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Sexual Negotiation for the Long Haul

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Many people in long-term, committed relationships, be it marriage or steady partnership -- no matter their age -- have ideas about sex in partnerships they may not even be aware of. Often we base our ideas of relationships and sexuality on what we see in the media or in movies, on what our parents relationship is like, or on what we imagine, in a perfect world, sex and love to be. Talking about what those ideas are, communicating our feelings honestly, and creating clear limits and honoring them make everyone happier and healthier.

It's very easy and very human to assume that when our partner becomes available on a daily basis, or when we've made a serious commitment, that our sexual needs will now be completely fulfilled more easily and more often. We may have been raised with the idea that love makes for perfect sex, and if it doesn't, we're doing something terribly wrong.

Serious or steady partnerships afford us a level of trust we may not have had before, making us feel a lot less vulnerable and a lot more open. Sometimes, that may make one or both partners feel they are entitled to -- or even owed -- sex more, or owed things the other partner doesn't want to give, like sex without birth control or STD protection, or acts they aren't comfortable participating in. Some people -- unfortunately -- may get sexually involved initially to try and cement a relationship, then when it is committed, aren't interested anymore. All in all, a whole new level of our sexual relationship has probably opened up to us and our partner...and we are often very confused by it, and unsure how to manage it.

Dr. Jack Morin states that, "according to the ideals of love and marriage to which most of us subscribe, deepening affection and closeness are supposed to coexist with a dependable, satisfying sex life. However, the difficulty millions of couples have in combining closeness with sexual enthusiasm is evident... I'm convinced that couples who openly confront the difficulties of combining intimacy and passion are the ones most likely to thrive. It is crucial to acknowledge that closeness and sexual desire are not one and the same, but rather two separate, yet interacting experiences."

In other words, even though love and sex can go hand in hand, they don't always, and if we expect them to be one and the same, we're likely to be unhappy and make our partner unhappy, too. Recognizing that can solve a whole lot of problems both in and outside of our relationships. If we come to relationships understanding that great love doesn't always make great sex (and that sex isn't a by-product of love, and love can exist beautifully without it, depending on what we want), that making both work is a long endeavor that should be enjoyable, enlightening and engaging, and that we're solely responsible for our own satisfaction, we can do more than simply manage our collective sexuality. We can change any "problem" to instead become an instigator of growth, evolution and intimacy in our relationship -- as friends and lovers -- and within ourselves.


Recognize the difference between fantasy and reality.

Some people may find that a serious relationship makes them want a lot more sexual activity. Others may find that they want less, or none at all for a while. A boyfriend or partner who was once very loyal may seem to suddenly be looking at more people passing by than he used to, because a steady relationship makes him feel "penned in" in a sense. All of this is normal. The constant is that for almost everyone, upping our level of commitment changes our sexual and romantic behavior and ideals.

Based on our ideals for partnership, we all have expectations of what the sexual life of a steady partner or spouse is, and we may not even realize we have them. We may not feel we need to make those expectations go away once we acknowledge them -- some may be excellent and healthy -- but if we're intellectually and emotionally prepared for them to meet daily life and prove false or unrealistic, and willing to adapt them or let go of them completely, we'll be a whole lot happier.

Be as honest as possible with yourself and your partner.

A good number of people keep some sexual "secrets" under lock and key until AFTER they've partnered with someone. Some tragically hide them their whole lives. I knew a man once who knew years before he married, with certainty, that he was gay. He loved the woman he married very much, but only platonically, and felt he could make it work. Over the next forty years, he had countless despairing crushes on many, many men. His life with his wife began and ended with the conception of two children. He was unhappy most of the time, and passed on never having said a single word to her about it. She never even knew why things were so strained between them.

Obviously, that's an extreme case. But if, for instance, we have certain fantasies we want to act out, or if we're interested alternative sexuality practices, or if we know that we go through long spells of not wanting much sex at all or conversely know we want and expect it night and day, we create a potentially impossible situation if our we do not tell our partners (and ourselves!) these things. We basically make negotiation and communication impossible if we want to negotiate something that is imperative or intrinsic to our natures that our partners never even had the vaguest clue existed. If nonnegotiable sexual aspects, behaviors or preferences exist that we know about, and don't inform our partners of, we don't leave a lot of room to negotiate.

"Deal with it, babe," isn't exactly a great opener to a two-way dialogue.

It is entirely possible that some of our sexual needs and desires simply cannot be rectified or realized with a particular person. That may mean we may have to prioritize or choose to let go of some of those things in the short or long-term to engage in that partnership. Life, many times, is about compromise, and we may find that some things are more important to us than others. For example, we may have had an idea that we will have many partners before settling down with one, but if we meet someone really special early in the game, that previous idea may become less important.

But sometimes it may seem clear that in the long run, we just aren't in the right partnership, and we may have to move on. But it is far, far better to do this sort of sharing, communicating and exploring before we put down roots and make commitments. If that isn't possible -- as we sometimes discover things about our sexual selves far later in life we never knew before -- it is far better to recognize that some things are impassible and move on, or reevaluate the terms of a relationship, than to drag each other through the ringer trying to get one or both partners to give something that they cannot give, or will not be comfortable or happy providing. You may find that someone who you just can't find harmony with as a sexual or romantic partner turns out to be the best platonic friend you ever had. If we love people for who they are -- not what role they play -- that kind of incompatibility doesn't always have to be a tragedy.

