How important is great sex for a good relationship?
Does a relationship need great sex to survive, or are those who have an amazing continuing connection just really lucky?
Published 31/07/2014 | 00:00
In Ireland, where a traditional courtship often kicks off with a sloppy post-pub fumble, it can take a new couple a few weeks to really hit their sexual stride.
And, when a friend of yours emerges from the initial haze of a brand-new romance, chances are they're dazed, delighted and a bit bedraggled. Great sex isn't just the sweet amber nectar of life; it's often the glue that holds the entire show together. But what if that sweet amber nectar isn't even there to begin with? In a world where the premium on sizzling sexual chemistry is raising by the day, is a relationship without it ultimately doomed from the outset?
Blame Fifty Shades Of Grey all you want, but a merely functional sex life no longer passes muster. To feel like we're getting any bang for our buck in a relationship, many of us feel that mind-blowing sex is the bedrock of any relationship that will go the distance. A recent MSN study found that 26pc of men believe that good sex is vital for a relationship to succeed. New research conducted by Irish Tatler revealed, meanwhile, that 60pc of women don't think it's possible to maintain a happy and healthy relationship without good sex.
Often, it's only afterwards that the sad, sorry truth about a couple's below-par bedroom antics emerges. When he divorced Katy Perry, self-confessed sex addict (and nobody's idea of a gentleman) Russell Brand took to the Soho Theatre stage to throw a rather ungallant dig at his wife: "When you're a monk, you're not allowed to have sex with anyone," he said. "When you're married, it's one person. That's one more than a monk. It's not that different. I'd be having sex thinking, 'think of anyone, anyone else.'" Now, it's natural for the sands of time to wreak havoc on a married couple's sex life… but the pair had been married for 20 months.
"The start of the sexual relationship, when everything is going well, is often termed the honeymoon period," explains sex therapist Teresa Bergin (www.sextherapy.ie). "When this 'phase' is over, couples occasionally run into sexual difficulty. The passion that was there at the beginning is not so fiery, due in part to other aspects of the relationship becoming somewhat more important. They may begin to realise that there is a baseline difference in their sexual appetite with one desiring sex more frequently than the other, or that they have slightly different tastes. One might want to experiment more and the other is happy to keep things the way it's always been.
"Rows about sex can develop and the couple blame each other for the stagnancy," she adds. "If this continues they can become bitter and disillusioned and often one or both starts to avoid sex entirely because of the negative feelings it can provoke. It's at this point that a couple may need professional help to move forward."
But what constitutes a lack of sexual compatibility? Is it differing sex drives, or a lack of imagination? A scant regard for foreplay? First things first: there's rarely such a thing as being categorically 'bad' at sex. Contrary to popular belief, sexual prowess doesn't depend so much on experience and technique as connectivity and chemistry. Being a great lover not something one necessarily gets better at with experience. Everyone has been to bed with someone who has an arsenal of skills and moves that they deploy with the flourish of a kids' party magician. On paper, they're doing all the right stuff - but often it's embarrassing and humorous in equal measure. That thing your mother said about every jar having a lid? Well… that.
"Sex is a form of self-expression and communication so being 'good in bed' is not about a set of skills but more about a way of being," reveals Bergin. "Taking responsibility for your own pleasure and for what goes on for you, both physically and psychologically, is key in this. Of course to feel comfortable sexually, you need to be comfortable with yourself and education too plays a part. If most of your learning about sex comes from TV, film or pornography you may be over focused on the idea of technique being important."
Fiona Daly, a tantric specialist and psychotherapist who treats couples and individuals (www.fionadaly.com), offers another explanation as to why a sexual mismatch rears its head as a relationship progresses: "Sometimes the sex is great until the actual commitment starts," she notes. "This has partly to do with the idea that nice people don't have sex. There's a whole subtext as to what 'good' or 'nice' people do in bed. Somewhere deep inside, your subconscious may be going, 'nice people don't have dirty, wild sex. They have parental sex'."
Adding insult to injury, there also lingers the hangover of ghosts of relationships past, where the sex was invariably intoxicating. "Most people have had those relationships in their formative years, full of exciting and dangerous sex. You then pick a partner with an entirely different quality, like having what might make him a good parent. It can affect the way you see your current sex life."
Yet in keeping with the theory that sex is ostensibly a barometer of what's happening in the relationship at large, psychotherapist Trish Murphy (www.trishmurphy-psychotherapy.com) asserts that a lack of compatibility early on can't be overlooked.
"I'd be cautious about a lack of chemistry at an early stage of a relationship, to be honest," she says. "People might just think, 'it will come about at some stage', but that's not very realistic. Maybe companionship is more important to some people, and that's fine. And you can grow to love someone and have a satisfactory sex life… but there's no real substitute for that feeling early on, 'I can't wait to get my hands on you'."
But what of the idea that sexual chemistry - that marvellous, unknowable special spice - cannot effectively be concocted out of thin air?
"My instinct is, don't give up until you've overturned every stone to create that connection," says Daly. "Over time, there will be such a sense of loss around that, and it will come up at some point if you decide to overlook it. There will eventually be a feeling, 'the best years are behind me, and I didn't have the best sex during them'. Why would you not make the effort to find the full pleasure of being in a relationship?"
Adds Bergin: 'Some may find that instead of the fireworks that happen for some people, they experience a slow steady development of their sexual relationship, learning together as they go along. If, however, there is no physical attraction from the start or one partner has little sexual desire for the other, it can be difficult if not impossible for a sexual relationship to get off the ground - the sexual attraction trigger is essential."
Yet as Russell Brand demonstrates, the 'bad sex' conversation is one that precisely no one wants to have at the time. The great paradox is this: sex is a divine form of communication for a couple, but the whys and wherefores - especially when things go wrong - is taboo in any relationship.
"Over time the relationship develops - trust grows, friendship develops and they form a bond," explains Bergin. "In these circumstances the couple can allow themselves to become vulnerable with each other and begin to be truly intimate. In order for intimacy to really flourish, there needs to be communication. At the start, because of the strong chemistry, communication might not be as important or indeed necessary but later on it becomes crucial. Communication is the key to getting what you need sexually, or indeed what you don't want. It's essential for negotiating the sexual relationship.
"Talking about sex can feel very risky indeed," she adds. "We can feel awkward and embarrassed and not have the right words to communicate our thoughts about it, we are also wary of hurting the other person."
"Couples often wait until they hit a crisis before they ask for help, but once they do, they realise that talking about it is an act intimacy in itself," adds Murphy.
"If you're worried about bringing up such a sensitive topic, remember that they're an adult, too. You have to find a way of bringing it up. Sure you may break up over it, but there's a possibility that things will get better too. Some relationships are worth taking the risk over."