My husband and I just drove in from vacation and the packing, driving, regulating the kids, and looking forward to school starting and getting back into work has us both stressed and overwhelmed.
I have noticed that we cope very differently. I take on the role of “push through the stress, get what needs to be done…done, and we will relax and connect after we are a little more settled”, and my husband takes on the role of “life is really stressful right now, I am depressed, and our emotional and physical connection is my top priority”.
In short, in times of high stress, I totally shut down in terms of sexual intimacy, and he craves the comfort and intimacy intensely. The pressure then sends me further into stress and… you get the picture.
What can we do in these circumstances? I don’t know how to change how I feel.
Even though it’s normal to have competing needs in marriage, there are moments when it feels impossible to show up for each other. When we’ve reached the end of our individual ropes, we naturally hope our partner will support us in ways that make sense to us. The irony, of course, is that our way of coping often doesn’t make sense to our partner. Let’s talk about how to get out of this dilemma.
There are several ways to approach this challenge. You could make a case for your way of handling stress and pressure your partner into doing it your way. It wouldn’t be difficult to build an army of supporters who could see your point and would argue for the virtues of your position. Of course, your husband could do the exact same thing. This would leave you both feeling vindicated and completely alone.
Another response might be to work out a compromise that would equally meet both of your needs. While I think there are times when this could be a sensible solution, I believe this is generally a terrible idea when dealing with sex and emotional intimacy. I believe there is a better way that would is more fulfilling and nurturing to your marriage.
I encourage you to ask your husband what kind of sexual experience he hopes to have with you. Does he want you to be responsive and engaged? Or does he just want to have a sexual experience regardless of your response? If he’s just interested in sex regardless of your interest, then you’ll have to check in with yourself to see if you want to participate in that activity. However, if he wants you to be engaged and responsive, then the conditions must support that kind of response.
Like a lot of men who were socialized to look no deeper than their sexual impulses, your husband may not realize that what he’s really seeking is connection and partnership with you. I’ve spoken with thousands of men over the years about these things and virtually all of them acknowledge that they crave having their wife desire them even if it doesn’t progress to sexual intimacy. Knowing that your partner wants to be close to you is powerful. In fact, it’s much more powerful than having a sexual experience with a burned-out, resentful partner.
There’s also a lot more that could be said here about mental load, emotional labor, and the differences between men and women when it comes to housework. If you’re not having this discussion and making sure the load is balanced in a way that works for both of you, then you’ll keep running into this issue even when you’re not returning from vacation. Every individual has different capacities that need to be honored and respected. We can demand that our partner match our capacity, but it will only lead to more misunderstanding and resentment.
Spend time outside of the stressful crisis moments to learn what is so stressful for each other when dealing with day-to-day family life. Share with your husband why it’s difficult for you to relax and feel interested in sex when there are demands on your physical and emotional resources. Give him a chance to explain why this need is so important to him even when you’re depleted. There are likely forces at play that neither of you think about until you’re in the moment and it feels desperate. This interaction isn’t going away without talking about it, so make sure you learn more about each other’s struggles so you can show up for each other.
Each of you must decide what you’re willing to do in these moments of stress and struggle. I don’t recommend you force yourselves to do what the other person wants without some honest conversation. There’s no correct way to respond to these situations, so taking a poll isn’t going to help either. Instead, you can focus on working as a team and find ways to both feel heard and respected as you deal with the ongoing demands of marriage and family life.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.