Show Transcript for Episode 9: When Sex Changes

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Laurie Watson: Hi, it’s time for Foreplay. This is Laurie Watson, author and sex therapist. And I’m here with my cohost, Tony Delmedico, a psychotherapist. We’re here to talk about all things sexual today and to try to help you get the most out of your sex life.

Tony Delmedico: You can check us out on the web at ForeplayRST.com. Visit us and send us an email if you’d like. Sex talk with Laurie and Tony. Laurie, where is Foreplay going to lead us today?

Laurie Watson: Tony, I think we should talk about, you know, when and why sex changes in the coupleship. And see if we can understand some of this. Because I think most of us have experienced some changes from when we were first together and then suddenly in longer term partnership or in marriage, it’s really different.

Tony Delmedico: Yeah, I would agree. And a lot of our previous episodes, and I’m sure episodes after this one, we’ll be giving you wonderful ideas, tips, and techniques. And today, I think just given the nature of the topic, it’s going to be more psychological. And for people listening, really dropping in and beginning to think about, you know, how the relationship has evolved for you. And if there was a change, has that change happened gradually over time or for many couples and many individuals they report a specific moment in time when they knew something had shifted. And we were talking about this off-handed which is why we came up with the top this topic for today. Which is its curious that this story pops up a lot. And nobody’s really talking about it much, right?

Laurie Watson: Sometimes couples can pinpoint the actual moment that they feel like their sex life went awry. I think that one thing —

Tony Delmedico: Not just couples but or an individual.

Laurie Watson: Sure. One of the partners can remember that. I think one of the things I want people to take away from today is that sex problems are ubiquitous. I mean everybody has sex problems. And the fact that sex changes when we’re in partnership, that’s normal. It doesn’t mean that necessarily it’s a fixed state. I think that we can understand it in a way that can make it more intimate, make it more exciting, if we can deal with kind of the pressures that are causing it to stand still.

Tony Delmedico: Yeah. And maybe this idea of talking about when and how sex changed or changes between you, going back and looking at sort of high water events or marks in your life as a couple together. So, there’s this idea if you’re dating, you go from one night to a boyfriend or a girlfriend. And then if you continue to date, there’s some sameness that occurs over time. But there’s often a transition as you go from boyfriend and girlfriend to husband and wife. So, always thinking about with these transitions, even though as a couple, you’re always looking forward to the good things. Sliding in underneath this is the shadow aspects of all of those transitions and just going from boyfriend and girlfriend to husband and wife, there can be big dramatic changes. Oftentimes a woman or man will say on the wedding night something shifted. Or when I was standing on the alter something shifted. Or on the airplane to the honeymoon something shifted. So, it’s very curious and that something is very palpable and it’s hard. We don’t have a lot of language in our culture that is used to described what that is. Other than shadow. You and I have been kicking around terms.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. I think that oftentimes on the wedding night sex does somehow or another change and it is because we literally lift the veil. We lift the veil on our own knowledge of the shadow part of our partner. I mean when we are in love and in romance, we kind of see that person as all good. And suddenly, we have this moment of, “Oh my gosh, there’s a part of them that might hurt me, might reject me, might not be as stellar as I thought they were.” And we also, you know, have also been putting our best foot forward. And so, suddenly we to shift a little bit and the focus in the relationship obviously shifts from this orgy of sexual time together to, okay, now we’re committed to a life together. Where we’ve got to go get stuff done, you know. Get up, go get a job, and raise a family.

Tony Delmedico: We are going to be grownups now.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. And all this lovely time that we set aside just for each other and for intimacy, is somehow or another swallowed up. So, sex does change. And this is a scary stat. A third of couples that are two years into the relationship, committed relationship or into marriage, a third of them become what I say is “sexless or low sex.” So, sexless means that they’re having sex less than ten times a year. Or low sex is basically less than every other week. And that’s a third a couples. And this is usually for most couples, they’re young enough that it’s before children. It’s before anybody problems happening. Before aging. And something shuts them down.

