The media and society at large maintain the stereotype/belief that healthy couple sexuality is hot, lustful, headboard banging, lamp falling off the side table, moans of intense pleasure and the inevitable mutual orgasm. Or, sex is portrayed as a boring chore where often, the woman is shunning away her ‘sexually needy’ husband. Unfortunately, this black and white portrayal of couple sexuality maintains faulty sexual beliefs, assumptions and expectations that can at times lead to sexual difficulties and dissatisfaction amongst couples.
Ideally a couple’s sexual experience is mutual and synchronous, meaning both partners experience desire, pleasure, eroticism and satisfaction (more on this later) within the same sexual experience. When we rigidly hold onto this belief, however, and do not experience each of those components, then it may lead to feelings of disappointment and perhaps thoughts such as “I’m not a good lover”, “I failed my partner”, “why can’t I orgasm with him/her”, “we don’t have proper sex”. However, among happy sexually functioning couples, it is normal to have less than 50% of sexual experiences being equally satisfying at the same time.
For many sexually functioning couples, the majority of sexual encounters are positive yet asynchronous, meaning the sexual experience is more satisfying for one partner than the other e.g. one partner reaches orgasm but the other does not. It is important to note that asynchronous sex is still usually enjoyable for both partners when the sexual interaction is underpinned by pleasure and consent. Asynchronous sex becomes problematic when the source of a couples conflict is stuck on the idea that partners must have the same levels of sexual desire, the sexual experience must be lustful, and both must reach orgasm at the same time. When couples have the expectation that all of their sexual experiences have to follow one rigid script, they may be setting themselves up for disappointment.
One approach to shift this source of conflict is through adopting the Good Enough Sex (GES) model1. GES inherently recognises that a couple’s sexuality will always be variable and therefore partners need to be flexible in their approach to sexual experiences. The focus shifts from an “intercourse-or-nothing” perspective to a space where the couple works on building and fostering genuine pleasurable connections.
Desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction are four pillars that support the GES model.
Desire incorporates both a psychological and bio-medical aspect of sexual desire. Psychologically, desire encompasses positive anticipation of the sexual experience, a belief that you deserve sexual pleasure, choice regarding sexual practices, and the adoption of positive and realistic GES expectations about sexual function. From a bio-medical perspective, desire is facilitated through maintaining a healthy body and healthy behavioural habits (e.g. sleep, balanced eating, alcohol consumption in moderation, etc) as well as the acceptance of normal biological changes that occur as we age.
Pleasure is the receiving and giving of pleasurable touch, in whatever way this can occur. A helpful analogy is the sexual smorgasbord (see below), where each dish represents the many varied ways of being sexual and sensual. One of these dishes may include penetrative sex, however, if this dish is out or not available (e.g., perhaps due to erectile dysfunction or pain) that would not mean you do not eat from the smorgasboard, instead you could choose a different dish e.g. oral sex, mutual genital touching, massage, or bathing together, etc. While Ssome of the dishes may be more arousing than others but the GES model prioritises pleasure and satisfaction over merely being physically aroused, so long as they are pleasurable for you and the couple, you can enjoy a variety of pleasurable arousing touch.
Eroticism involves intense sexual feelings and sensations, often where each partner’s arousal may enhance the others arousal, like an erotic couple dance. Eroticism can also involve turn taking where one partner is the giver of sexual and pleasurable touch while the other acts as the receiver and at times may be further enhanced with the involvement of outside resources (e.g. erotica, pornography, or use of sexual toys, etc). The cornerstone of eroticism is being sexually vulnerable with your partner with a strong foundation of trust and consent. Please note: eroticism is not what is depicted in pornography, does not involve breaking boundaries or taking sexual risks without consent.
Satisfaction involves feeling good about yourself as a sexual person and the couple feeling energised after the sexual experience. Bonding activities such as cuddling or kissing after a sexual experience can help enhance satisfaction by strengthening the couple’s attachment and feelings of closeness. Satisfaction may include orgasm but is meant to represent something more than this alone; feeling satisfied as an individual and couple is more important than sexual function/orgasm. It is through satisfaction that desire for sexual connection is again reinforced.
The GES model starts at a place of acceptance that whilst, hopefully, most sexual experiences are positive and involve desire, pleasure, eroticism, and satisfaction, the reality for many couples is that some sexual experiences will be dissatisfying or dysfunctional. This viewpoint does not mean settling for mediocre or disappointing sex but rather, when the sexual experience has been dysfunctional/disappointing the couple turn towards one another as their intimate friend rather than blame, reject or shame.
The GES model also recognises that sexual experiences within a relationship can have multiple roles and meanings for a couple. For instance, sex when trying to conceive may have a difference experience and meaning compared to “make-up” sex, romantic sex or Sunday morning sex. A couple’s sexuality needs to hold realistic and flexible expectations about sexual function and activity across the couple’s lifespan. Sexual functioning and needs in our 20-30’s, 40-50’s and 60 onwards will evolve as with changes to work, family, or health. Unfortunately, this reality is not depicted in popular media’s portrayal of sexual relationships, which often depicts the traditional ‘perfect’ sexual performance models and as such, couples are not exposed to a GES model and how it may assist their sexual relationship.
How can you and your partner start to incorporate the GES into your relationship?
- After engaging in a sexual or sensual experience, turn towards each other and share some form of intimate touch such as cuddling or gentle kissing. Try to not avoid each other if sexual interactions have been disappointing or dysfunctional.
- If it has been some time since you have been sexual because of dysfunction (e.g., pain, issues in physical arousal or desire) set some time to talk about the sexual smorgasbord and what pleasurable, sensual, and sexual options you would like to start including again. Perhaps use this resource to explore what your sexual smorgasbord could include.
Remember, GES priorities pleasure, connection, and realistic expectations. If it has been a number of months or years since you have engaged in penetrative or oral sex then start slow with showering together, passionate kissing, or massage where there is no expectation for things to progress for now.
1McCarthy, B. W., & McCarthy, E. (2011). Discovering your couple sexual style: Sharing desire, pleasure, and satisfaction. Routledge.