Intimacy In Marriage: Who Decides If and When Sex Happens?

There are many factors that impact a couple’s sexual life—factors that can facilitate meaningful love-making, as well as barriers to physical intimacy that can arise as a relationship matures.

One thing seems certain: Over time, the heightened passion and physical intimacy that existed early on tapers off to a slow burn for many couples. And some couples complain that even the slow burn that used to exist has vanished.

Relationship Truism: What was once a significant part of your relationship—what was once a natural and effortless physical expression of love and desire—can morph into a routinized obligation that, if you’re lucky, gets added to the relationship “to do” list for the upcoming weekend. While this works fine for many couples, for others this is problematic and a source of marital or relationship conflict.

Beyond Busy Schedules: Dealing with Sexual Incompatibilities

Often couples complain about an imbalance in their sexual compatibilities—in short, one partner wants more frequent sex, while the other seems perfectly content with much less frequent love-making. At times this imbalance can be a reflection of other marriage or relationship problems that aren’t being addressed, but often a couple’s differing needs for physical intimacy has more to do with biology then what is going on in their marriage/relationship (e.g., one partner may have higher levels of testosterone, which leads to a stronger libido).

However, though biology may be at play with the sexual incompatibilities that exist for some couples, how these differences are handled and negotiated center around effective communication skills and the ability to compromise effectively. Failure to do so can make a significant difference between a meaningful sex life versus one filled with misunderstandings, frustration and conflict.

Relationship Help: 3 Problematic Relationship Dynamics in the Bedroom

Couples with incompatible libidos face unique challenges, especially when this incompatibility morphs into one of the three relationship patterns described below. Increasing awareness and communicating effectively about these dynamics can go a long way in preventing these issues from spiraling out of control.

1) The Withholder

In this dynamic, the person who wants more frequent sexual intimacy experiences the other as refusing to compromise, or worse, as deliberately withholding sex out of some ulterior motive. In short, the partner with the stronger libido feels deprived, rejected and manipulated. Perceiving your spouse or partner as withholding physical intimacy in this way is likely to lead to deep resentments and, possibly, counter-payback behaviors in an effort to even the score.

2) The Depraved

This relationship dynamic centers on the low sexual desire partner perceiving the high-libido spouse/partner as lewd, having a “one-track mind,” or trying to reduce the relationship to erotica devoid of meaningful intimacy. In this scenario, the low-libido partner feels used for the sexual gratification of another. When this dynamic is at play, the partner who doesn’t want sex may feel like s/he is being asked to submit his/her will or values for the sexual fulfillment of another.

3) The Reluctant-Participant

Anyone in a long-term relationship will tell you that at times you do something for the other person even when you do not feel like it (it’s called compromise!). And this type of compromise is likely to involve the decision to have sex even when you’re tired and would rather spend the time watching the latest episode of Glee. In general, there are two types of compromise or sacrifice couples make regarding sex:

The first type of compromise can be called Benign-Participation. Here’s how one wife described the compromise of benign-participation: “While I’m not in the mood, I do want to give my husband pleasure, and it’s been a while since we’ve had sex, so I’m willing to… It just wouldn’t be fair not to have sex every time I’m not in the mood, since I’m frankly not in the mood very often.”)

The second type of compromise can be called Reluctant-Participation: This may involve having sex out of guilt, feeling badgered and pressured, or even feeling bullied into having sex. As you can imagine, this is likely to backfire emotionally and isn’t in anyone’s best interest.


When struggles ensue around physical intimacy, both the low and high-libido partner are likely to feel misunderstood and not cared for. And often, this is indeed the case: The low-libido partner may not realize what it’s like not to have sex when you have a high sex drive, and the high-libido partner may not appreciate the effort it takes to have sex when it’s the last thing on your mind. In these instances, both partners can easily perceive the other as totally self-absorbed and uncompromising.

The goal is for couples to avoid these unhealthy relationship dynamics while also acknowledging the difficult reality of their sexual incompatibility. Effective couples communication starts with empathy—discussing these issues in ways that clearly demonstrate that you understand each person’s perspective.

Not feeling listened to and understood can, at best, only lead to Reluctant-Participation, and clearly you and your partner deserve better than this.

Passion and Intimacy Resources

If you’d like more information on how to keep passion and intimacy alive in your relationship, check out my comprehensive, easy-to-use Passion and Intimacy workbook.

Effective couples communication is the centerpiece to a healthy marriage/relationship. To add communication strategies and skills to your relationship toolbox, check out my communication workbook.

Until next time!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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