Sex in Marriage: The Gifts and Challenges of Physical Intimacy

The gifts of sex in marriage

Sex and passion are powerful expressions of the love and desire couples feel for one another. Sex is rarely just a physical experience—there are often layers of deep emotional meaning that are stirred through the act of having sex. Sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy are entwined, each creating a tapestry of meaning that (ideally) feed each other.

So when emotional intimacy is working well, sex is more rewarding—and when couples are connecting sexually, emotional intimacy is heightened.

Through sex, opportunities exist for couples to connect and reconnect in powerful ways. But this orderly interplay of the emotional and physical is an ideal, and the reality is that for many people, sex doesn’t always travel down a smooth path toward marital bliss.

The challenges of sex in marriage

The psychological and emotional meaning that physical intimacy has for couples can imbue sex with the power to transform their marriage/relationship in remarkable ways. And the inverse is true: sex can become an emotional mine-field that heightens insecurities and drives a wedge between you and your spouse/partner.

Understanding the complexities and challenges that are inherent to physical intimacy can lead to a more fulfilling sex life (and a closer relationship).

Let’s explore three issues that can enhance or impair sexual fulfillment:

1. Sex heightens your sense of interconnectedness and interdependence on your spouse/partner.

The physical and emotional blending that is part of sex makes lovers extremely vulnerable—a shared vulnerability that can lead to greater intimacy when both are comfortable allowing themselves to become dependent (at least temporarily) on one another.

A rigid sense of self-reliance and denial of other-focused needs (“I don’t need my spouse/partner for anything“) breaks the emotional heart-connection between lovers, and as a result, intimacy is compromised.  Under these circumstances (when interdependency is fought against by one or both partners), the mind and body are at odds—the mind acts like reins used to control and steer the sense of shared abandon that fulfilling sex demands.  Sex can end up feeling contrived and almost scripted when this occurs.

2.  Sex amplifies any conflicts you have about your body.

Physical intimacy is, well, physical—during sex your body is the central conduit of pleasure. But what if you dislike or even disdain your body (or certain parts of your body)? Your relationship with your own body can dramatically impact how physical intimacy gets experienced by you and played out in your marriage/relationship.

Two types of body-relationships can negatively impact your sexual experiences:

a. The dissociated/disconnected relationship:  Here your own body and the sensations that emerge from it feel foreign to you—for whatever reason, a barrier between you and your body has developed that creates a distance from your own bodily experiences during sex.

b. The contemptuous relationship: This relationship with one’s body creates a level of painful self-consciousness that robs you of the ability to be present and experience pleasure. Here you feel hatred or disdain for your own body. Under these conditions, sex becomes something to endure rather than cherish.

3.  Sex intensifies control/power issues in your relationship.

All relationships, including marriages and romantic relationships, involve power dynamics and struggles—compromise, giving in even when you feel justified to keep pushing an issue, and biting your tongue when you’d rather speak your mind are just some examples of how couples juggle power/control issues.

Couples who have rewarding sex lives are able to push (and even tear down, albeit temporarily) the power-control rules that typically guide their interactions.  For instance, a level of equanimity that works well outside the bedroom may give way to a dominance-submission dynamic that intensifies sexual arousal for both partners inside the bedroom.

But even at a more subtle level, sexual experience involves taking and letting go of control:  Giving your partner sexual pleasure places you in a position of power (since you can make the decision to take this pleasure away at any time) and, inversely, receiving and enjoying sexual pleasure requires you to relinquish control and give yourself (and body) over to your partner. Awareness of and comfort with taking and relinquishing control can ultimately lead to a more rewarding sex life.

As you read (and reread) the three above points, think about how you can use this information to fit the uniqueness of your marriage/relationship.

Marriage/Relationship Books–Resources

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For a comprehensive guide on how to make rewarding sex and passion a regular part of your marriage/relationship, check out my workbook: How to Spice Up Your Relationship.

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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