Sexual intimacy in a marriage

Rachana, 29 and her husband, Sunil, 34, have been married for four years. They do not have children but face constant pressure from their families to have them soon. Both of them have full time jobs and they rarely have any time to spend with each other. Rachana is frustrated as she feels sex has become a chore and she does it to not disappoint her husband or because one is “supposed” to have sex in a marriage. Sunil is angry due to the lack of physical intimacy in their marriage. He resorts to watching porn and feels guilty and ashamed as a result. In addition, Rachana doesn’t find any pleasure in her sex life and feels that she cannot communicate it to her husband. When Sunil expresses interest in sex, she either withdraws emotionally or makes excuses to not be around him.

Rachana and Sunil’s story seem to be quite common in many marriages and romantic relationships today. For some, the passion decreases after a few years, or after the birth of a child. For others, it can be after a significant life event like an illness, abortion etc. Although for many, due to the stigma surrounding the ‘sex culture’, the intimacy needs of each partner is never discussed. These issues lead us to ask one question: Why are we so scared to talk about sex and our sexual needs? Here are some points to consider:

Defining ‘sex’
What is my understanding of sex and intimacy? The word “sex” can mean different things to different people. It may depend on each partner’s religious, cultural, gender, familial, geographical, caste, and racial background. In addition, one’s experiences in their childhood or adult life will greatly determine what their understanding of sex is. For some, sex can just mean intercourse but for others, it may mean the act of cuddling, touching and sleeping next to each other. Issues, like Rachana and Sunil’s will become problematic when they are not processed with the partner. It is natural to have different ideas. It is important to keep in mind that with each discussion, each partner must be open to the other’s ideas even if they are in disagreement with it.

Expectations
While growing up, it is quite natural to base sexual or romantic expectations on Mills & Boon, the occasional romantic comedy, or the ever dramatic Hritihk Roshan’s movies where the handsome man, defeats the villain and rescues the damsel in distress. Pop culture has a way to build up expectations in one’s head about an intimate romantic relationship. Unfortunately, when reality strikes, one realizes that a sexual/romantic act is not what they thought it would be. It is quite hard to deal with this disappointment and many couples take it out on their partners. Expectations may change during the course of the relationship. What each partner enjoyed in the beginning of the relationship may not be the same with each passing year.

Male and female sexuality
How do women and men experience sex differently? Research has stated that women tend to masturbate at a later age than men and less frequently than men. They also tend to desire less sexual variety and associate sex with feelings or wanting an emotional connection. Women sense that there is an issue when there is an absence of sexual interest or pleasure (Oliver & Hyde, 1993; Schmitt, 2003). On the other hand, men are found to judge their “manliness” based on sexual performance. They also associate desire with sight. (Chivers & Bailey, 2005). This indicates that men and women are sexually stimulated in a very different manner. For most men, the act of sex can be purely physical but women tend to get emotional about it.

Yes, sexual disorders do exist and it is okay to get treated for it
As discussed before, men and women experience sex in different ways. As a result, the disorders experienced by both are varied. The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes various sexual disorders in the DSM – V (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual) that may occur as a result of either physiological or psychological reasons. Women may commonly experience disorders related to sexual desire/arousal, orgasm and sexual pain. Men may commonly experience disorders related to sexual desire, delayed/rapid ejaculation and erectile dysfunction. Most of these can be resolved if one seeks help from a professional – sex therapist, doctor or a counsellor.

Understanding the emotions behind physical intimacy
What do I really feel when it comes to a sexual experience? What does intimacy mean to me? Are they different? Does my partner think differently? Some may associate sex with positive experience, so the feeling might be related to pleasure, excitement or happiness. On the other hand, for others, if a sexual encounter has been negative, the feelings associated with it may be anger, fear, sadness, frustration, shame or anxiety. It is important to note that being aware of these emotions may not be enough but it needs to be processed to ensure it’s resolved and thereby it does not hinder future experiences.

Family and cultural history
Familial and cultural messages may play a pivotal role in understanding where your ideas about sex and intimacy come from. These messages may be conscious statements that were expressed to you, or unconscious, where you perceived what it meant by looking at how it was handled by your family or culture. Was sex discussed in your family? Did you see your parents expressing affection to each other? What role has religion played in your understanding about sex? Was any form of intimacy regarded as a taboo? Did your parents talk to you about sex? How did that change your understanding about it? Is sex a chore – a means to produce children or do you actually enjoy it? Does your partner have a completely different understanding or expectations about sex?

Taking time and discussing these questions with each other may help you understand how you perceive intimacy differently. It is quite natural to feel overwhelmed, as building sexual intimacy will require time and patience. Having such conversations may lead to greater rewards in your marriage, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. If you would like to explore your beliefs about sex and intimacy or if you think you and partner are not connecting sexually, you can talk it over with one of our counsellors and seek help.

Talk It Over

References:

  • Chivers, M. L., & Bailey, J. M. (2005). A sex difference in features that elicit genital response. Biological Psychology, 70, 115 – 120.
  • Oliver, M. B., & Hyde, J. (1993). Gender differences in sexuality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 29 – 51.
  • Schmitt, D. (2003). Universal sex differences in the desire fore sexual variety: Tests from 52 nations, 6 continents and 13 islands. Journal of Personality and Social psychology, 85 (1), 85 – 101.
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About Malavi Madhusudan

Malavi Madhusudan is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist. She has an M.S. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA (Affiliated to the American Association of Marriage & Family Therapy) and an M.Sc. in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, Bangalore (Affiliated to Bangalore University). She enjoys working with individuals, couples, children and families and has experience working in a wide variety of settings, both in USA and in Bangalore. Her areas of expertise are relationship problems, pre-marital counselling, parenting issues, anger management, stress and coping, addiction, substance abuse, trauma and clinical issues such as: depression, bipolar & personality disorders. She approaches her clinical work collaborating between Transgenerational Therapy, Emotional Focused Therapy, Play Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In her free time, she enjoys travelling, art, history and music.