One way for a couple to think about their relationship is for each partner to say of it, “There is me, there is you, and there is us.” It’s in the us where the couple gets to create the relationship, including what role sex will play.
In almost any couple’s sexual relationship, one partner has more desire than the other. If this partner’s desire isn’t reciprocated by the other, it puts the partner in a weakened position, facing the possibility of rejection anytime he or she makes an overture for sex. Bert Hellinger, the founder of Family System Constellations, sees the balance of give and take as one of the fundamental needs of any relationship, and it is especially important in the sexual realm.
If both partners are adult in the sense that neither is looking to the other for what they didn’t get from one or both parents, then the relationship stands a good chance of being respectful of the balance of give and take. If the partners are not fully adult, e.g., if each is still entangled in some way with mother or father, the relationship will likely exhibit the characteristics of co-dependency. The you will become enmeshed with the me, and the us will not be fully formed, and much of the couple’s dynamic will proceed along lines laid down by unconscious patterns formed during childhood or teen years.
The sexual act is the most powerful, affirming, and even risky way we can embrace life. This act can make us parents and change the world by bringing in new life. It is at the same time our most humble and vulnerable activity, where we expose ourselves to each other in ways we would never do with others. A partner who understands this meets the other with the utmost respect and care when the other is making an overture for sexual love. This respect must be especially present when the partner chooses in the moment not to reciprocate the other’s desire: the partner’s expression of desire should not run the risk of a painful rejection. When partners honor this, and the rejection of the overture is done with love, respect, and the possibility of the overture being welcomed later, the sexuality and the loving are freer to become deeper and more authentic.
For some practical advice on how to show this respect to your partner, consider starting with the sex columnist Dan Savage’s acronym GGG. This stands for “good, giving, and game.” Think, “good in bed,” “giving of equal time and equal pleasure,” and “game for anything—within reason.” It’s the within reason bit where you get to explore new ways of being a respectful and loving adult in your us relationship.
If the rejection of sexual overtures is chronic, the partner with the greater desire is likely to become resentful and begin to pull away or seek comfort and safety elsewhere. Before it gets this far, each partner in an adult relationship must accept the responsibility of acknowledging the imbalance. For example, the partner who is being rejected can make it clear to the other that the rejections are creating significant pain. This can be done simply by stating what is true for him or her, without blaming the other, then making a request (rather than a complaint) for what he or she wants from the partner to restore balance to the relationship. If restoring balance proves too challenging on their own, the couple can seek help from a therapist or other healing professional. When both partners feel a responsibility for taking care of the relationship, disruptions are viewed as something to be approached as a team, rather than assigning responsibility or blame to one partner. Both partners work to create a new us that allows love to flow more freely.
The relationship between give and take applies, of course, to more than just sex: how money is earned and spent, who takes care of the children, how household chores are shared, how much time is spent together as a couple, vacation destinations, and more. In short, it applies to everything that has to do with us. It especially applies when things go wrong or get complicated. How is balance restored when there is an affair, a previous marriage that still influences the current one, the influence of an addiction, co-dependency, the loss of a child, a set of intrusive in-laws? These questions and more can be productively explored through the lens of Family Constellations.