In this series, we are equipping those recently married, or just about to be—and everyone else eager to learn the most important factors that will help create a great marriage. After 18 years of research and 12 nationally-representative studies with more than 40,000 men and women, we can say with confidence that many of these factors are far more simple than people realize—we just need to know them! This is the fourth article in the series. Share it with those who are newly married—or just about to be!
When I ask other marriage authors which of their articles get the most attention, guess what topic is always #1? Indeed, my own most popular blogs are about sex as well. (Our top article, by far, is one that tackles a provocative question asked by a reader: “How often do men need sex?”)
So although few people go into marriage expecting issues in the sexual department, we need to recognize that sex is one of the top issues that causes arguments in marriage. Based on many years of nationally-representative surveys—including for our upcoming book Secrets of Sex & Marriage, which I’m co-authoring with Dr. Michael Sytsma, a nationally-respected sex therapist—here are three key tips about intimacy that will help avoid common issues and create a thriving sex life instead.
Tip #1: Work with (not against) the key physiological differences between you
One of the main reasons for hurt feelings and conflict is the simple disconnect of one partner wanting more sex than the other. And yet . . . it turns out that most of the time the issue isn’t that one person “wants more” but that the two partners have two different types of desire—and have no idea that a second type of desire even exists.
Most people think of desire as being what we see on TV: two people get an “I’m hungry for you” sort of feeling and pursue having sex. But that is just one type of desire, called initiating desire. The second primary type of desire is called receptive desire which is completely different, physiologically. The receptive desire person just doesn’t think about sex as often as an initiating desire person and doesn’t have the desire to pursue sex in quite the same way. In fact, the receptive desire person often decides to have sex and starts feeling that sense of desire a few minutes later!
Our culture has so overwhelmingly portrayed “desire” as being equivalent to “initiating desire,” that we look at the receptive spouse and think there’s something wrong: “My spouse doesn’t desire me.” “My spouse doesn’t have a high enough sex drive.” “Why do I always have to initiate?” When in fact usually there’s nothing wrong and the person simply has a different physiology.
Thus, to help build a great sex life, understand which of you has which type of desire and work with it rather than expecting it to be different and getting upset that it’s not. For example, realize that a receptive desire spouse often simply has to be approached differently, with overt flirting or anticipation time in advance so they start thinking about and looking forward to hitting the bedroom later. (If you want a bit more information, review the sex chapters in For Women Only and For Men Only, our prior books about understanding the inner lives of men and women. Because Dr. Sytsma has been our advisor on this topic for years, we have already included some exploration of these physiological differences, which are often gender-related.)
Tip #2: Work with (not against) the key emotional differences between you
Just as we often have different physiology, there are often different emotional factors tied up in our intimate responses to each other—and it makes all the difference in the world if we honor those rather than a) being clueless or b) expecting it to not be that way.
Although there are plenty of exceptions, one particularly important emotional factor around sex is often different among men and among women. As Dr. Sytsma has summarized so well, women tend to think, “We can do that once you touch my heart.” Men tend to think, “You touch my heart by doing that.”
Most men have a deep emotional need to feel desired by their wife. So feeling that “she wants me” often touches a man’s heart in a profound way, including giving him a sense of confidence and well-being in all the other areas of his life—not just in the bedroom! (Women want to feel desired too, of course, but across all our research that feeling appears to impact men more broadly.)
Most women have a deep emotional need to feel pursued outside the bedroom, in order to want to be close inside the bedroom. Even among a wife who is higher desire than her husband, the feeling that “he truly loves me”—conveyed by non-sexual attention and care throughout the day—is often essential for “unlocking” her heart to want intimate connection. (Men want to feel loved outside the bedroom too, of course, but across all our research that feeling appears to be a particularly important “gatekeeper” for women.)
Tip #3: Learn to talk about sex
Most couples avoid the topic of intimacy, but our research has found it is vital for the best sexual connection. I can’t share all of what we found in the research until the book is published (February 2023), but here’s a sneak peek. In practice, most couples – 73%! – can’t talk about sex well: they avoid it because it is awkward or because they think it won’t get them anywhere. And yet the data overwhelmingly showed it will “get them somewhere” because it is highly correlated with a much more thriving sex life in all sorts of ways.
The key is knowing what to talk about. So this is where understanding the differences between you is essential. Tension around sex and intimacy is usually not about sex, per se, but about a host of expectations, insecurities, and beliefs about how things “should” work, running under the surface. So get curious and begin exploring those things in conversation. Ask each other questions about what their view of sex was growing up, and how that has changed today. Discuss what matters most, emotionally. Set aside defensiveness. Connecting around this “under the surface” stuff will go far toward helping you get on the same page about everything else.
(To investigate these three tips a bit more, see our Sex & Conversation Series.)
Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn apply their analytical skills to investigating life-changing truths about relationships. They speak at dozens of date nights and marriage events each year, conveying practical encouragement with lots of laughs. (Email [email protected] to explore what they might bring to your event.) They live in Atlanta with their two young adult children. Sign up for Shaunti’s weekly blog (with new research and practical tips) today!