It goes without saying that for optimum health of both self and partnership, some things sexual cannot just be tossed under the rug. We cannot healthfully deny our sexual orientation, for instance. If we have strong fetishes, preferences or proclivities that we know don't or can't include or interest our partner, assuming we'll "grow out of them" (or assuming our partner will, or that we can change them) is unrealistic and unfair to everyone. A lot of sexual behavior and identity is rooted very deeply in our psyches from childhood, and though we can certainly manage most of it, we cannot make it go away, or pretend it isn't there.

Don't hold someone else completely responsible for your happiness or pleasure.

We all have hungry times and dry spells. While we can work with our partner to make both manageable and enjoyable, it is not healthy for anyone to have sex when they don't want to, or to have sex solely for the purpose of making someone else happy. We also cannot expect our partners to guess at what we want, or to make us familiar or comfortable with our own sexuality, self or body.

Recognize that when it comes to sex, that you can -- literally -- take matters into your own hands to solve a number of different problems, bridge a lot of partnership gaps, and establish the basis for a realistic view of your sexual self. In other words, when we are sexually involved with a partner, it should be for more reasons than because we're sexually frustrated or, plainly, just want to get off. Those are times we need to be taking care of ourselves, be it by masturbating or getting some exercise, or by abstaining. Neither you nor your partner has the right to demand sex from one another solely because you want it at that moment.

It's no one's job to make sure you're sexually satisfied but yours, and no one else can assess what your sexual needs, likes and dislikes are but you. Understanding our sexuality outside our partnership is integral to understanding, exploring and managing it within our partnership. Sex educators Anne Semans and Cathy Winks state that being able to communicate and negotiate with a partner about sex, "starts with articulating our needs to ourselves." Truer words were rarely spoken. Knowing who you are OUTSIDE of your relationship is really important to keeping it -- and you -- healthy, whole and happy.

Love, honor and obey (okay, skip the obey)...when the other person is being reasonable.

It's no fair to demand or insist on sex or a type of sex from anyone, and expect that just because they agreed to be our partner, they should comply. Even when we've unionized our lives with someone else on any degree, we need to recognize that they are not a part of our whole, but a companion to it, and they, like us, are still wholly their own. Conversely, we are allowed and should always feel comfortable saying no to our partner without guilt when we're not interested in something which they want. If we begin to act out of obligation instead of love and respect, while it may seem simpler and more peaceable short term, in the long-run we are robbing ourselves and our partnership of honesty, communication and genuine, mutual partnership.

Sometimes, our sexual lives merge very harmoniously and organically with our partners', and so it's easy to feel that on some level, we really are "one," but if we get too attached to that idea, and we expect them or us to behave as if were were one, it can be very frustrating, unhealthy and upsetting when our desires and needs differ.

Remember that the largest sex organ in the human body is your brain.

In a world chock-full of sex advice, it's easy to become distracted with "secret sex tips" or salacious Cosmo headlines, which are created more to sell copies than to give sound advice.

The best sex tip anyone can give you is to understand yourself and your partners, accept both as they are, and to talk to your partner about sex, not just in the bedroom or during sexual activity, but as a normal component of your daily lives. Relationship counselor Eve Eschner Hogan, in her book Intellectual Foreplay, composed a big series of questions for partners to ask one another about sex BEFORE the fact, ranging from how comfortable each partner is with being nude, to how each feels initiating sex, to what times of the day or month each partner feels a high or low sex drive. Establishing an easy way of speaking about numerous aspects of our sexuality and sexual selves is key to getting what we want as well as ensuring that we are comfortable and feel safe and secure, and our partner is as well.

If we or our partner has made very clear limits on what they will or will not do, or do or do not feel comfortable doing, we can all save ourselves a lot of frustration by knowing those limits and not pressing them, but respecting them. We may discover in talking about sex that one of us likes things the other does not, and we can then explore ways to bridge that gap.

If we've been honest with ourselves and each other on a daily basis, most sexual gaps can be bridged, simply by talking with a willingness to compromise, and a recognition that our partner doesn't "owe" us anything at all when it comes to sex, and neither we them. What we owe ourselves and each other instead is trust, communication, honesty, mutual respect and acceptance, and the willingness to carry our own weight and synergize our needs with our partners needs as fairly as possible with a greater love of reality and growth than of fantasy and expectation.
Ultimately, no one else can make us whole or satisfied but ourselves, sexually or otherwise, and because sexuality is such an integral aspect of our physiology, psychology and emotional being, it is a job that is never done, and that is -- and should be -- constantly evolving. We have our whole lives to do it, and the more thoughtfully we do it, the happier we'll be.

If we are evaluating and discussing our sexual selves and our partnership daily with an open mind and with sincerity and honesty, not only will we find greater sexual satisfaction with our partner and within ourselves, we will develop skills for communication, negotiation and self-realization that will affect every aspect of our lives positively and healthfully.

written 07 Oct 2000 . updated 31 Jan 2014

Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.