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Not Tonight, Dear

Jeff Belmonte, Cuiabá, Brazil (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons
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Sex, marriage, expectation, obligation and why compromise isn't always the answer.

  Expectation and Obligation: Reading the Fine Print

There are certain assumptions that tend to be made when a couple enters into a romantic relationship. Probably more so when that relationship becomes a marriage. These assumptions may vary by region, generation, culture, or upbringing, but they are there. People entering into marriage generally have certain expectations of what that will bring. This might mean an expectation of sex or combined finances, co-habitation or "traditional gender roles", or any number of other things. This is not necessarily a problem in and of itself. Where issues can arise is when a couple has different expectations for what marriage should be.

Some husbands are alarmed to find that their wives never intend to be mothers or home-makers. Some women might be disappointed to discover that married life doesn't bring an end to late nights out with "the boys" for their husbands. Is each spouse expecting their partner to change their name? How will the holidays be handled? Are they expecting or expected to adopt each other's family traditions? There may be expectations surrounding all sorts of things! Some might be easy to predict and discuss in advance, some not so much.

But expectation is only half of the equation. With expectation can come entitlement and obligation. If a person expects a certain behavior or attitude from their partner, is that partner required to conform to their ideals? Of course not! But could there be a sense of obligation -- either implicit or explicit -- tied up in all these expectations? Definitely.

"If you want him to respect your needs, then you’d better be ready to respect his in return." Yes, respect is a two way street and all that jazz. (Except when it isn't, but that's a topic for another day.) But, what about when the needs are contradictory? Whose needs win out? The implication in the article seems to be that women should plan on having unwanted sex at least occasionally because that's part of respecting his needs. I guess it's meant to work on a tit for tat system. "I let you have sex with me last week so now you have to watch this chick flick with me even though you don't want to." See? We're respecting each other's needs! We're compromising! Well, in a way, yes, but it looks a lot like replacing one form of brokeness with another.

  Alternatives and Exploration: Thinking Outside the Box

Instead of exchanging one problem for another, maybe now is the time to look ways to solve the situation. Of course expectations should be discussed in advance as much as possible, but sometimes these things can catch you by surprise. And things often change as well. Libidos decrease or increase, priorities get re-shuffled, time and finances shift and change, stress levels fluctuate... any number of influences can come along and disturb the status quo.

Let's go back, for a moment, to the example of severely mismatched libidos. I don't think that anyone should ever be obligated to have sex that they don't want. They may choose to have sex when they'd rather be doing something else, but this should never be a requirement, regardless of marital status or relationship. Having said that, if one partner decides to be chaste (or nearly so), it may not be realistic or fair to expect the other partner to follow suit. This can seem like a somewhat intractable problem: Why should a person be relegated to celibacy for the rest of their days just because their partner's sex drive dried up? Conversely, why should a person be obligated to have unwanted things done to their body just because their desires no longer line up with their partner's? Tricky.

One option is to end the relationship. If one or both partners have needs that are not being met, they may decide that the best thing is to leave the relationship and free themselves up for new partner who will be more compatible. Depending on the relationship, this might very well be the best option for all involved. It is probably one of the most common options chosen by couples with incompatible needs and desires. It is not, however, the only option. If they are in an otherwise loving and fulfilling relationship, there's no reason why all that should be thrown out the window just because they have contradictory desires in one particular area.

First of all, it's important to define the issue. If the problem is a sex drive disparity, try to work out the specifics. Does either partner think it's likely that their libido will increase or decrease in the future? Is it just penetrative sex that's off the table? What about other forms of intimacy? Maybe some discussion will reveal that there is a viable compromise here. Maybe there is a way that the more sexually active partner can have their need for intimacy met without forcing unwanted activities on the less active partner. Or maybe there aren't. Perhaps any form of physical intimacy would be too much for one or not enough for the other. This does not mean that the relationship is doomed to fail!

Probably the easiest and most accessible alternative comes in the form of masturbation. Is this sufficient? It certainly might be for some! Emotional intimacy with a partner and physical release (if not intimacy) achieved as a solo endeavor.

It may garner a raised eyebrow or strange look from outsiders, but non-monogamy could hold the key for some of these couples. Perhaps they could both find a way to have their needs met through cuckholding. Or maybe an open marriage is the answer. Perhaps polyamory would be the best fit for this particular pair. Any of these options could allow for one or both partners to have some subset of needs met outside of their relationship with each other. Whether this means forming new relationships or merely ephemeral encounters is up to those involved.

Maybe the more libidinous partner could explore the world of Internet and telephone sex if that's something both parties are comfortable with. Again, this might not be enough intimacy for some, but for others it might allow for a need to be filled and the rest of the relationship to function more smoothly. This is why it's important to define the problem and try to figure out what the parameters and requirements of the solution are.

  Conclusions and Cooldown: The Takeaway

Keep in mind that the most obvious solution may not necessarily be the right one. It may not even be a solution at all upon closer inspection! Compromise is often touted as the solution to relationship problems. And it can be... sometimes. It would probably even be fair to say that communication followed by some form of compromise is usually the best way to solve problems of disparate desires. I just feel it's important to remember that this isn't always the ideal path to take. And that "compromise" may not necessarily mean what we think it does, going in.

People are going to make their own choices. Sometimes these choices will conflict with the wants and needs of those they love. I feel that the challenge isn't necessarily to avoid doing this, but to find the best possible way to deal with it when the situation does arise. Better to move forward with compassion, consideration, and creativity than to be forever paralyzed by apprehension, expectation, and obligation.


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