Tony Delmedico: Something shuts them down. And we are feeling around the edges of what is that something because it’s very powerful and it’s pervasive. And I do think it is this idea of the shadow part of your partner in order for someone to commit to someone else for a lifetime. In our minds, we literally have to build them into something that’s worthy of committing to for a lifetime. And I think we take some of those shadow qualities of our partner and unconsciously just pack them off to the side. And I think that’s what we’re talking about. Oftentimes in an inkling of a moment or gradually over time, those shadow pieces come back in. And now, you’re getting the whole person in front of you.

Laurie Watson: And some of the shadow pieces really reside in us. I see in you the things that are difficult in me to see in myself. And so, I project them onto you. And now, you’re that person. I mean, I have sat with so many couples who maybe one partner will say, “You’re so inhibited.” And then when we get that person to free up and to really be more experimental. Suddenly the person who accusing their inhibitions come forward.  You know, their angst about sex comes forward and they have problems too. But they were kind of covertly hiding behind this and projecting it onto their partner. I want to say, I really think I understand the why this sexlessness and why the low sex happens in coupleships. And I think you kind of hinted at it when you said as we evolve, you know, from maybe just dating to boyfriend, girlfriend to marriage, that the, you know, the doors kind closed behind us as we commit further and further to fidelity and monogamy. You know, our options closed down and there is a spatial difference. We suddenly are in the relationship for good and our options are closed and that creates some sense of suffocation. I mean we have two needs. We have the need for connection, which is why we’re with a person. And the need for merger, which is why we’re sexual with a person. But we also have a need for autonomy. And to do our own thing, you know, be master of our own ship. And have nobody tell us what to do. And when suddenly we’re living with that person and we’re sharing space and you know, they want you to put the laundry away right after it comes out of the dryer for crying out loud. Or you know, they have different ways of doing things and their way is the right way. And you know, you’re sharing a bathroom and a bed. And every day you’re sharing this. And I mean all of this kind of what we were autonomous in starts to close in on us.

Tony Delmedico: It’s making me run away right now. I’m terrified. Like how are we doing this together and how would we commit to do this for 50 years, 60 years, 70 years now together. It’s a real tall order without driving each other crazy. I was thinking about author, David Schnarch’s book.

Laurie Watson: Passionate Marriage?

Tony Delmedico: Or the Crucible? The Marriage Crucible.

Laurie Watson: Yeah.

Tony Delmedico: So, something changes from just going out on a date to really climbing into a crucible together. And you’re really cooking in this. You’re seeing your own worst stuff. Your partners now revealing their own worst stuff. You’re showing that to each other. And then intensity can get quite high. I was thinking about a couple that had lived together for 17 years and decided they would finally get married and they got married. And a year later they got divorced. And they just decided they were much better off living together and returned to a very happy partnership.

Laurie Watson: That created some form of breathing space. Marriage is another kind of contract. Absolutely. I think that what you’re saying though is, why do people as they get closer and closer, which is supposed to be the goal. Why do they then sometimes feel this intimate shutdown? And this desire kind of evaporate? I think desire is like relationship cocaine. I mean we all want to feel it. Even people who don’t feel it, wish they felt it. And in relationship, it is psychologically one way that we create space. You know, to not desire our partner leaves us less vulnerable. You know, our vulnerability is increased because, you know, if we desire them, especially sexually, you know, it’s so primitive. It’s like we’re asking them, “Touch my body, make me feel good.” It’s such a tender place of childhood needs and romantic needs all in one moment. And this person, you know, overall, they could love somebody else or they could not love us. The worst case scenario is they could die. You know, I always say every love story, the best love story is the most tragic love story. Because eventually as you love someone and commit and feel that, I mean eventually it’s going to end. And we know that. And I think that’s one of the reasons our courage drops when we’re in a long term relationship. We let desire go because it leaves our hearts so vulnerable. You know, this person, they could reject us and it’s really scary.

Tony Delmedico: Yeah. So, thinking about how it changes whether its instantaneously or over time, some other high water marks in relationships where there is the potential for things to either shift gradually or immediately. Oftentimes it’s when a couple decides to have a child. Because we go from being just two now to becoming three to becoming the movement from a couple to becoming a family. Each of these things invoke a persona change. I’m no longer boyfriend and girlfriend. Now I’m husband and wife.

Laurie Watson: Now I’m mother and father.

Tony Delmedico: Now my mother and father, and we are a family. So, and we assume the masks are the personas of all of those things.

