Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Affection In Marriage Demands The Right Touch

March 15, 1999

How important is the physical expression of affection in marriage?
To me it is a vital 10 percent. It isn't nearly as glamorous, seductive, or powerful as our sex-obsessed culture tells us. It's important but not that important. There are many things that go into a successful marriage: friendship, companionship, sacrifice, deep understanding, cooperation, common goals and values, commitment, and spiritual unity. Without these things, the physical aspects of a relationship are relatively shallow and meaningless.

You say a vital ten percent. What do you mean by "vital"?
Love-making is a powerful symbol of love and trust. The couple gives to one another in the most intimate way. This is their private world. This is a way to give one another pleasure they can get from no other source. Without the regular closeness of physical intimacy and touch, there is the likelihood for dissatisfaction, hurt, rejection and loss.

Occasionally I've seen couples in a counseling setting who have mutually agreed that physical intimacy isn't important in their relationship. If it isn't an issue for them, it isn't an issue. They are making do with the other 90 percent, which can be wonderful in it's own right. More likely though, one partner is concerned or upset by the lack of intimacy in their relationship.

I suppose the next question ought to be, what do you mean "regular"?
Without being doctrinaire, I've found that most men and women are quite content with love-making on a once to two times a week basis. National surveys suggest that, on average, that is what happens between married couples. Men may fantasize and talk like it could or should be more, but when asked the question in therapy, their expectations are remarkably similar to their wives' expectations.

"On average" doesn't mean a programmed schedule, but over time it works out to a predictable frequency. Relationships get in trouble when too much time passes between this vital connection. Anything over a month to six weeks between love-making has the potential for harming the relationship. If a couple goes longer than two or three months without intimacy, it creates distance between them.

Why does this happen? Why does sex drop out of their relationship?
Love-making is a sensitive barometer of other problems in their relationship. Emotionally, it is difficult to be vulnerable, open and giving sexually when there are unresolved problems. Other things have to be right for physical intimacy to be natural. Anger gets in the way when there hasn't been a reconciliation or forgiveness.

Oftentimes the way to restore intimacy is by working hard to resolve hurts and problems. Couples need to get along, give acceptance, accommodate one another, be friendly, love each other freely and nourish their marriage. If feelings are positive, loving and supportive, a willingness to be physically close to each other is created.

Can the fight be about sex, pure and simple?
It can be. Typically, but not always, it is husbands who are more sexually motivated and make overtures that are perceived as inappropriate in terms of mood, timing and privacy. They are "all hands." "Innocent" touch becomes progressively more sexual and demanding.

Right or wrong, his partner perceives the goal to be full blown love-making. To short circuit the process, she adopts a chilly, cold reaction to his touch. He interprets this as rejection and is offended by her lack of warmth and receptivity. In bed and at other times, she would welcome some nonsexual holding and cuddling, but believing that it can't be left at that, she pulls away.

This battle isn't about love-making - it is about poor communication and lack of restraint. I recommend that couples practice non-sexual touch to get close so that touching doesn’t mushroom into conflict about sex.

In the scenario you just described, what is the answer to break up this cycle?
Less is more. Keep physical affection clearly non-sexual. If it has a sexual tinge to it, be certain that it isn't progressive. Have clear boundaries and read each others' signals well. Men need to learn to set the stage for infrequent, but meaningful, mutually rewarding love-making. This means paying attention to mood, unresolved conflict, fatigue, and privacy concerns.

No means "not now." It doesn't mean rejection. Also, women who feel rejected in their overtures to love-making feel equally hurt, upset and angry.

It may be a cliche, but husbands need to understand that women aren't as direct "wired' for sexual arousal as men. Emotional and physical foreplay are essential. And other aspects of the relationship are important. Feeling loved, cared for, appreciated, respected, listened to, understood, of being taken seriously - all these things matter. An occasional romantic surprise can be special.

What are the most frequent complaints men have?
They would like their wives to periodically take the initiative in love-making. It means something to the male psyche to be sought after and desired. If a wife would do this a fifth or sixth of the time, it would seem like 50 percent to her husband.

A second complaint has to do with the range of sexual expression. The bottom line is the relationships has to be mutually pleasureable. Some behaviors can't be negotiated. Some can. That is just the way it is. Open, sensitive discussion will clear up any misunderstandings.