In order to maintain a healthy long-term sexual relationship, you need to be able to effectively navigate conflict.

Do you find yourself mistaking sex for intimacy? Have you fallen in love with someone you hardly know but have fantastic sex with? Do you find yourself using sex to resolve arguments with your partner?

It’s quite common for people to equate intense sexual experiences with love and intimacy. Sometimes couples may feel pressured to have sex even when they are angry or insecure. This way of relating gets reinforced by the larger culture and the media. Take, for example, the song by Robin Thicke, “Love After War”:

“Caught in lies, girl’s cry, doors slam and broken lights
/ Bottles hit the TV screen
/ You gotta go, or I’m gonna leave
/ Throwing clothes into the yard
/ When we go we go so hard /
It only makes me want you more, more, more

(Love after war)
 I need you tonight baby 
(Love after war) 
Come on and let me make it right baby
 (Love after war) 
I’m knockin’ on your door 
(Love after war)
 You know I want it, you know I want that”

Having sex when we are still angry can be exciting, because when we are in these states our endorphins are high. Some couples may see this as an opportunity to cathartically express what they are feeling. There are times when this combination of experiences helps couples temporarily feel closer, or more connected, because they may say positive things to each other while they are in the fantasy zone brought on by the body’s chemistry. But this isn’t going to last. Once those neurochemicals diminish, you are still facing the same issue you were before the neurochemicals kicked in.

Sex may mask conflict, but doesn’t solve it

Conflict and power struggles are common aspects of relationships. We may be different beliefs about conflict. Sometimes we may try to just get through it by toning down or belittling the feelings that brought us into conflict. Sometimes it can be frightening. Perhaps, for example, Joe fears hurting Sally, while Sally worries about burdening Joe with her needs. Or perhaps Fred blames Sara and she blows up at him, and then withdraws.

Often, conflicts have an impact on a couple’s sex life. This generally happens when either or both partners stop being the full, expansive selves they used to be in an attempt to preserve the relationship. We rein in the fullness of our experience because we worry our partner cannot handle it, or may be critical.

Ask yourself, do you ever have sex when you are feeling angry, insecure, or fearing abandonment? Sex is such a powerful experience that it can temporarily shift a difficult state. The problem is that we may become tempted to use sex as a substitute for facing our problems.

So how do we change these patterns? Can we find new ways? How do we separate sex from conflict? How do we discover the true power and beauty of sexuality through authentic intimacy?

True intimacy requires attention to the present moment

Any pattern can be disrupted, no matter how entrenched. What’s necessary for real intimacy is an awareness of what each partner is feeling in the present moment. When we have full access to the present moment we become aware of the impact of repeating ineffective past behaviors. We also become aware of the impact our present actions may have on our future.

So how do we get to the present? It’s important for both partners to be able to slow things down and take a break from the conversation (or whatever you are engaged in) in the moment when conflict is coming up. Then you can decide what you want to say or how you want to act in that moment.

Here’s one way to do this: when you find yourself in conflict, take a deep breath, look your partner in the eye, and say, “Honey, can I have a time out? This feels really intense right now and I just want to take some time to breathe for a few minutes.” Remembering what you are needing and what is helpful can support you take this action.

Understand the role of conflict in your sexual preferences

What can also be helpful is each partner taking space for him or herself, to bring awareness to their own sexual predilections. This can be accomplished by reflecting on your past sexual history. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Are you drawn to the kind of sex that involves animal physical attraction (often referred to as biological sex)?
  • Are you drawn to the kind of sex that is more relational, where as you feel more and more deeply connected the natural flow of the connection leads you to sex? (This type of sex is often combined with the biological, animal type.)
  • Do you find yourself drawn to sex when you are feeling particularly insecure, or lonely? Do you feel like you need to prove something or look a certain way during sex?

Most individuals engage in sex with some combination of these patterns. Most important is paying attention to whether, or when, you find yourself falling into the third category—having sex because it is a band-aid for other underlying issues.

Why does this matter? This kind of sex can lead to a delay in resolving what’s happening. Rather than helping, avoidance can often worsen things.

Sex is a powerful form of nonverbal communication, but to be fully embodied in our sexuality as couples it is essential to combine sexual communication with skillful verbal communication. In order to maintain a healthy long-term sexual relationship, you need to be able to effectively navigate conflict. When there has been longstanding conflict in your relationship, working with an individual or couples therapist may be what’s needed to get things back on track.

Once you become more aware of your patterns, you will be able to sort out what’s happening verbally—a more sustainable solution than acting it out sexually. Then, you may actually be able to enjoy playfully mixing sex with anger, because you’ll be doing it consciously.

Ivan Skolnikoff, MFT

Relating in a warm, direct, and engaged manner, Ivan is an experienced therapist who is deeply committed to helping couples ignite and revitalize the joy and passion in their relationship. Many couples get stuck having the same basic disagreement over and over. Ivan’s approach can help you and your partner get clear, resolve old wounds, and move beyond repetitive, unproductive dynamics.