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  • Writer's pictureJen Niemela

The sex and dirty laundry problem

One of the most common relationship problems I see in my work as a relationship coach is a problem I like to refer to as the Sex and Dirty Laundry Problem.

What is the Sex and Dirty Laundry Problem?

Essentially it boils down to this: when a couple lives together they will encounter a specific set of challenges within that dynamic. These challenges include creating the resources necessary for the household to run, maintaining a functional and safe environment (particularly for couples who decide to have children), and still finding time to nurture the couple's connection. The Sex and Dirty Laundry Problem occurs when one or both partners needs for connection and a safe functional household are not being met. The good news is that we can solve this problem by identifying those needs and collaborating with our partners to meet them.

What are the signs that this is becoming a problem? The most common symptom you can use to identify this problem occurs when a couple starts having disagreements about their sex life. They often don't recognize that the problem is connected to how they manage their household, but let me explain. Humans are instinctually motivated to do three things in order to stay alive. These three tasks are illustrated by The Motivational Triad:

Depending on the amount of energy a person has they will utilize that energy to avoid pain and seek pleasure. If someone is overworked or in pain (physical or emotional), they are going to be less interested in seeking pleasure because their energy is focused elsewhere. If we think of this like a math problem it might look something like this:

  • Let's say the average person starts their day with 10 energy points

  • You spend energy points each time you complete a task.

  • It costs 2 points to do your daily chores (laundry, dishes, etc.)

  • It costs 4 points to be present with your children and meet their needs.

  • It costs 4 points to get ready, go to work, and complete your work tasks.

  • Before you realize it you've spent all your energy points for the day and there are none left over to connect with your partner.

This is a very simplified overview. We may need to keep in mind that if someone is not 100% physically or emotionally healthy may be starting their day with even less energy points than your average person.

Since sex requires a certain amount of physical, mental, and emotional energy from each partner it is often one of the first things that gets deprioritized in order to meet the needs of the household. This is especially true if the quality of your sex life is not pleasurable for both partners. People don't want to prioritize things that they don't enjoy.

Okay so, how do we solve this problem? One of the mistakes I see people make when trying to solve this problem is they first start looking for what is considered "normal" or "healthy" and using that information to insist that they must strive for what is considered normal. Low libido can have health reasons and if that is a concern of yours you should discuss it with your doctor, but most of the time it's far simpler than that.Often it is as simple as asking good questions of both yourself and your partner in order to understand each other better.

Questions like:

  • What's more important: quality or quantity? How do we define quality?

  • How frequent is frequent enough for each of us? (note: more is not always better)

  • How important is sex to our relationship and why do we feel this way? (listen with curiosity. Seek to understand, not to judge).

  • Do we view it as a want or a need? Why? Do we like our reasoning? (note: it's okay to have different perspectives)

  • What needs to happen before we will both be interested in physical intimacy?

Some people need emotional connection before they will be interested in physical connection - if this is you, what does that emotional connection look like? Some people need all of the household tasks to be complete for the day before they feel the can unwind and get in the mood. Others just need a quick signal, and they are good to go. There is not a right answer to these questions. The point is not to tell somebody they are right or wrong. The point is to understand yourself and your partner better. The answers may change over time too. That's completely normal. Our sex drives and sex lives will evolve and change as we grow. It's not supposed to be the same forever.

The key is to keep the lines of communication open so you can collaborate on solutions that meet the needs and desires each of you have. You partners needs and desires are not the enemy of your needs and desires. You are on the same team trying to meet both of your needs and desires.


Disclaimer: The information provided here is for general informational purposes only. Please do not use the information provided here as a replacement for therapy or professional advice. For the full disclaimer policy, please refer to

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