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Sex…15% of Relationship When It’s Going Well … More Like 100% When It’s Not

Sex…15% of Relationship When It’s Going Well … More Like 100% When It’s Not

According to Dr. Barry McCarthy, author of numerous books and articles on sexuality and marriage, when a couple’s sexual relationship is going well, it’s about 15% of the marriage. They have fun together; they solve problems effectively; and they talk like friends. On the other hand, when sex is not going well, the focus on the sexual relationship can be everything to one or both partners. As a couple and family therapist, it always concerns me when I get questions like the following: 

We’ve been together for almost 15 years and have a good relationship, but our biggest problem is that I’m not that interested in sex. It seems like we’re both just so busy with work and our kids’ activities that there just isn’t time. I love him and find him to be a handsome man, but not sexual. So, do we stay together or go our separate ways?


And then there’s this one: 

In September we had our first child and since then it seems like we fight more. My wife acts like she doesn’t want me to touch her, let alone have sex with me. Sometimes she even pulls away when I put my arm around her or try to give her a kiss. We still love each other, and we love our baby, so what’s the problem? Given the change in our physical affection, I know I’ve been more irritable and less patient. Sometimes I just shut down completely and refuse to talk.  It seems like she only has time for our child, but not for me. Is something wrong with me?


These questions suggest different feelings about sexual intimacy between men and women. Although there are exceptions, due to their much higher levels of testosterone, men, in general, have far more sexual thoughts than women. They feel loved and accepted when their partner is physically intimate with them. In fact, it’s difficult, if not impossible for them to feel love if this is absent in a relationship except for a very good reason, for example, illness or separation. 

Women, on the other hand, often must focus on or think about sex once the relationship loses its initial glow. It’s not that women don’t enjoy sex, but they are more easily distracted and don’t have nearly as many sexual thoughts as men—again, due to lower levels of testosterone. For this reason, they need to reserve time and energy for this important aspect of their relationship. It is not something that can just be set aside if they want their partner to feel happy and connected in the relationship. 

This can become a particular concern with the addition of a new member to the family. Mothers of infants are often sleep-deprived, diverted and overwhelmed with demands from their young child. The thought of attending to the needs and desires of their partner can seem like just one more thing on the “to-do” list rather than a welcome diversion from the adjustment to becoming a parent.


So, what should couples do when one or both experiences a lack of interest in or enthusiasm for physical intimacy? 

  1. Both need to remember that avoiding physical intimacy is not really an option if they want to show love to their partners. McCarthy suggests that if married couples are having sex less than once or twice a month, this typically places a strain on the relationship. 
  2. Some problems can be resolved by talking with each other about the importance of physical intimacy apart from the time when one can feel pressured by the other to be intimate. This usually means having the conversation in a room other than the bedroom. 
  3. It can be helpful for couples to reserve time for the couple relationship with childcare or planned time away. Husbands might find their wives very appreciative if they take the lead in arranging for childcare rather than expecting her to do it. 
  4. Sometimes new parents get into a standoff regarding who goes first, e.g., “I’d be more affectionate if he helped out more,” or “If she ever made time for me, I’d help with the baby,” but this is rarely productive. If you want a great relationship, someone needs to go first.
  5. Finally, hormonal changes can create sexual problems in a couple’s relationship, especially after the birth of a child or some other medical intervention. These can often be addressed with medication. Consulting one’s physician is a good plan if problems persist. 

Relationship education classes and counseling can go a long way toward helping a couple talk about and resolve some of their issues, including sex. However, if sex is still an issue in your marriage, don’t sweep it under the rug and pretend it will go away by itself. Seek help to keep your relationship strong and healthy for years to come.

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