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When We Treat Sex As A Zero-Sum Game

And why we need to stop doing it.

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Chore chart Gif with stars populating onto the sheet
Shana Novak (Prop Stylist: Liz Serwin)
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"It has been two weeks and he’s getting grumpy; I’ll give in just to get him to quit pestering me."

“He cleaned the bathroom; he deserves sex.”

Every married woman has either said something like this or heard a friend say something like it, and probably on more than a few occasions. Our libidos wane and we guiltily, grudgingly submit to the notion that husbands “need” sex and it is a wife’s job to provide it. We’re so used to this idea that it sounds completely logical. Of course men “need” sex. Of course it would be cruel to deprive them of it.

So, women do what it takes to make sure their husbands are satisfied, regardless of whether they’re into it or not. Sex becomes, at best, a currency that women use to get something they want — I have friends who offer sex in exchange for different things they want — and, at worst, an obligation, a task to check off of a to-do list, a leave-me-the-hell-alone pass to get them through the next six or seven days.

Sex has become a zero-sum game — a situation in which one person gains while the other loses.

An argument could be made that trading sexual favors for house chores is an arrangement in which both parties win: One gets a cleaner house; the other gets sex. But, let’s be honest, he should be cleaning that bathroom anyway, because it’s his pee on the toilet seat. And exchanging sex for household chores — especially when it’s the usual man-does-chores-then-woman-provides-sex equation — means that sex is still being offered up out of obligation. It means one partner is taking while the other is giving. It takes the love out of it and turns sex into a chore.

Granted, if seeing your partner shove the Dyson across your frieze rug honestly lubes your gears, have at it. Everybody has their turn-ons. But if you find yourself using sex to “pay” for household chores with the same enthusiasm with which you pay your lawn guy, you may want to question what you’re really getting out of this deal. I mean, is performing household chores even something that deserves a reward? If so, where is your giant vault overflowing with diamonds?

Sex should be give-give, not give-take. Consider how lovely it is for your partner to find you sexually desirable, and consider what it must be like to be the one doing all the desiring and being constantly put off, or worse, treated as a chore.

The goal here should be to feel true desire for our partners and to want to participate, and one way to get there is to focus on deepening emotional intimacy. John Gottman, renowned sex and relationships expert, says that fostering emotional intimacy is the key to keeping sexual desire alive.

“Everything positive you do in your relationship is foreplay,” he says.

And this requires vulnerability. If you feel like sex is a zero-sum game in your relationship — something you give and your partner takes — you’ll need to let your partner know that you want to take steps to change it. It takes effort and cooperation from both of you to get to a place where you are more emotionally attuned to one another, where you can become close enough emotionally to your partner to reignite desire.

Start with small acts like going on walks together, holding hands, or giving each other massages without the expectation of sex. Move on to bigger things like intentional conversations about your sexual fantasies, turn-ons, things you’re curious about. This kind of vulnerability can lead to some of the most satisfying sex you’ll ever experience — so, so much better than my-partner-cleaned-the-toilet sex.

All of that said, if you aren’t in the mood to have sex, you shouldn’t be required to do it. Nobody should be asked to give their body to anyone, not even their spouse, if they don’t want to. Zero-sum games are always unpleasant for at least one person, so let’s make the bedroom a place where we only play the kinds of games where everyone wins.