Many marriages become at risk when they develop what is known as a “Pursuer/Distancer” Dynamic in regards to sex. In fact, 80% of new marriages with this dynamic fail within 4-5 years. Marriages that develop this pattern and/or the controller/stonewaller pattern are at risk in later years. With Self Quarantine going into week 7, the cracks in many marriages are becoming more obvious.
Two people meet, fall in love, and get married. The falling in love part lasts approximately2-3 years and in that time, they cannot keep their hands off one another. Scientists have discovered that oxytocin (a bonding hormone) released during physical intimacy, works like a drug helping to bind us to our lover. This usually changes with the arrival of children and the need to focus on them, though not always. Inevitably the “romance” drops out of the marriage, and this is directly connected to relational power struggles in the marriage. A pattern begins where one person wants sexual intimacy more than the other and this can become a tool in the power dynamic of the relationship. In fact, Dr. John Gottman’s research that when couples get stuck in this pattern in the first few years of marriage, that the chances are one out of five that they make it through the first 4-5 years.
In the end, it’s not really about sex. Sex in marriage is not transactional, meaning that its less about objectification and exchange and more about trust, intimacy and mutual sharing. When the relationship is wrapped up in power struggles below the surface, how much trust can there be? The lower the trust, the lower the intimacy and the less likely for there to be real sharing and physical intimacy. Rekindling sexual intimacy begins with rebuilding trust and safety in the relationship and reducing power struggles.
Strong marriages are built on strong partnerships and the basis of partnership is power-sharing, confidence in one another’s strengths and contributions, shared values and principles and shared goals and vision. Rekindling sexual intimacy begins with rebuilding your emotional partnership. The place to begin is listening to what one another has to say or practicing what Gottman calls emotional attunement, which can help you stay connected even when you disagree. The basis for this is really hearing your partner and expressing needs in a positive manner, avoiding blame and recrimination, simple, but not always easy. The inside reflects the outside and visa versa, part of this shift occurs as a result of changes both in thinking and behavior. Here are some tips for shifting the dynamic of intimacy in your marriage.
Intimacy breakdowns are often accompanied by one party being the Pursuer and the other being the Distancer. Identify which of these roles best fits your behavior. Talk about the payoffs positive and negative of your role.
Pursuer: What satisfaction do you get out of the chase? What are the frustrations? Why do you pursue persistently even when you can see it’s not getting the result you say you want? What are the results and feelings they evoke int you? If you are pretty sure you’re going to get that result, and you know the feeling you will have, the implication is that on some level you want that feeling, what do you get from having that feeling? Hint: Blame and anger feel powerful, sadness and disappointment feel disempowered.
Distancer: What satisfaction do you get out of the denial? What are the frustrations? Why do you deny persistently even when you can see that sometimes it’s not getting the result you say you want? What are the results and feelings they evoke in you? Where would you like “power” or “control” in your relationship that you feel you do not have it now?
Whether your a pursuer or a distancer, the chances are you are bone-tired of this “dynamic” or pattern in your marriage. Begin by eliminating criticism of one another and wiping out blame. Try role-playing each other’s experience with the distancer being the pursuer and visa versa. Distancers can also try initiating intimacy and pursuers work on showing appreciation without expecting a return.
Because part of this pattern is about creating safety, it may serve you to create a safe word that both of you agree means go to your corners and relax/release frustration in triggered moments. The idea is to alter the pattern so that there starts to be shift in experience and expectations.
Use physical touch frequently and without an expectation of there being more. Physical affection like holding hands and touching helps release oxytocin which is calming and is also released during orgasm. Reducing stress and lowering the stress hormone cortisol are all the results of regular physical affection.
Offer a foot massage, back rub, neck massage without expectations, just for the sake of showing you care. Being physically affectionate just for the sake of it builds trust and separates physical touch from a demand for sex.
Physical affection can also set the stage for future intimacy, helping to build anticipation. Take time with foreplay, tease a little during the day for a liaison planned later in the evening. Try new locations, make sex romantic again, not just an act of physical release. Brain studies show that we experience more pleasure when the anticipation of the reward is extended before we actually receive it
The busier we get, the more important boundaries become between the different aspects of our life. Plan time to be intimate and only that. Do not poison your time with talk of work or chores and avoid conversations that you know are triggering. Plan your time together, the where, the when, the how. Set an intention for a certain kind of emotional experience in advance. Try courting and flirting to help rekindle the fires. Try eating out at home, a romantic date night. Turn off the TV, play music, light candles, take a shower together- whatever sets the mood for you both.
Sex is an opportunity to get to know your partner better over time. Sometimes you may feel you know each other too well which may open the door for looking for new ways to bring each other pleasure. Share your secret wishes and fantasies. This may bring u fear of emotional intimacy and if so consider working with a counselor to help you work it through,
No doubt some of these strategies sound a little daunting. Take them one step at a time. Talk about them and digest them together. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel stuck. Reigniting your friendship is the first step. get to know one another again, start date nights again. Partnership is the next level of relationship to rebuild. Ensure that you are working together with a shared vision. In a mature marriage (post in love stage), Romance can take time and is well worth the investment work. Stop comparing where you are to where you should. Exercise patience and take things slowly.