Laurie Watson: And those roles.

Tony Delmedico: My wife should blah, blah, blah. My husband should blah, blah, blah.

Laurie Watson: And my mother did this. And therefore, I am that, you know. And I think women particularly, we can talk about this later. But you know, we step in the role of mother. And we imagine our own mother as selfless, you know, always giving, always there, always present. And even if we didn’t have a mother who was like that, then we want to be a mother who is like that even more. And so, women, you know, just drain themselves and they take nothing for themselves. They don’t take time for their own pleasure. And give time over to their own sexual needs because they see themselves as the giving machine. And I think fathers, you know, oftentimes get caught up in providing. And drain off their energy with work and production.

Tony Delmedico: Yeah. And I think all of that is right on the money. And I think, I want to say it’s also unconsciously done. I don’t think any of us have any foresight. It sort of just drags us through it. We didn’t get married thinking, now I’m going to behave like a husband. But lo and behold, two years later, that’s what’s on the table. Or a father or a mother. So, being able to step outside of ourselves and look at these things that have now taken control of us. Getting to work with them is important. That brings us to the end of our first portion of this talk on, When it Changed Between Us, Laurie. Stay tuned for the second half. This is Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy with author and sex therapist, Laurie Watson, and psychotherapist, Tony Delmedico. We’ll be right back.

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Laurie Watson: Hi, we’re back with Foreplay and Laurie Watson, author and sex therapist and psychotherapist Tony Delmedico talking about sex. And today we’re particularly talking about when and why sex changes in a coupleship. I wanted to go back, Tony, and talk about these two needs that couples have. The need for connection, closeness, and sex. And then the alternate need for autonomy and independence. And I really think that sex gets snagged in this power struggle. I mean, we’re trying to balance our own internal balance on this, right? You know, how much autonomy I need and how much closeness I want. But then in the coupleship, we try to balance it to. One person often, you know, wants more closeness, connection, talk, time together, often more sex. And the other person for whatever reason, seems more preoccupied with their autonomy, with doing their own thing. Their hobbies are, you know, more isolative. They get sometimes concerned about production and work and they put all their energy into that. And it becomes like two South Pole magnets on a rod. One person is asking, and the other person is backing up. I mean, I see in heterosexual couples, oftentimes the woman is the emotional pursuers. She’s chasing for more family time, more talking, more closeness. And he’s emotionally distant, you know. “I’m not even aware of my feelings. I don’t want to talk about that stuff. I’m not that interested in talking.” But you know what, he says, “I’m really interested in bed.” And so, he is the sexual pursuer. And for whatever reasons she says, “You know, I can’t be sexual with you unless you’re emotional with me.” So, she becomes the sexual distancer. And a sexual distancer doesn’t mean she doesn’t like sex. It’s just how she functions over in the relationship in this struggle. And I think that is what shuts people down. It’s their anxiety over being actually intimate. Because if we’re intimate, I think we fear being controlled, you know. The distance or fears that the other person will control them. And the pursuer fears that they won’t get enough, you know. So, the sexual pursuer always asking, “You know, can I have more sex? I need more sex.” And you know, to get up at bat, you know, three times to maybe get one home run. They ask more, and more, and more. And the other person starts to feel crowded. “Oh, you know, you are always trying to want more from me and demand more from me.” And it can be reversed, you know, in terms of emotional needs. Do you see this? Do you know what I’m talking about?

Tony Delmedico: I do. Yes. I think in the first part of the program we were talking about some of the more developmental, psychological reasons for the shift. And I think there’s a few more that we’ll return to in this segment. But I think you’re talking about sort of the bedrock. The very, very practical, real reasons why in real time it shifts. And I think when couples are just dating, a lot of what you’re talking about this pursuer distance or dynamic, somehow is either overlooked or tolerated or it’s part of the dating ritual. But I think, as couples commit and have been together for a while, it becomes the source of the problem. I would say nine times out of ten. At least with the individuals I’ve seen in psychotherapy.

