What is the value of sex to a marriage? Although men and women may answer this question differently, most agree that sex is a critical element of a good marriage. However is it the quality of the sex rather than frequency alone that matters? And how does our early learning about sex contribute to the quality and pattern of sexual relating we develop in our marriage?
There are many obstacles that can act as potential roadblocks to rewarding sexual intimacy in a marital relationship. One primary theme is the cultural current most of us experienced from childhood which clearly makes all sex "nasty." Regardless of our participation in the "sexual revolution" early associations can haunt us, particularly when we marry. I remember the first time I found out about sex and the fact that my parents had "it" with each other. I was appalled that they would do such things to one another with such private parts of their bodies (heretofore used only in the bathroom as far as I knew). I was 10 years old and took the first opportunity to tell my younger 9 year old cousin. She immediately revoked such illicit behavior from her own parents' bedroom with the declaration "My father would never do that to my mother!" That stopped our discussions on the topic for some time.
Desensitization, then, is the first order of business for many of us before we can even begin to explore our sexuality. How we relate to our own sensuality is oftentimes through unacceptable fantasies which although conflictual to our morality, match the cultural messages we absorb growing up. During the course of marriage therapy with a couple in my practice in their sixties, the husband shared his experience of growing up male which included that when women said "no" they meant "yes." To be a successful male in his teenage years meant to "score" with a woman sexually. However this put him in great moral conflict. His wife of 41 years shared that she learned being a "good" girl meant always saying "no" to her sexual feelings. This put her in conflict with her developing sexuality.
Throughout their marriage, which included growing both of their careers and raising their three children, sex became conflicted territory between them. She felt oppressed by his sexual overtures and he felt rejected by her. By sharing their experiences of growing up male and female, they discovered they had been set up by their cultural upbringing to be at war with each other sexually. They had never worked out a way for her to say "no" to sex without his experience being one of major rejection. Nor had she taken responsibility for initiating sex in the marriage. Talking about their adolescent years helped him take her refusals less personally and helped her to begin relating to her own sexual desires, causing her to become increasingly proactive in their sexual relationship.