SWM 049 – Focus on your spouse, not the model

Focus on your spouse, not the model. Eventually the map will just get in your way.

After writing the posts on the blessings of responsive and spontaneous desire, I felt that there was still something left to say on the topic.  So, in true philosophical fashion, this post will appear to undo and undermine everything in the previous two while simultaneously trying to actually underpin it.

Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what type of desire you experience – responsive or spontaneous.  Those ideas are just concepts – a model to try and help explain or guide, when needed. They are sort of like a map, but like all maps, at some point, they become more hindrance than help.

Maps don’t show all the details

Maps tend to be very good at showing boundaries.  This is either a road, or it isn’t. There is water, or there isn’t.  But, it doesn’t do a good job of showing blended boundaries. Like a shoreline, where the water level can shift, whether the road has wide shoulders or a ditch running beside it. 

And similarly, while we’ve been sort of bucketing people into either responsive or spontaneous, the truth is, many people experience both.

Almost everyone has the capacity to experience both responsive and spontaneous desire.

However, those with spontaneous desire who also have strong or higher sex drives often never get to experience that part of their nature.  Likewise those with responsive desire who also have weak or low sex drives never get to experience what it feels like to have spontaneous desire.

This is a dynamic that happens a lot in my marriage.  Because I desire sex so often, unless something is going on in our life that is completely disruptive to the point that sex is not an option for at least a week, it’s unlikely my wife will ever get to the point where she spontaneously desires sex.

And even if she does, she’s so unused to initiating at times like that that she feels uncomfortable asking for what she wants.  She feels selfish asking for her desire to be met in the rare cases that she spontaneously feels it.

The point is, people tend to not be 100% responsive or spontaneous.  It’s just that their circumstances sometimes only allow them to experience one or the other.

If your spouse has no interest in sex, or is too shy to initiate, or feels sex is shameful, dirty or a necessary evil, then it’s quite likely you’ll never get to experience responsive desire with them until that root issue is resolved.

Likewise if your spouse wants sex every night and makes that clear, there’s a good chance you’re never going to experience what it feels like to suddenly want sex.  It’s like never feeling what it’s like to be starving when you eat three meals a day, every day.  

And it’s fairly common for people with higher desire to get tired of always initiating.  Sometimes they get it into their heads that they’re just going to stop until their spouse initiates.  Unfortunately, they often do this with no communication, or with bad communication.  

This tends to end in a few fairly predictable ways:

  1. Their spouse thinks they’re no longer interested in sex, and so even if they feel desire, they don’t initiate.
  2. Their spouse feels like they’re being controlled, and so even if they feel desire, they don’t initiate.
  3. They get grumpy, let their frustration and impatience show, and so even if their spouse feels desire, they don’t initiate, because the relationship doesn’t feel safe.

In short, they shoot themselves in the foot.  If you are going to try and do something like this, it has to be communicated well and planned out.  Everyone has to know what is expected, and has to be on board so there is no resentment or feelings of being controlled.  I think maybe I’ll write a whole other post on that.

Maps speak in absolutes, but we live in a relative universe

Secondly, maps assume absolutes.  They have coordinates, they work from some sort of absolute reference point.  It doesn’t adjust based on where you are (well, smartphones are starting to, but let’s stick with old-school paper maps for this illustration).

Likewise, responsive, spontaneous, low and high sound like absolute terms, but in a marriage, these things are actually relative.  

Often people who end up getting remarried, be it due to divorce or death, are surprised to find out that while their sex drive hasn’t changed, they’ve somehow gone from being the lower drive spouse to being the higher drive spouse.  Their first spouse was higher than them before, but their new spouse is lower than them.

Maps don’t self-update

And again, this is changing in our modern era, but still, someone has to go in and make the updates.  And sometimes the updates are slow. Occasionally you can find entire new subdivisions in existence that aren’t on the map.  Roads that are closed, but your navigation software isn’t aware of that. If you come to a cliff and your map says the road continues, you don’t drive off the cliff.

Likewise, we need to be looking out for changes in the dynamics of our marriages.  We cannot trust that the model that explains what we experience now will stay static.

Pregnancies, births, surgeries, medication, menopause, mental or physical health can all cause drastic shifts in sex drives which can lead to changing dynamics.

Suddenly a spouse who experienced 100% responsive desire because they were the lower drive partner suddenly finds they’re mostly spontaneously aroused now, because their spouse doesn’t initiate as much as they were used to.

Often I get emails from people saying “I’m a high drive spouse”, but then their qualifications for that can be anywhere from “I want sex 3 times a day” to “I want sex twice a week”.

Now, it may be unlikely that the 3x a day person is suddenly going to find their spouse wants sex more than them, but it is quite possible that their drive could lower while their spouse’s raises.  

We have to be careful not to get stuck in the mindset that “I’m the higher drive spouse”, because one day it could change.  

Some of the saddest emails I get are from spouses who used to have a lower sex drive, had responsive desire, and never learned to allow themselves to respond.  They spend years being sexual refusers until it became a part of who they were. Over time, their spouse learned not to seek them out for sexual fulfillment, whether they learned to become chaste, or resorted to masturbation, or affairs.  

Then their drive shifted into high gear.  Suddenly they want sex all the time. And their spouse couldn’t care less.  Why should they? They’ve spent years learning how to dampen their own drive.  They’ve learned their spouse isn’t to be relied on for intimacy. And after years of the previously lower drive spouse rejecting them, why should they now be selfless in meeting the now higher drive spouse’s needs.

We never know what tomorrow will bring.  Be generous when you can. Be patient when you can.  Because you never know when the tables will turn and you’ll want your spouse to do the same for you.

And really, you shouldn’t need that karma approach to marriage that we use to teach children, but frankly, some of you are children in your marriage.  I don’t mean that to be insulting, what I mean to say is that learning to be a good spouse is a process that matures.

Ideally you each act patiently, selflessly and generously simply because you have chosen to love your spouse.  Even if it gets you nothing in return. Even if you know the situation isn’t going to change. Just because that’s what unconditional love is.  That’s what we vowed to uphold.

And frankly, that’s what we’re supposed to do as Christians anyways.  These same characteristics that help us in marriage are the ones that we consider “Christ-like” and are expected to be growing as one of His followers.

So, depending on your maturity level, either do it because you said you would, be a person of integrity, or do it because Christ expects it of you, or do it because if you don’t, it might hurt you down the road.  Whatever reason you pick, I think it will help your marriage. Though, I think the unconditional love reason will help more.

A map is only useful until it becomes a hindrance

If your focus on the model rather than your spouse, you'll miss the changes in your marriage dynamic. You'll be so stuck on "how things are" that you will miss all the opportunities for advancement and improvement in your relationship.

Lastly, maps are great while you’re learning.  When you don’t know where you’re going, or where you are.  When you’re confused and need something to help guide you. Or when you need to show someone else how to get where they’re going.

But eventually, they get in the way.  For all the reasons above, and more. You don’t check a map everytime you go from home to the grocery store and back.  Along the way, you learn, you grow, you start to understand reality better.

Pulling out a map every time you get in the car will drive everyone crazy.  Likewise, this model of responsive/spontaneous desire is helpful to learn, to grow, to show other people.

But at some point you need to put the model down and learn more about how your spouse differs from the model.  That is where the real learning begins.  

Because, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what label you put on yours or your spouse’s type of desire.  What matters is who they are, how you treat them, how you relate to them. How you show them love, each and every day.

37 Questions for spouses to ask each other about sex

37 sex questions for spouses to ask each other

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