Laurie Watson: Well, when we were dating, I mean we’re in a bubble. We’re falling in love with our own idea of this person. We don’t really know who they are at all. You know, and you were talking about seeing the shadow of the person. I see that as actually observing the real self-emerging and we are frightened. You know, they can be very, very different. And I think we crack people up in relationship to be just like me, you know? Kaboom, right? I want to have sex. They want to have sex. It’s so magical. You know, we always want to have sex at the same exact time. And then it turns out actually in real life, people want to have sex at very different times. You know, I could feel sexual and my partner doesn’t at all at that moment. But you know, my partner could be sick. And it just doesn’t — it isn’t as same as we think it is when we’re falling in love.

Tony Delmedico: Yeah. And I would say that’s true psychologically as well. We think that our partner is just like us. And that’s why we’re committing. When in reality over time we’re all very, very different psychologically from one another. That’s very threatening. That’s vulnerable and isolating. But just know over time you are very separate people and you know. How do you, returning to this relationship as a third thing that you’re both tending, you know, how do you begin to talk about is sex changing between us? Is that a threatening conversation to have? How and why is it changing? What happens if you’re getting a no two times out of three? What is the impact of that on both of you?

Laurie Watson: What does it mean?

Tony Delmedico: You’re feeling crowded. I’m feeling shut down.

Laurie Watson: Right, I’m feeling deprived. You’re feeling controlled.

Tony Delmedico: Yeah.

Laurie Watson: Yeah. I think that’s true. I think that my hopeful part says that this is going through the power struggle is how couples actually fall in real love. I mean, the power struggle strips away that bubble and the illusion that I had built up about you. And it gives me a chance to really see someone as they are and love that person. And I think that going through the power struggle, although it’s particularly painful because sex has been snagged. It actually gives us a chance later on to have, you know, some of the talks and the real love and that presence that you talk about Tony of showing up for each other sexually as real people. You know, flawed and all. I mean, I always say we think we marry the prince and the princess. And then we find out, when we’re in the power struggle, it’s like, no, I married the frog. And then later on it’s like, “Okay, I’m married a person with warts, you know, they’re a real person and they have some flaws as do I.”

Tony Delmedico: Yeah. So, in the, you know, extending the metaphor on the fairytales. If you go back and look at that fairy tale motif in particular, when you go back and read the original Grimm’s tails, the prince does rescue the princess and they do get married back in the kingdom. But that’s just the first third of the story. And the story goes on for four or five more pages. And you wonder, well wait, I thought everybody was supposed to live happily ever after.

Laurie Watson: And then she becomes the witch. Offers the daughter the poisoned apple.

Tony Delmedico: Exactly. And he gets lost traveling the world for seven years and fighting dragons and all of his stuff. Then they re-meet or reconnect seven years later and they’re standing there beat up, scarred, warts, and all and there a second marriage. And that marriage is actually the royal wedding and they do live happily ever after. And so, yeah.

Laurie Watson: [inaudible] says, and he’s a philosopher. And he says, count on two marriages in every lifetime, you know. Sometimes to the same person. Hopefully to the same person. And I think that this is what the power struggle gives us. It gives us a gift. We actually get a chance to see the other as a real person. See the shadow and not be so frightened by it. And not have it shut us down sexually.

Tony Delmedico: And know exactly what it is. And then it is a shadow. So, and I think [inaudible] is on the money. I’m thinking about couples who have, or individuals who have second marriages, third marriages, fourth marriages. They’re actually having first marriages over and over and over.

Laurie Watson: Right.

Tony Delmedico: And they just never get to this place of a reconnection. And with couples that are struggling, to me, that’s the question. Do you want to fight it out with this person and reconnect with the second royal wedding? Or if you’re going to find somebody else, you’re going to feel good for a little while. But four, five, six years later, you’re going to be standing right here at the same precipice.

Laurie Watson: Sure. Because if haven’t changed, we bring the self to the next marriage or the next partnership that hasn’t evolved. And so, we blame it on the other. I would say this is the number one fear. When the power struggle hits. Is we look at that person and we say, “Oh my gosh, I made a mistake?” And it’s really frightening for couples to be in it and say, you know, “Gosh, all those feelings I had, they’re gone. All those romantic desires, feelings, I don’t feel them at all.” And they think clearly this is a mistake. And actually, marriage like you talked about in The Crucible is, you know Schnarch’s ideas are about that marriage grows us up, it develops up so that we become more loving people.

