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How Much Is Enough?

Negotiating the difference in your sex drives

How much is enough sex?

The answer is different for every individual, so it's no wonder that nearly every two people find they have some difference of opinion when it comes to the frequency of intercourse.

Of all the areas of tension in marital sexuality, this difference in desired frequency is the most troublesome. It's simply not an easily compromised issue.

One reason for the tension is that sex is exclusive and mutual. Sexual frequency is a two-person decision. Usually men have the higher libidinous drive (because of the colossal impact of testosterone), but certainly not always. Whichever spouse has the higher desire feels the most frustration. And the difference is not something that could be anticipated from your dating days. In the excitement and romance of courtship, both partners show an intense need for physical affection. Both partners seem motivated to express their love sexually, whether or not they waited for marriage for intercourse.

Another reason for tension is that our sense of adequacy is connected with sexual performance. When a wife turns down a husband, for whatever reason, the husband tends to interpret her refusal as a rejection of his manhood. When a husband pushes for more frequent sex, a wife might wonder what's wrong with her femininity if she doesn't desire intercourse. The frequency question gets loaded. It's no longer just a matter of negotiating a satisfactory compromise because each partner's self-acceptance hangs in the balance.

Finally, tensions creep in because there are so many symbolic messages included in the sex relationship. Marital sex can hardly avoid being an expression of emotions such as anger, guilt, fear, shame, jealousy, desire for control.

Anger can often affect a woman's responsivity more intensely than it does a man's. Perhaps this phenomenon stems from the physical expression of intercourse: a woman must open herself to being penetrated. That requires a willing vulnerability—hard to achieve when she feels angry or hurt. For a man, sexual activity could be an aggressive (even angry) act or can simply override the emotion of conflict. In other words, a husband can pursue sexual intimacy even if the couple has recently been fighting.

Guilt also gets in the way of frequency. For instance, guilt over premarital sex may create barriers to enjoyment later on. Any perceived sexual sin could cause a person to feel unworthy of sexual pleasure. Fortunately, confession and forgiveness bring cleansing from real guilt. And false guilt, like the shame a person who has been abused may feel, can be identified and overcome, usually with counseling.

Sometimes frequency of intercourse can be inhibited by fear, which is experienced by both men and women. Fears can stem from early sexual abuse, performance failure, or even the possibility of pregnancy.

Sometimes shame, a feeling created by disapproval and humiliation, enters the picture. Some people feel shame associated with nakedness, whether from their family of origin or from some thoughtless ridicule within the marriage. Revealing yourself totally always carries a risk of embarrassment or rejection.

Jealousy is a potent disrupter of sexual balance as well. Since marriage begins with a vow of exclusivity, it's crucial for spouses to express any hint of jealousy. Often the spouse is unaware of actions or attitudes that create the jealous feelings. Remind each other of your vows by confessing your feelings of jealousy (without blaming statements like, "You're giving her too much attention. Stop it or else!").

So how much sex is enough sex? The answer lies between the two of you, exclusively and mutually. There is no outside standard. If you're struggling with the differences in your sex drive, you'll have to keep working together toward sexual oneness. Discuss these barriers to desire to make sure these issues aren't skewing your experience of enjoyment together. Sexual oneness is a process—and one that can bring satisfaction on every level of your marriage.

Real Sex columnists Melissa and Louis McBurney, M.D., were marriage therapists and co-founders of Marble Retreat in Marble, Colorado, where they counselled clergy couples. Louis McBurney passed away January 20, 2009.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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