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When You Want Your Partner To Want Sex

This is a complex statement; let's look at it deeper.

Key points

  • Discerning between "wanting to" have sex and feeling you "have to" have sex is important.
  • Having a relational style of sexual arousal is more common in men than many people realize.
  • Finding your own internal motivation for sex helps you better enjoy the sex you decide to have.

Have you ever felt about sex: “I want my partner to want it. Because when they do, the sex for us both is so much better.”

As a sex therapist, this is a common sentiment in long-term, monogamous relationships and one I hear often (Note: this is different than saying, “I want my partner to want me sexually.” Another topic for another time.) There’s a lot going on in this statement and this is a short space to discuss it, so let’s get to it.

The person in a relationship who says this is generally referring to two things. The first is about motivation. "Wanting" is an internal motivation. The experience of wanting is about something pushing you from inside yourself and is pretty emotionally straightforward. Whereas “having to” do something can be about both/either internal and external motivation. “Having to” can include layered, and frequently contradictory, emotions. “Having to” is often more complicated than “wanting to”.

The second thing being addressed in this statement is the fact that the speaker’s own sexual arousal increases when they see their partner wanting and enjoying the sex they are having. Most people understand this because they too have experienced this at least once. As you see and experience your partner’s arousal, your arousal increases, too. Pretty fun, huh?

So the speaker of this statement is recognizing two things: the first is that they prefer it when their partner has their own reasons to have sex and the second is that when their partner is enjoying the sex they are having, it is generally a better experience for both.

When working with heterosexual couples and it’s the male partner who says this, I like to first point out to his female partner that what he is actually saying is that his sexual arousal and enjoyment of sex is relational and not transactional. This is in stark contrast to the stereotype about male sexuality that many people hold, that “He just wants to get laid". The assumption/stereotype is that male sexuality is one-dimensional and self-centered. When in fact, a man who has a relational style of arousal is feeling his sexiest—and his most sexually connected—when he is connected with his partner’s mind, body, and spirit.

The second thing I point out is that he understands and respects her sexual autonomy and agency. He wants her to find her own reasons to have sex with him and respects those reasons. Because he understands that piece about internal motivation—things work out better emotionally in our lives when we can find the internal motivation to pursue a goal versus having the motivation externally imposed upon us.

What this also means in heterosexual couples is that he knows and can tell when she is simply there in body only. When she is not fully invested in the sexual experience. Every male client I have ever had in this situation has said “It’s really obvious when my partner’s not into having sex but doing it anyway.” So if you are the one phoning it in I am sorry to say there is no way of hiding your disinterest.

I have seen women react to this conversation in a few ways. She might feel a sense of performance pressure, that she now has expectations placed upon her internally (by herself) and/or externally (by her partner) to act a certain way. That she cannot show up as her authentic, disinterested self. Another place I have seen female clients go is into what in religious communities (but also many secular communities) is called “duty sex”: that it is her duty as a wife/girlfriend/partner to give this or provide sex, “to meet his sexual needs.” (Doesn’t that sound like transactional sex to you?) There is almost nothing as demoralizing as sex you repeatedly feel obligated to have. Your resentment will inevitably grow and that has larger repercussions for your relationship. (Note, this is not the same as nonconsensual sex. Consent is complicated, and, while not the topic of this blog, Emily Nagoski’s work is a good starting point if you want to learn a nuanced understanding of consent.)

Finally, another place I have seen women go when this topic is discussed is that sex now becomes “one more thing you want from me.” It becomes about simultaneously the giving of self and a task to complete. So she reacts to this with, as a former client angrily said one time, “Sex is now one more GD thing I gotta do.” I answered her, “Well, no it isn’t. But it’s interesting that you’re relating to sex in this way. Let’s explore it some more.”

The first step in this situation is for partners to identify how they got here. Together, we create a narrative that respectfully takes both partners’ experiences into account. Then, both partners need to play a role in changing this dynamic. These are not quick or easy tasks and often take weeks, if not months, to sort out.

It takes conscious effort to sustain a certain zest for life in the repetitive day-to-day grind of our 21st-century lives and multiple, demanding responsibilities. It is easy to get caught up in those daily demands, go on autopilot, or shut down or numb out in order to get it all done. Yes, those ways of coping may help you get through the slog…but you lose something along the way. You lose a certain aliveness. A certain sense of pleasure, joy, and wonder. This is precisely why vacation sex for many people is better: you are not in the daily slog, your responsibilities are vastly and temporarily diminished, and you are open to new experiences and stimuli.

Back home, even when you are knee-deep in the daily grind, sex can be the place you go to feel that sense of aliveness: to be present, to be mindful, to feel your humanness, to not have to strategize or plan for what will happen next, to not have to accomplish something, or to feel deeply connected to your partner. It can be the place where you get to drop that autopilot armor and find real, in-the-moment erotic connection and spontaneity with yourself and your beloved. And I hope this gives you some internal motivation.

More from Diane Gleim LMFT, CST, CST-S
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