I hear the same complaint over and over again from clients: "Why doesn't my wife want to have sex with me?" Or: "We're just not on the same page sexually."
Rebecca, a willowy blonde dressed in casual jeans and a stylish blouse, has been married to Ethan for over seven years and they have a beautiful two-year old daughter. While they are a relatively happy and successful couple, they seem to be locked into a power struggle between Rebecca's need for emotional connection and Ethan's need for space. Early on in their marriage, they both report being somewhat compatible but over the last several years, they are drifting further and further apart in their needs for emotional connection and sexual intimacy.
Ethan, a self-employed contractor, works hard all day and desires more sexual contact than Rebecca is comfortable with. As he describes his frustration with his wife's lack of libido, tears well up in Rebecca's eyes and she defends her lack of sexual desire. With intensity in her voice, she says "We just never have time to connect anymore and I don't feel sexy after working all day, changing diapers, and running errands. Ethan just wants to jump right into having sex without caring about my need to talk and spend time together."
Rebecca and Ethan's struggle is not uncommon for many hard-working couples who are balancing jobs, parenthood, and intimacy. "Most sexual concerns stem from an interpersonal struggle in the marriage," writes sex therapist Laurie J. Watson, author of "Wanting Sex Again: How to Rediscover Your Desire And Heal a Sexless Marriage." She describes the tug-of-war between being too close and too distant from a partner as a repetitive pattern of one person being the pursuer and another being a distancer.
Like many couples, Rebecca and Ethan had reached an emotional gridlock. Neither one of them can validate and accept each other's needs. In his landmark book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch, Ph.D. refers to this pattern as "holding onto oneself." This term describes the instinctual reactions that kick in when individuals frantically seek their own interests without considering the feelings and interests of their mates.
According to Laurie Watson, "With or without children, all couples need autonomy and closeness." She explains that two distinct partners emerge in an intimate relationship. She writes, "One spouse becomes the "pursuer" favoring closeness, and the other becomes a "distancer," favoring more separateness." It's not uncommon for the person who is an emotional distancer to crave more sex and vice versa. For instance, some couples swap roles over a particular issue - such as a woman who wants to be closer emotionally to her husband may not be interested in sex.
The irony of the pursuer-distancer pattern of sexual intimacy in a relationship is that when couples try to talk things out, it can actually make things worse. For instance, pursuers have a tendency to evaluate and criticize their partners - making them even more likely to distance themselves. Likewise, distancers may feel the pressure of their partner's preoccupation with having sex - intensifying the power struggle that exists. For example, Ethan admits to making biting comments to Rebecca when she shuts down sexually - causing her to go further into her shell.
Commonly, one partner gets tired of pursuing and the other grows weary or gets angry about what they perceive as constant nagging. I've seen this pattern over and over again in the couples I've interviewed for my research. To complicate matters, it's natural for one person to see their style as preferred and to be convinced that their partner needs to change - neglecting to see their part in the tug-of-war over intimacy.
Why is the pursuer- distancer pattern so common and destructive to relationships? Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington and The Gottman Institute, a renowned observer of couple dynamics, believes that the tendency of men to withdraw emotionally and women to pursue is wired into our physiology and reflects a gender difference. Gottman cautions us that if this pattern isn't nipped in the bud early on, it can persist for decades and lead to divorce.
It makes sense that the power struggle for emotional intimacy often plays itself out in the bedroom. Another couple from my practice, Tara and Justin, have become polarized because their struggle for emotional and sexual intimacy has become highly destructive - each partner provoking and maintaining the behavior in the other. As Justin withdraws, it raises Tara's anxiety so she responds by stepping up her pursuing behaviors.
What does it mean when your partner seems distant in bed and disinterested in sex? While distance may signify a red flag, it doesn't have to mean that your relationship is on the rocks, notes Harriet Learner, Ph.D., in her popular book Marriage Rules. She writes, "Your partner's aloofness may simply be her way of trying to get through a difficult time." It's important for the person who is pursuing to remain calm and not jump to conclusions. Just because your sexual relationship is going through a dry spell, it doesn't have to mean you are headed to divorce court.
Smart Ways to Break the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern (emotionally or sexually):
• Get in touch with the ways you might be denying your partner or coming on too strong sexually.
• Strike a balance between separateness and togetherness. Avoid criticizing each other and make peace by stopping the blame game.
• Keep in mind that it's the pattern not the person that's the problem so find ways to connect with your partner and to be more accepting. Understand that sexual desires ebb and flow.
• Distancers need to practice initiating sex more often and try carving time out for emotional intimacy and romance.
• Pursuers need to find ways to tell their partner "You're sexy" but avoid a critique after sex.
• If you or your partner feels flooded, walk away but not in anger or blame. Disengage as a way to restore your composure not to punish your partner.