The Scheduled Sex Experiment
Sexual health is an important quality of life issue for everyone, no matter what other health issues you might be facing. However, when you are struggling with a chronic illness like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), physical pain, fatigue, body image, and side effects from medication can present real hurdles to maintaining a healthy sex life. And with so many health issues, it can be easy to feel like you don’t “deserve” to worry about your sex life – but you do! That’s one of the reasons I decided to start being so open with my own struggles – to help others know that they are not alone and that trying to improve your sex life isn’t anything to be ashamed of!
My husband and I have certainly faced some challenges in maintaining a healthy sex life since my RA diagnosis. Throw in the stresses of raising a couple of small children, and it wasn’t too long ago that we reached a point where our intimate time had become extremely rare. But it wasn’t just the lack of sex that was the problem – the lack of intimacy and connection started affecting not only the relationship between the two of us but also how our family functioned as a whole. We knew something had to change.
But how? Between my morning stiffness and our early-rising sons, morning sex was pretty much out of the question. So I’d wake up and resolve to save time and energy to focus on our physical relationship that evening. But then the little one would kick his way through his brother’s carefully arranged Legos, I’d spend 20 minutes trying to get them to stop screaming, and then I’d look at the clock and realize it wasn’t even 9am. So after a full day of keeping our children from killing each other, activities and outings, making dinner for the family, and getting kids bathed and into bed, it was all I could do to stare blankly at the TV for half an hour before passing out myself. My resolution to save energy for sex never seemed to work out.
And that’s how we found ourselves discussing the idea of a scheduled sex experiment. The concept honestly didn’t appeal to either of us, because it seemed so forced and unromantic. My husband was also concerned that scheduled sex would become just another stressful thing on my to-do list (no pun intended!). But we both wanted to improve the situation. We knew we were dealing with mismatched libidos and that we had very limited time to be alone together. So we decided to give it a try.
We started by looking at all my responsibilities to see if we could find a reasonable day for me to actually be successful in saving some energy for intimacy. As a stay-at-home mom with RA and two small children, I had a ton of responsibilities. Laundry. Diaper changes. Grocery shopping. Meal prep. Cleaning a million messes. Breaking up fights. Not to mention my own doctor’s appointments, visits to the pharmacy, paying medical bills, fighting with my health insurance… the list went on and on and on. No wonder I didn’t have the energy to get in the mood!
Then we had an idea: what if we scheduled one night a week where we would each put effort into addressing our spouse’s unmet needs? My unmet need was time to rest and unwind without a child crawling on me, while his was physical intimacy. So we agreed that on the selected night, my husband would be in charge of cooking dinner and putting the children to bed on his own – giving me free time to take a break and relax. And, once I had done that, we figured it would be easier for me to have a little fun in the bedroom. So we picked a night and agreed to try it for a couple of months.
It was an interesting experiment. Most weeks, a little time to myself to unwind was all I really needed to rediscover my long-missing desire – though I think it’s also important to note that my husband wasn’t giving me time to unwind “in exchange” for sex. He was freely helping me met my needs while I freely did my best to reserve enough energy to help meet his needs because we both wanted intimacy to improve. But it didn’t work every week. Sometimes the kids were just too crazy for me to really get a break. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, I would still be way too exhausted or achy to even consider sex.
While the scheduled sex experiment certainly didn’t solve all of our problems, we did learn a lot from it. For one thing, we each gained a better understanding of the other’s needs – which has been beneficial to our relationship as a whole. We learned that I deserve time to take care of my individual needs, but also that our intimate relationship deserves focused attention. And we learned that there was value in making an effort to address each other’s needs, even if it didn’t work out the way we hoped every time.
Someone once told me that a family is like a triangle with three corners: the kids, the couple, and the individuals (and if you don’t have kids you could easily replace the kids corner of the triangle with “job” or other responsibilities that impact your life). It can be really easy to ignore the needs of the couple while focusing on the kids, but then the triangle will be really unbalanced. And it can become even more lopsided when one individual is living with a chronic illness that needs attention. But we learned that the best thing we can do for our family as a whole is to make sure that all three parts of the triangle are getting the attention they need and deserve.
These days we find that we don’t really need to schedule sex anymore – but the scheduled sex experiment did help us find new ways to work around the challenges of RA and intimacy.