So far, I have reviewed two tenants of a successful sex life: prioritizing intimacy and communicating about sex. The third is accessing desire, and the Giver/Receiver exercise can help you here too.
Phase 3 – Accessing Desire
Good sex involves wanting. Desire is fundamental to an enjoyable encounter. But one or both of you may not have wanted intimacy in a long time. Desire may be something for which you need to go searching.
While desire may have come naturally early on in your relationship, you tend to have to cultivate it, at least sometimes, in a long-term relationship. Most couples who have been together a while have a basic way they have sex. There may be some variation, but you likely have settled in to an effective way of meeting your goals—whether that is an orgasm for one or both, just getting it done quickly, or something else. You may have gotten (and given) feedback along the way that some sexual activities are off the table, resulting in a lowest common denominator aspect to your sexual repertoire. It’s easy to get into a rut or a routine when it comes to sex. That can lead to both people not even thinking about what else they’d like. And it can result in a lukewarm attitude toward sex, with no sense of urgency.
This kind of complacency will cause even more of a problem if one or both of you experience the reactive type of desire I described in a previous post. Reactive sexual desire requires a willingness to start, to see what will happen, and to hold the idea that you want intimate connection even if you are not feeling interested in the moment. You need to create the opportunities for sexual desire to arise. If you and your partner get lazy or complacent, or if you start saying no because you aren’t in the mood at that moment, your sex life can stagnate. You start missing the opportunities to connect with your partner sexually. If you start saying no because you’re trapped in a negative cycle, or out of fear about how your lack of response will play out between the two of you, sex gets especially difficult. Do you say no to sex because you don’t feel like having sex at that moment and can’t really imagine getting in the mood?
In fact, many of you start avoiding any physical affection at all because you want to avoid being put on the spot and turning your partner down again. You don’t want to leave your partner hanging or come off as a “tease.” Moments of sexual initiation can become loaded with negative feelings and are often the source of distance or fighting between you and your partner. This is a common way people start avoiding sex in the first place.
You may have struggled to ever want anything. Many people struggle with desire in general. You grow up in an environment that teaches you whether your desires are valued, whether there is room for your wishes, whether you can expect to have your wants fulfilled, and whether your voice can be heard and welcomed. You may have learned not to want because it was equated with neediness. Depending on your background, you may have turned off wanting a very long time ago. You may have convinced yourself that you can’t expect anything, maybe from anyone. You may have learned to be completely independent and self-sufficient a long time ago. It’s not that those traits are bad, but if it means you can’t access desire, it creates a problem for your intimate life.
You may also struggle with wanting sex because of relationship issues between you and your partner, be they sexual or otherwise. You’ll have to tackle those issues—bring them up and resolve them—to be able to want to have sex again. Cultivating and welcoming desire is a critical part of satisfying sex.
I suggest you and your partner practice stating your desires on a regular basis, in small ways, about everyday things. From figuring out what to do for dinner to how you want to spend a weekend afternoon, you have lots of opportunity to find and express what you want. I recommend you each state what you want first, before deciding what you will do. Use the words “I want” or “I would like” so you demonstrate ownership of your own desires. Once each of you has said what you want, then you can decide together what to do.
If you find it especially difficult to access and communicate your own desires, I recommend using poker chips as a tool. Put 10 chips in your pocket; each represents one statement of desire. Every time you come across them in your pocket, you’ll be reminded that you need to find an opportunity to express what you want. If you and your partner are both doing this, you can give each other chips as you make statements of desire. This makes it obvious that you are making a conscious effort to express your wish. If you’re doing it alone, just move a chip out of your pocket with each desire that you express. Remember that just because you say you want something, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. This is also a way to practice tolerating a no.
I also recommend that you stop having a black and white, yes or no response to sex and enter the grey area of maybe. You can let your partner know that you weren’t really thinking about sex, but that you’re willing to give it a try and see what happens. Perhaps your motor will turn over, perhaps not. It starts with a willingness to engage in any sort of sexual encounter—kissing, touching, whatever. It is important for you both to let go of attachment to any particular outcome, to learn to enjoy the moment for what it offers. Go slowly, relax, and experiment with what it takes to connect with your partner and feel good about what you’re doing. You may find that you or your partner need more information or more practice in what to do and how to do it in a way that will be pleasing. Willingness to enter a sexual space together and to explore, in this context, is not an agreement to end up doing any specific thing, like intercourse. And because it isn’t, there can be room to say maybe, which is a yes to getting started.
Using the Giver/Receiver Exercise – Accessing Desire
You can use the Giver/Receiver Exercise to work on these issues. Your 10-minute turn as the Receiver is an invitation to take the time to figure out what you might like. If you don’t know, start with anything and go from there. Pick a random place on your body and some sort of touch and see what you might want next. As you proceed, notice how it feels and be receptive to any ideas you have about what might feel better. You can use the exercise to explore touch and figure out what you want. You don’t have to know ahead of time.
If you do have ideas, practice asking for them—with enough specificity and explicitness that you get what you really want. Notice where you hold back and try to overcome that. Your turn is also a place to become progressively more comfortable receiving. Over time, you can access more desire for touch and increase your comfort with wanting.
Pitfall: Not Knowing What You Want
You may not know what you want. Maybe you’ve never known what you want. You may feel like sex has never been about you or you’ve never had the chance to explore your own body. If you struggle with lack of sexual desire, you may have a hard time finding any pleasure in your body or touch at all. If you’ve experienced sexual trauma in the past, this can block your desire to be touched or to be sexual. You may be facing a blank slate when it comes to finding touch you’d enjoy.
You may not know what you want because things have changed. As you get older, your body and responses change, so sometimes it feels like you’re in a body you don’t know. If you’ve had surgery, illness, or disability, your body may not be like the one you’d gotten used to. It can feel like your body has betrayed you. Or you might be happy with your new body but not yet know how you want to use it.
Breakthrough: Learning What You Want
You learn more about what feels good. You explore new things that you never considered. You explore your entire body (not just focusing on genitals). You also explore your genitals in a new way, not just doing the same things as before. You discover new kinds of touch, and you learn things you never knew you liked. Your body surprises you.