I’ve been thinking a lot about compromise in relationships: specifically I’ve been thinking about what compromise means in the bedroom. What happens when (inevitably) one person wants sex more frequently than the other partner?
This is a topic I’ve been considering for many years. Way back in 1985, I was a 19-year old Christian college student, attending a pre-marital class put on by one of the pastor’s wives at our church. When it came to sex the group was segregated (naturally) and Marge (I swear that was her name) addressed the table of young women. “Don’t make him beg,” she said. “Make sure you take care of him."
There may have been more but that’s what stands out for me. Plenty of girls around me seemed ready to accept this advice wholesale (girls at that college accepted many things without question), but I rebelled at the idea that I should just “give in,” to keep my husband happy. What about my needs? What about my wants! It all seemed so Victorian.
After I left that college and the church I did not bother to keep these thoughts to myself. I would tell anyone, “No one should have sex when they don’t feel like it. Each person in a relationship should be responsible for getting their own needs met.” Seems reasonable, right? When your partner doesn’t feel like having sex, take care of yourself. As with so many of my opinions in those days, this was no more nuanced or thoughtful than what I thought I was rebelling against.
What neither of these viewpoints addresses is the reality that relationships require compromise. Lots and lots of compromise.
Marge espoused the view that women should “give in” to their partners time after time without getting their own needs met. (Of course in that classroom in 1985 it was assumed that women had few sexual needs). Looking back it seems completely ludicrous to believe that an intimate relationship could be sustained with only one partner getting his needs met.
On the other hand, believing that partners never have to give in to meet the other’s needs is likely to lead to a conflicted and unhappy partnership. We enter into romantic relationships hoping to get our basic needs for love, attention, affection, intimacy, and sex met some of the time. Sometimes your partner needs a hug even when you are not in the mood.
Sex in relationships is not just about physical needs, of course. It’s about intimacy. What could be more intimate than being vulnerable enough to share sexual needs with your partner? That level of intimacy takes trust and trust is built by knowing your partner will not disparage your needs, even when they can’t meet them.
In relationships you can’t keep track of who is giving more. Relationships are not 50/50. Ideally a relationship would be 100/100 with each partner giving everything they have. Sometimes you will only have 10% to give and sometimes your partner will have to give more. And vice versa. You can’t keep track. You just have to give as much as you can. This is one time when giving pays off; the more you give in a loving, intimate relationship, the more you get back.
As with all things there are huge exceptions to the “give everything you have” rule. Some of us are trained to give way more than we have in relationships. You’ve heard it before, but it’s true: you can’t take care of others when you aren’t taking care of yourself. What happens most often when we give too much is that we become resentful and expect our partner to meet needs that we should be meeting for ourselves. Take good care of yourself so you have plenty to give back.
Also, if you are in a relationship that is abusive in any sense (emotional, physical, verbal), please take stock and think what you can do now to shift yourself away from the abuse. A narcissistic, abusive partner will not meet your needs and will drain the life out of everyone around them. You cannot give your way out of abuse.
Assuming you are in a normal, crazy-making relationship, here is a challenge for: ask your partner what you can do for them. Do that thing in a loving way without asking for anything back. Repeat tomorrow. Wait for the results.