If you are in a relationship and struggle to be on the same page with your partner regarding the sexual aspects of your relationship, allow me to introduce you to the man who is going to help you develop a mutually satisfying and pleasurable sexual relationship. His name is Barry McCarthy, and he has written and collaborated on some of my favorite books on improving sexual functioning and healthy sex and desire in long-term relationships. I just attended a training with him recently, and I am jazzed about some of the concepts he discussed. We often get lost in a world of unrealistic expectations and unhealthy messages about sex and sexuality that derail us and take the enjoyment and pleasure out of sex.
I like McCarthy’s work because he talks about REAL sex in REAL relationships. When we hold unrealistically high expectations of what sex is supposed to look like, we are often disappointed by what it actually turns out to be in our daily lives. Think of the movie or television show with the hottest most titillating sex scene you have ever seen, and compare that to what sex in your relationship looks like. If they are similar, then you are extremely lucky and definitely in the minority. Sex is often amazing in the first six months to two years of a relationship, a period known as the limerence or “honeymoon” phase. But inevitably, as people get to know their partners in a much deeper and more intimate way, the novelty, spontaneity, excitement, and passion of sex tends to fade. When people are not mentally prepared for this, they may assume there is something wrong with their partner, themselves, or the relationship. The fact is that only about 15% of the total of our sexual encounters with our long-term partner will we consider to be great sex. 15% will be sexual encounters that are truly not good or perhaps dysfunctional, and the remaining 70% will be good/fine/mediocre. (This is the anti-perfectionistic “85%” rule: expect and accept that 15% of your sexual encounters will not be great or even good. That is normal and acceptable).
Mediocre sex? Sign me up! But really, the regular frequency “maintenance” sex that does not blow your mind but allows you to connect with your partner in an intimate way is what actually opens up the opportunity to have those few and special amazing sexual encounters. McCarthy developed the Good Enough Sex (GES) Model to outline factors that are necessary for healthy and pleasurable sexual encounters in real relationships. It is important to view GES not as resigning yourself to a lifetime of mediocre sex, but rather to understand how sex works in long-term relationships and work to establish a couple sexual style that will allow you to maintain a healthy sexual connection throughout your years together. (For more information on couple sexual styles see Developing Your Couple Sexual Style (2009) by McCarthy and his wife, Emily.)
There are a number of important dimensions of McCarthy’s Good Enough Sex (GES) Model that are helpful to understand (My commentary is in italics):
- Sex is a positive dimension in life, an invaluable part of individual and couple desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction.
- Relationship and sexual satisfaction are the ultimate focus and are essentially intertwined. You are an “intimate sexual team.”
- Realistic psychological, biological, and relational expectations are essential for sexual satisfaction.
- Good physical health and healthy behavioral habits are vital for sexual health. Value your sexual body and your partner’s sexual body.
- Relaxation (psychological and physical) is the foundation for sexual pleasure and response.
- Desire and satisfaction are more important than arousal and orgasm.
- Valuing variable, sexual couple sexual experiences (the “85% Approach”) and abandoning the “need” for perfect individual sex performance inoculates you against sexual dysfunction by reducing performance pressure, fear of failure, and partner rejection. (We need to make room for acceptance of sexual encounters we wish would have gone differently.)
- The five purposes for sex (pleasure, intimacy, tension-reduction, self-esteem, reproduction) are integrated into your sexual relationship.
- Integrate and flexibly use the three sexual arousal styles (partner interaction, self-entrancement (one partner pleasuring the other), and role enactment (arousal focuses on role play, fantasy, variety, and experimentation)).
- Gender differences (if present) are respectfully valued and similarities are mutually accepted.
- Sex is integrated into real life and real life is integrated into sex (Sex is occurring in a healthy sexual relationship throughout the day, not just confined to the bedroom, from a goodbye kiss in the morning that lasts a little longer than expected, to a erotic text message while at work, to a gentle squeeze of the behind when your partner is chopping cauliflower. All these small actions fuel desire and positive anticipation of the sexual encounter to come). Sexuality is developing, evolving, and growing throughout your life. You can be sexual in your 60s, 70s, and 80s.
- Sexuality is personalized: Sex can be playful, energizing, spiritual and special.
Resource: McCarthy, B. & Metz, M. (2008). Men’s Sexual Health
If you like what you are hearing, I highly recommend you check out some of Barry McCarthy’s books. He has some written for specific sexual concerns, and some for general overall sexual wellness. If you have any questions or concerns about how to integrate some of these concepts into your own sexual relationship, Carolina Sexual Wellness Center may be able to help. Feel free to reach out and connect with us.