A while back, a reader asked for some perspectives on her sex life with her husband. Not exactly my area of expertise, I thought, but as I read her story, I realized it wasn't sex that was the problem. Let me share her tale but preserve her privacy.
I was wondering what your opinion is on exploring sexually within marriage. I am interested in [some more adventurous practices]. However, my husband is not as open. He is indifferent and thinks, 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?' Other times, he worries that he is not enough.
We are strictly monogamous and happy that way. I am satisfied with our time in the bedroom but would like the freedom to explore further. Actually, it is much like our taste in food. He is a meat and potatoes guy, whereas I like to try new dishes.
I know that I am ultimately responsible for fulfilling my own needs and desires, but I would love for him to join me. Some activities require a partner.
In the past, we have tried discussing this in therapy, but it is simply too embarrassing and got us nowhere.
Here is my answer, which has nothing to do with my opinion of steak and potatoes or anything else. My opinion has nothing to do with them enjoying their marriage. It would serve only to make one of them more certain their side of a disagreement is the right one. And that would make it harder to find something better that they agree on. I wrote her:
Whenever you have a difference of opinion, I suggest looking for a Third Alternative.
The process for looking for one should avoid any hint that your husband is "not enough," because it's not a debate over which approach is better. It rejects the two alternatives you disagree over and looks for a third one that gives you both what you need.
And this means you need to learn what he needs. What does he see as at risk if you try something new? It seems likely something is at risk if he views it as fixing something that's not broke, which suggests you cannot easily go back to what works now if this doesn't.
What does he value about his meat and potatoes approach to sex? Don't assume you know. Ask, and ask with a desire to find a way to give him this as well as what you're looking for. Is it the near-certainty of his orgasm? His feeling of mastery or competence at something he's done many times? How easily or quickly he can bring you to orgasm?
What parts of your idea of trying something new seem at least interesting to him? What would be a good surprise for him if it turned out?
What does he fear or expect could go wrong with the sex or your relationship?
Now talk about your answers to the same questions. What parts of your current sex life do you value? What appeals to you about trying something new? What do you fear or expect could go wrong if you don't try something new?
Then write up a list of specs for a new variety of sex that would give both of you pleasure and protect both of you from what worries you. Make the specs about the two of you and your marriage, not about any particular approach.
For example, if you were doing this with your meals, I would suggest you avoid items like "must include steak" and instead include things like "should provide a strong but not spicy flavor, should take a while to chew, should cost less than $10 a pound." And then, since you're not stuck on getting these from steak, you can freely add things like "should be heart-healthy" or "should be slightly sweet."
If you find things in your list that seem to be impossible to have simultaneously, get more specific about what you mean. Is it something you want all the time or some of the time or just once? Is it something you want to give, to get, or both?
Sit with your list for a few days. Let it sink in. Decide if it's really what you both want for yourself and for your spouse. Imagine what it would feel like to get everything on the list that matters to you and still be able to give your spouse everything that matters to him or her. Talk about what you will do if it's working for one of you but not the other, to relieve any fear of the unknown.
When the list feels real, start brainstorming things that would meet all your specs. Do some research into what's available. Maybe watch videos of others having sex to see what might fit your list. Maybe pay a sex therapist to read over your list and suggest ideas. Talk about how to sequence what you will try and how often you will try it. Then take some baby steps. A day after each thing you try, check how well it matched your list of specs and each of you give it 0 to 5 stars in a private journal. Take some time to savor the ones you both enjoy, whether new ones or ones from the past.
Without sharing any of the details, I hope you will let me know if you find your Third Alternative and change things up for you without ruining them for him.
And she did, three months later:
We are in a much better place in and out of the bedroom.
I took your advice and tried to determine what I was seeking instead of insisting on how. I acknowledge the ways that he fulfills my needs, which ultimately were either being desired or intimacy, so sexual activities are not the only way. I suppose there is a third category, being curiosity, and we have been able to include some aspects just for fun.
I saw that his preferred approach ensured orgasms for both of us. You hit the nail on the head with that one. We found ways to accomplish this, while also including new methods. While we have had kinky occasions, I feel less of a desire, since I see those core needs met in so many other ways.
I think we are ever evolving, and the trick is to adapt harmoniously. I'm so very thankful that you were able to guide me through this time in our relationship. If we do find another time where something is lacking, we now have the tools to approach that in a healthier and more productive way.
Finding Third Alternatives is such a powerful approach to disagreements. It just melts away anger and frustration. If this brave couple can use it to resolve a disagreement they couldn't bear to discuss with their therapist, imagine all the ways you can use it in your marriage to stop hurting each other and start having more fun.
You get what you want (although not necessarily the first thing that came to mind) while giving your mate "the moon and the stars." And all it takes is to recognize the two options you are debating don't work for the two of you but are far from the only ways to get what you each want.
I would love to hear about any Third Alternatives you two discover. Remember, if you are reading this by email, to click through to the blog to respond.