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How to handle conflict around sex

19 November 2014, 11:02

If you’ve ever been in a sexual relationship, you’ve probably experienced conflict around sex at some point or another.

Sexual needs may change

It’s very common for couples to experience sexual tension, which can become an all-consuming problem that filters into all other areas of a relationship. Suddenly, it’s not merely the sex that’s a problem, but the relationship as a whole.  

Sexual conflict can result from various factors. Some couples may, for example, experience conflict around the frequency of sex. Sexual needs may change after the birth of a child or one partner may simply prefer to have more sexual action than the other. 

This can create tension which can, in most cases, be resolved. 

Others may experience a more intense issue, such as the pushing of sexual boundaries. For instance, the partners may have different ideas of what might be sexually acceptable. In an extreme situation, where one party would like to enter into an open relationship and the other party isn’t open to the suggestion, for example, the issue may create intense, unresolvable conflict.

To resolve sexual conflict effectively, the specific issue that causes the problem must always be addressed. The good news is that open communication about intimacy can improve your relationship and take it to an exciting, new, level of mutual respect. 

Let’s talk about sex

In a healthy relationship, sex should be a loving and caring act that binds partners together. It shouldn’t destroy the relationship. As soon as sex starts to destroy a relationship, communication is needed to discuss what’s creating the stress.

In all situations, sexual dynamics and issues should be openly discussed within the relationship. The less tension or discomfort there is around sex, the smaller the chance that sexual tension will arise.

For many people, sex can be one of the most uncomfortable subjects to discuss. It’s important to be understanding and non-judgmental about what your partner wants and expects. Prepare yourself to listen with compassion and to be understanding.

Communication should be the start of resolving sexual problems, but it should be balanced with attempting to remain intimate. 

This balancing act is important, as sexual dilemmas can sometimes be over-discussed. In fact, it can create such awkwardness that it becomes an obstacle to couples wanting to have sex again or being intimate with each other.

Difficult issues

Unfortunately, some issues can be very difficult to resolve and intense sexual tension may result in a separation. Examples of typical issues include:

Struggling with a sexless marriage
Having different views on sexual practices such as opening up the relationship to a third party, swinging or having group sex
Having different views on entering into a sadomasochistic relationship
In these situations, it’s important for communication to include the moral position of both individuals, as these sexual activities or non-activities may be closely linked to the individuals’ morals and belief systems, which should be respected.

To challenge a partner’s moral stance often leads to the realisation that the two individuals aren’t well suited and that they don’t have the same ideas regarding relationships or how to live their lives.

In attempting to resolve this kind of conflict, it’s important to try to see things from your partner’s perspective. Try and understand your partner’s needs and wishes while staying in touch with your own moral position.  

Strategies for dealing with conflict

Are you experiencing sexual conflict in your relationship? 

Consider these conflict-resolution strategies from The Magic of Conflict by Thomas F. Crum (Touchstone):

1. Avoiding. You can decide to avoid the conflict and try to see if the sexual problem is resolved without giving it much attention. This can be effective when the issue is relatively unimportant and where the risk of surfacing it outweighs the benefit of resolving it. This strategy can only be used when sexual conflict is a minor issue – for example, where a partner feels tired for a week or so and doesn’t have the energy to have sex. In other words, it’s not necessary to enter into a conflict situation about a temporary issue that will resolve itself. Here avoidance is a good option.  

2. Accommodating. You can choose to be accommodating if you feel you can live with your partner’s sexual needs. For example, if your partner has a higher libido, and would like to be intimate three or four times a week, while you prefer to be intimate twice a week, you can evaluate if you can live with his or her need for sex, and accommodate it. Being accommodating can be useful when the issue is far more important to your partner than to you. However it isn’t appropriate when your input and/or commitment is required and you can’t give it.

3. Forcing. Forcing your view can be a good strategy when quick, decisive action is called for. Alternatively, you may have to implement an unpopular decision, but only if commitment isn’t needed. For instance, when you feel strongly about a sexual issue, e.g. not entering into a certain sexual act that you’re uncomfortable with, forcing your view would be a good strategy to resolve the conflict.

4. Compromising. This makes both parties feel that their needs are met, which is important in terms of maintaining a healthy relationship. With compromising comes effective communication, where you and your partner talk about your sexual relationship and find a compromise on your sexual differences, opinions and thoughts. Although giving everyone some of what they want isn’t likely to lead to a satisfactory outcome, compromising can work when the goals are mutually exclusive, e.g. remaining in the relationship and having a healthy sexual relationship.  

5. Collaborating. When it comes to really sorting out sexual problems in a relationship, collaboration is very important. Don’t just sweep sexual issues and your feelings under the rug – be open and honest about how you feel. When time isn’t an issue and the relationship is important to you, collaborating is a good idea – working through difficult feelings and different perspectives can lead to a much better solution and a stronger commitment to that solution.

Get help

If your relationship is in sexual trouble, it’s best to see a therapist specialising in couples therapy and sexual functioning sooner rather than later. The therapist can facilitate the communication process.  Sources used:

Crum, T.F. (1998). The Magic of Conflict. New York: Touchstone.

Psychotherapist Dr Tanya Marie Robinson. B.A. (SW) (US) (Cum Laude), M.S.D. (UP) (Cum Laude), N.E.C. (UNISA), A.H.S. (UNISA), D.Phil. (US), Ph.D. (NWU) (Pr.0154326).

- Health24

- Health24

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