You’re in the moment, things are rolling along smoothly when your partner says something along the lines of “I feel like you’re just going through the motions.” Eerrrrrh! A major desire buzz kill has just occurred. Insert awkward moment as you move away from each other, don’t discuss it further and say “Good night.”
The next day you wonder to yourself how you could be having “good sex” while your partner was not. What does this mean? Whose fault is this? Am I a bad lover? Why is my lover unsatisfied? The biggest mistake you could make in this moment is to view this as a pleasure (self-focus) issue rather than an intimacy (couple focus) issue. Let me be clear. These are not mutually exclusive but which one takes priority in your sexual life when one partner isn’t feeling it, the timing is off or for whatever reason it just doesn’t seem to be working. If you focus solely on pleasure, whether yours or your partner’s, you are missing the sexual intimacy boat.
The work here is to not get hung up on “Self” but to move the focus back to the couple relationship. Successful, sustainable partnerships can tolerate revisiting less than fulfilling sexual experiences in order to learn from them. In this case it is also about having a realistic expectation and definition of what “good sex” is but the definition of “good sex” requires communication between partners outside of the bedroom and not in the moment. These may be learned skills that your partnership doesn’t have and couples therapy can be a place to learn them.
In this particular situation the issue wasn’t about pleasure but about intimacy and the sense of connection in the moment. Realistic expectations about sex accept and even expect that a couple will have sexual encounters that are not always great sex for both but they can agree that together they will work towards having sexual encounters where intimacy is a priority. By redefining “the goal of sexuality as intimacy (a learned skill) rather than pleasure (a “natural” function), performance anxiety and fears of failure are reduced and the expectation of immediate success is diminished.” David Schnarch in Constructing the Sexual Crucible calls this The Intimacy Paradigm.
This model of sexuality with its emphasis on intimacy as the priority over pleasure is certainly different from the one our culture teaches and circulates. However, I believe that sexual pleasure rises in tandem with the increase in intimacy between partners.
If you’d like to learn more about this model of sexuality check out David Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage and Resurrecting Sex.