoidance however aims to prevent a negative outcome. (“I want to avoid conflict with my husband” or “I don’t want to feel guilty.”); these motives are almost exclusively selfish in nature.

The analysis was interesting though predictable. The research concluded that when a person’s motivation to have sex was positively oriented towards the partner’s gratification, he or she felt more satisfied—both in the relationship and sexually. Conversely, on days when a partner was motivated to have sex by negative goals, focused more on self, he or she felt less relationship satisfaction and sexual desire.

Furthermore, a person’s motivation also affected his or her partner’s sexual gratification. When a person believed their partner’s motivations for sex were positive, he or she also had more sexual desire and relationship satisfaction. Likewise, when sex was had for avoidance reasons, the partner felt less sexually fulfilled and had lower relationship contentment.

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It’s been said that love is a drug but not because love, like heroine, has addictive properties. Drug addiction is fueled by a user’s attempts to re-live that first high, to recapture the initial buzz that hooked them. This is where I see parallels. The start of a relationship is filled with everything we believe makes love so wonderful; a new romance is brimming with passion, energy, desire, and a longing to satisfy the other person. Our motivation is the concept of approach in overdrive. We are willing to do almost anything to please our new partner; sure, we want them to hang around but more fundamentally – their pleasure gives us pleasure.

It’s the benefits we receive from a positive approach to relationships that release the butterflies – and that becomes the addiction.  And we know when the buzz goes away; withdrawal sets in and we start jonesing for another hit – usually in the form of someone new who will bring the butterflies – the high – back. As the withdrawal symptoms kick in, anxiety, frustration, even depression, our motivation switches from one of approach to that of avoidance as we look to satisfy our own perceived wants and needs first. Focus shifts from the gratification of our partner to our own self-fulfillment and that’s when the relationship begins to falter and our satisfaction starts to wane.

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This correlation between motivation and sexual fulfillment applies equally to other areas of sexuality including pornography, prostitution, and casual sex. For each the motivation is in meeting our own sexual gratification, which is why these methods can never provide the deepest sense of fulfillment and happiness we long for. Instead their satisfaction is hollow, insipid, and fleeting.

So could it be that this sense of relationship dissatisfaction and sexual frustration many consider inherent in monogamy and marriage is actually a side effect of our own selfish natures? If we tried to stay focused more on our partner, sexually and otherwise,  as we did when the relationship began, how might our own satisfaction and happiness change? I understand this is far easier in theory than practice. We are, at a fundamental level, egocentric egomaniacs with short memories; and without close attention self-centeredness will creep into the very best of relationships. But if we can acknowledge and accept this flaw of vanity about ourselves, we can work to become more intentional in our relationships by shifting some of the focus off our our happiness and directing more towards our spouse or partner. And doing so, as research now shows, we just may find we’re a whole lot happier and fulfilled in return.

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