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How do you promote greater intimacy?

Bedroom power struggles can extinguish the flame, says our sex and relationships expert Esther Perel. So how can we promote intimacy instead of destroying it?

My client Lisa, who is sitting in my therapy session, stony-faced, along with her husband Philip, begins by saying they had the worst fight last weekend, nastier than usual, she says. Philip agrees.  ‘Yes, three days in a row I initiated sex and each time she rebuffed me. I can’t take it any more,’ he says. It’s been years of rejection, he continues, and he feels hurt and angry. And what hurts him most is the total lack of interest from Lisa. According to Philip, she has never in the last two years responded sexually to his advances. He feels undesired, misses the erotic connection, and feels that she controls the sexual switchboard.

He is so frustrated that he sits in our session, pouring out an endless litany of complaints that certainly doesn’t make things any better. Lisa’s face simply tightens as he starts spitting out statistics. ‘I would be able to tolerate 25 per cent of rejection, even 50 per cent, but not 100 cent. I feel like a dog waiting at the table for a bone, then she says “I gave you one yesterday”. Even when we have a great day, it makes no difference in bed,’ he says, angrily. 

But instead of empathy for her husband, all Lisa feels is pressure. I dig a little deeper. At this point, this sexual stalemate seems to be less about sex, and more about the fact that Philip has lost his ability to have a say in matters. He feels like he has no control over his sex life. However, Lisa argues that when she tries to connect, she is always on guard, wondering when she’ll step on the minefield. ‘I’m always trying to avoid the trigger point where he’ll feel rejected again,’ she tells me. ‘It is always too little, too late. I am always accused of something.’ Philip’s outbursts occur mostly when she approaches him sexually. Ironically, she, too, sees herself as having no control. ‘I feel like I’m constantly stepping into traps, that no matter what I do or say, it’s wrong. I’ll make an effort but then he somehow feels rejected again,’ says Lisa.

She confesses that to initiate sex, she has to turn herself on alone first, independently of Philip. She does not respond to external stimulations. As many men do, he sees all this as a power manoeuvre, in which sex is all on her terms. While he sees her attitude as a way to control him, she claims it is a way to get some control back. In everything else outside of their sex life, Philip is the ‘master’. He is 10 years older than Lisa, knows best, and micro-manages his wife, wanting her to do things his way.  She describes herself as a Stepford Wife. He always needs to initiate sex, and her passive response is important to him. His motto is along the lines of: ‘I act, you react.’

Breaking the stalemate

I point out that the situation appears to be that both of them end up feeling that it’s the other one who is in control. Lisa is on the look-out for Philip’s explosions, while he is looking out for her rejection. I tell them that Lisa’s description of herself as a Stepford Wife may have something to do with their control struggle in bed. Maybe for her, this is less about being in control than about getting some control back.

To break the stalemate, I suggest that Philip takes one month to focus solely on himself, to take control in his own life and make a major change. He’s decided to take up yoga, to stop smoking, to go back to swimming, and not to eat red meat. The goal is to recapture a feeling of personal energy, a sense of control and to take Lisa out of the picture for a while. There will be no sex, no talking about the lack of sex, and no begging from Lisa.

In our next session, Philip reports that he feels like he is getting his dignity back, even while he does not have sex, but he is able to stop the negative spiral. Most importantly, he is the one saying no. For Philip, waiting for the other person to make the first move is very uncomfortable – in all areas of his life. He says it makes him feel young, vulnerable and unmanly. From his childhood patterns, he has learned that if he does not take charge, he won’t get anything, that if he doesn’t throw himself at the thing, he’ll be left with nothing at all. And this belief is now at the centre of his sex life with his wife. Philip needs to do his part, but Lisa’s role is to make sure that he does not wait in vain. If Philip stops controlling Lisa for sex, then she will not need the power of refusal to establish her sense of control in their relationship and they should find they set up a new dynamic in their relationship and in the bedroom.

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Photo: Christopher Lane

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