Tony Delmedico: It also may be breaking us down and kicking us in our own juices.

Laurie Watson: For a long time. I say, unfortunately, the power struggle often lasts about 15 years.

Tony Delmedico: The alchemy of marriage. Marriage is always working on you. This commitment that you’re in, this relationship you’re in is cooking both of you. And that really goes against the grain of are you my next princess? Are you my next handsome prince?

Laurie Watson: Sure. I tell couples, thing about the experience that you’re having. Maybe you’re bored in bed. Maybe usually your partner is having a mirror experience too in the marriage. Maybe they’re bored with you, talking to you. I mean maybe it’s, there’s just ever so slight of a difference. But this experience is different. Or you think, “You know what, my partner, I just feel like they hate me.” Okay. Then your partner feels like you hate them. Whatever the experience you are having, you can nearly count on it that your partner is having that experience too. You’re frustrated. They’re extremely frustrated. And you can use those feelings to almost magic like, “Okay, this is what I’m feeling. That means my partner’s feeling that way too.” And I mean oftentimes we have little self-elimination. In the beginning it’s like, “Well, why would they be feeling that I’m giving so much. I’m the one who’s giving. And I’ve just married a selfish person, right?” I’ve just married a selfish frog. And that is the hallmark. If you say, my partner is just selfish. You are definitely in the power struggle. If sex is shut down, you are definitely in the power struggle. And there’s a way out though, right? There’s a way to give to each other so that you think, “Okay, what would I want?” This is another way to use the mirror. “What would make me feel better?” You know, it would make me feel better if my partner initiated sex in bed with me. Okay. So, initiate time with them. Say, you know what, this is what you want. I’ll give you that. You know, I was talking to a friend last night, a brother of one of my best girlfriends. And he was saying, “I know what I should say.” And I’m like, “Why didn’t you say that?” He’s like, “I almost felt like God was speaking to me to tell me to say it, but you know what? I didn’t say it.” I’m like, “You know, you had the magic right there. You knew that giving her that would change everything. That she would feel better.” And you know, he had called sort of complaining about how withholding she was. You know, and I talked to him about this mirror experience. Look at how you’ve withheld. And you only see her as withholding.

Tony Delmedico: Very well said. So, I’m thinking about this whole idea of when it changed and how it changed for us. And I think as we’ve talked about it again, we’re advocating for couples to talk about how it is changing. How it has changed. Whether the just becoming a mother and a father has changed the dynamic between you sexually. I’m thinking about middle of life changes both for men and women. Those times are often ripe for things changing. When these children that you’ve had begun to launch and leave home is another very ripe time for things to feel like they are changing dramatically. And oftentimes it’s a confrontation with yourself and your partner in terms of, you know, how is our relationship shifting and changing now and how can we remain connected intimately?

Laurie Watson: And there’s developmental changes that happen to all of us in long term partnership. And then there’s internal changes that happen psychologically as we try to develop this intimate sexual relationship for the long haul. Both of those are pressures that impact sex. I would say, I guess as I think about the sexual pursuer, the person who wants more excitement in bed. One of the tips that I would give them is to say, you know what? Tell your partner you had a great time. They were sexy. And then zip it. Just get out of bed and don’t say anything more. You know, don’t ask even how we can make it better next time. Even though you think that’s a good question. Just zip it. And appreciate.

Tony Delmedico: Just put the cherry on top and walk away. Well, my tip, Laurie, for when it changed, is just remember that this is all, as we’ve talked about it all very normal and natural and developmental and because it’s coming out of our fairy tale culture has been happening since the dawn of creation. So, we’re living through this. It is going to change. It has changed from the dawn of our consciousness. And we’re a part of that as well. And just knowing that may make some of the take some of the pressure off.

Laurie Watson: And change can make it more real and more intimate.

Tony Delmedico: Well, thank you for joining us for this episode on Foreplay Radio, Sex Therapy. I’m psychotherapist, Tony Delmedico.

Laurie Watson: And I’m sex therapist Laurie Watson.

Tony Delmedico: We’ll see you next time for some more Foreplay.

Laurie Watson: Hey, help us stay on top here at Foreplay. We’d love it if you would subscribe and share it with your friends. And please take one sec and rate and review us. Thanks so much.