Talked about, joked about, the source of fascination and unease physical intimacy provokes strong reactions. Of the mind, body and spirit, loving the body is the most challenging and controversial. Occurring behind closed doors the general quality of couples’ physical love and satisfaction is difficult to ascertain. Bedroom problems are far more frequent than is generally acknowledged. Most problems, and there can be many, remain secret due to embarrassment and shame. Partners suffer in silent frustration and disappointment. When a relationship or marriage fails, a dissatisfying physical relationship is often a contributing factor, though is usually not the publicly shared cause.

     Each one of us is complicated. When two people join together in love, the complexity is more than doubled. For intimate success multiple systems all must coordinate well. The physical endocrine, circulatory, cardio and pulmonary systems join with the non-physical emotional, cognitive, relational and energetic systems. They must work together seamlessly. Considering fluctuating levels of stress, economic conditions, relationship rigors, dysfunction and the result of aging, its a wonder that satisfying experiences be achieved at all. Just being in a relationship is difficult, but when a close connection has been bruised by conflict or tension physical intimacy is quick to disappear. For some it never returns. For too many couples, what ought to be the source of pleasure and connection becomes disappointment and disconnection when couples trip over one of the myriad of obstacles that can derail a love life.

     Rarely is a person as close to another as during lovemaking. The vulnerability of closeness makes sharing physical pleasure emotionally challenging by awakening inhibitions. Feelings of shame, embarrassment as well as concerns about body worthiness block the openness and relaxation needed in pleasure. A history of strong religious impressions may produce an inner conflict between the sacred and sinfulness of pleasure and physical love. The terror of old trauma may be activated. Concerns about dysfunction and adequate performance may weigh heavily. In our busy world, many adults have long ago buried the child-like spontaneity which allows physical loving to be play-like instead of work-like. 

     What constitutes a good and satisfying experience is highly subjective; what a partner finds erotically interesting may change over time. The sources of excitement for each one of us is as unique as our fingerprints. Unresolved differences regarding the preferred path to satisfaction shows up as tension or conflict between partners. The most common difference is about the frequency with which lovemaking should occur. What starts as a minor bedroom problem will quickly infect and harm the entire relationship.

     Physical love strengthens and deepens the bond between partners, whereas an absent or troubled intimate life actively erodes the bond. A strong bond maintains and protects fidelity. What happens outside the bedroom directly impacts what happens inside the bedroom. Loving in numerous non-physical ways throughout each day keeps a relationship warm, making the jump to hot less high. Partners who share a high degree of emotional intimacy are far more likely to enjoy satisfying physical intimacy.

     Physical intimacy is not a large part of most love relationships. In terms of time spent lovemaking, it is probably less than two percent of waking hours. But it’s minor role does not represent the high significance of giving and receiving physical pleasure. Like a clock with many parts, remove a tiny gear and despite the gear’s small size the whole clock stops. Confronted with numerous potential obstacles, couples rarely seek out help when physical intimacy is dissatisfying or troubled.

Andrew Aaron, LICSW