Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian, I’m a very novice Theology of the Body aficionado. This is meant to start a discussion, not to proclaim dogma. Please do feel free to discuss!
Second disclaimer: I’m talking about married sex here. Just thought you might want to be warned. Now on to the sweeping generalization!
Sweeping generalization: in marriage, women need to feel loved to want sex, and men need sex to feel loving.
The question was raised as to why there is such a stark difference in what husbands and wives ultimately desire. It seems to cause so much trouble. Women are so much more relational and emotion-based, while men are much more physically driven. That part isn’t just a sweeping generalization, that is actually a statistically verifiable truth.
So you put these two very different creatures together in a partnership for life, and what do you get? Conflict. That’s what you get.
The woman is unloved so she doesn’t feel giving. The man is frustrated so he doesn’t feel like being loving. Wouldn’t it just be so much easier if men and women both wanted the same thing?
Ultimately, they do want the same thing. There was a great piece in First Things (I did try to find it to link, but alas, it’s lost to the archives) about how all interpersonal relationships (specifically sex) is about seeking God, and that’s true. Every human desires the Beatific Vision, the ultimate connection with our Source and Creator.
Every human relationship can give us a taste of that connection. Sexual relationships give us an even deeper version of that connection, where it is actually a physical union with the one who is beloved. Married relationships– which are a free, total and fruitful gift of self– are the closest (outside of the Eucharist) that we can come to experiencing that Beatific Vision here on earth.
If it’s meant to be so great, why is it just so difficult to achieve that level of unity? Well, here’s my theory. Obviously, God isn’t gendered male/female like humans are. But God is relational. The Father eternally begets the Son, and the Holy Spirit eternally flows from both the Father and the Son. They are one Triune God, but they are three distinct and different persons. My theory is that the human differences in desire are meant to point us to how God relates to Himself within the Trinity.
On a less theological (and maybe that above theory is incorrect, I only know enough theology to be dangerous) note, the differences in the desire of husbands and wives are quite practical. If both men and women only desired physical intimacy with each other, the danger of both parties using the other for personal satisfaction would be extraordinarily high. If both men and women only desired emotional intimacy, well, the human race would die out.
When both the husband and wife work towards meeting the different needs of their spouses, they are able to help each other mature and grow in areas they naturally wouldn’t. Husbands become more emotionally competent, and wives desire them more. There are also definitely times in every marriage where one type or the other of intimacy has to be sacrificed for a variety of reasons (NFP, I’m lookin’ at you, for starters). In order to survive that, both a husband and a wife will need to be able to relate to one another using that other type of intimacy.
Additionally, this creates the perfect environment to raise a family: children have a strong sense of security since their mother and father are cemented together in every way possible.
While that disconnect initially does seem like a major aggravation, it really isn’t. The natural differences in what a husband and wife generally desire is a very good thing! You can look at it like two opposing forces creating conflict, or you can look at it as a cyclical momentum where one desire feeds the other to create a beautiful balance of fulfillment.
Marriage, as it is meant to be, is an image of Christ loving His Bride, the Church. What He has to offer His Bride is very different from what she (the Church) has to offer Him in return. But ultimately, their desire is for the same thing: complete union with the Beloved.