Updated: Feb 14
The role of sex in committed relationships:
part 10 in the “Love is...” series
So. Love is...sex? Well, no, but they’re so often so closely joined together that we can all be forgiven for being confused. After all, many of us first learned what sex is by being told, “When a man and a woman really love one another...” As if sex proves love is love.
We--men and women of the world—all know that
love and sex are profoundly connected and also can be very problematic. And so the relation between sex and love confuses the hell out of the best of us way too often.
So let’s try and sort this out.
Sex, even the very greatest sex, doesn’t prove anything when it comes to love.
I’ll never forget this one couple who came to me right after having gotten a bitter divorce. They were still bitter. It’s fair to say they hated each other. The only reason they were seeing me was to get help in salvaging their co-parenting relationship. However, in spite of their true and bitter hatred of each other, they couldn’t keep their hands off of each other. The day he came to throw the signed divorce papers in her face for her to sign, they exchanged words of contempt, sat down on the couch for her to gleefully sign the divorce papers, and then fell into a wild and sweaty passion of love making. And then bitterly blamed each other for the destruction of their marriage and wished the other to spend eternity in hell.
It wasn’t the last time they’d sweat up the sheets, even years later.
Sometimes this comes at a couple from the other end of a relationship. They come together and discover, holy cow!, the best sex of their lives. Mind blowing sex. Sex you can have three times a day for seemingly endless days. Sex so mind-blowingly good it prevents them from accepting the reality that nothing else in their relationship is good at all.
And if they’re not careful, they’ll confuse this great sex with good love and think it’s something you can build a relationship on. Which is kind of like trying to build a sailboat out of canvas, which can’t work no matter how great a sail that canvas made.
Love is like a salad. You need a number of ingredients, and all of them have to be good. Sex is just one.
The absence of sex doesn’t mean the death of love
Sex can play a vital role in a couple’s love life. When things have been bad—between the two of you or just in your life in general—you can come into each other’s arms and make something wonderful and loving happen, and give yourselves the sense that everything’s all right again.
It’s great to have this.
But here too, people get confused. Sometimes, yes, a couple’s stopping making love is a kind of acting out of distance and anger. “I no longer want to connect with you.” Not having sex can be the canary in the coal mine.
But at the same time, unbelievable as this may sound, sometimes loving couples lose interest in sex. It could be about how incredibly busy they are. It could be about being distracted by problems having nothing to do with the relationship. There could be other reasons. Whatever it is, the couple is likely to say something like, “We want to want to have sex. But it’s just not where we’re at right now. It’s like a piece of our lives we just had to let go of and it’s okay. We’d just like it if someone could come along and say, “It’s okay. Your love is still real and alive. Maybe it’ll come back, maybe not. Either way, it’s okay.”
I’ll say it. If you’re like so many couples in this situation, your love is still real and alive. Sex was not the measure of the aliveness of love.
Unless one of you feels you just can’t be in a relationship with little or no sex. In which case, you have to make sure you understand what the absence of sex is all about. If it’s really temporary, is there a reason why you couldn’t wait it out? If the wait is indeterminate, then it’s crucial to understand—for both of you—what’s needed to bring both of you back to a place where sex can come alive again.
Problems with sex are dangerous: they can kill love
What do I mean by “a problem with sex”? I mean that when it comes to your sex life something isn’t going the way one or both of you would like. From the point of view of at least one of you, you’re not having enough of it or you’re feeling too pressured to have more of it. Someone’s orgasm is coming too quickly or not quickly enough. One of you wants to do something that the other doesn’t. Maybe the equipment belonging to one of you isn’t working as well as one or both of you would like.
Sex is like an old house. There’s always something that can go wrong and that’s hard to fix.
At first, everyone is usually patient, loving, and understanding. But, hey, we’re people, and impatience, blame, and rejection creep in before we know it. If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t been there, believe me, you don’t want to know.
Being a realist (which I know you appreciate about me, because you read these blogs), I can say that the best case scenario is always the same. You get whatever help you can. If the help helps, great. To the extent that the help doesn’t help, you do other things (get creative, try things you haven’t tried, use body parts you haven’t used). Wherever you end up, you get there without blame, despair, and the sense that there’s anything wrong. Your attitude is, Well, the sex problem sucked, so let’s not make things worse by tearing each other to pieces.
And if the relationship was already shaky and the sex problem just pushed things over the edge, then okay. That’s sad. But the smartest and most heartsaving thing you can do in that case is just acknowledge where you are now—the relationship no longer works for you—and move on.
The good news, though, is that most sex problems can be made better.
The first picture here is a still from The Long Hot Summer, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who were married to each other.
The other pictures are:
John Falter, Embracing Couple on a Sailboat, 1940s
Ito Shinsui, Couple Embracing, 1928
Will Hudson, The Clinch, 2020
Laura Barney, Couple Embracing, 1960s (the cover picture)