Marital First Aid Kit
By Bryce Kaye
Conflicting Levels of Sexual Interest
First of all, it should be noted that there are a number of possible emotional factors that may masquerade as involving unequal sexual drives. For example, if a person is overly dependent upon or overly acquiescent to the decision making of their partner, it will frequently lead to their loss of sexual desire for that partner. In more technical terms, the loss of psychological boundaries will usually suppress sexual desire within the relationship. Hidden resentments, emotional starvation, or other forms of suppressed pain will also lead to reduced sexual desire. These situations are too complicated for simple interventions and really do need professional help to decipher what is going on. For this reason, the rest of the current discussion will pertain only to relationships where there are no other indicators of emotional distress. Where emotional intimacy and trust are high, both parties can forcefully negotiate their desires, and decisions are not monopolized by one partner, then this discussion may be helpful.
It should also be noted that there is another direction from which sexual desire can be impaired. A partner may have a poor relationship with their sexuality. If a partner has never developed a comfortable relationship with their body or with sexual pleasure, then sex with a constant partner may become more onerous as the years pass by. Probably for more women than men, sexuality may not have been fully developed or may even have been guilt-ridden before they got married. For many of these women, sex quickly becomes a responsibility of the marriage. This unfortunate scenario usually backfires with loss of sexual interest soon after marriage. However, it would not be accurate to describes this as a case of unequal sexual desire. Rather, it is more a case of underdeveloped sexuality with additional loss of psychological boundaries. It requires a different kind of intervention.
The simple case of unequal sexual drives does not involve a background of emotional injury, loss of psychological boundaries, or underdeveloped sexuality. Rather, it is merely the case that two partners, who are otherwise comfortable with each other, are finding that their biological drives are mismatched. If this seems to fit your situation, then consider the following principles:
1) Sexual feelings are easier to arouse when the person is in a receptive state and when there is absolute freedom of choice.
2) Sexual feelings are suppressed when associated with feelings of responsibility, anxiety, or goal-orientation.
These principles may seem rather simple but making them work for your relationship can be a true art-form. Let's debunk a myth right now that gets in the way for many couples. The myth is that sex needs to be spontaneous. This myth is destructive because it closes many doors for creative solutions. While spontaneous sex may be fun when you can find it, in today's age it is probably more rare than hen's teeth. With usually two working partners per household, one or the other partner bringing work home on their laptop, and a couple of children underfoot, the odds of a "spontaneous" event occurring becomes miniscule. Even when couples happen to be available for each other, they may be in the wrong emotional state. Imagine the likelihood of one partner responding favorably to the invitation by another after the first one has worked several hours on income taxes. Emotional states are very important and they don't turn around on a dime. Usually, by not being spontaneous and by planning to try to be in the same receptive state at the same time, a couple has a better chance of intersecting. However, there is an important paradox that may occur when you start trying to plan for sex. Doesn't the planning itself create a sort of obligation for sex to occur? And when sex is obligatory, doesn't that then create anxiety that kills sexual desire? Wouldn't this be predicted by the second principle listed above? Actually, the answer to all of these questions is a qualified "yes." In fact, this is precisely where a lot of couples get into trouble. Especially where sexual drives are mismatched, couples can take a small obstacle and turn it into a bigger problem. It becomes a more serious difficulty when one or both partners insists that intercourse should occur because it was agreed upon. The result of this pressure is often that one partner becomes more hesitant to even plan for sexual activity. Instead, they often retreat into finding other responsibilities to provider a "cover" that cannot be criticized. The result is often that one partner pushes for more sex while the other partner resists.
There is a way to resolve the seeming paradox of planning for sex. Essentially, it involves expanding upon the first principle about absolute choice. Consider the addition of two more principles:
3) Only negotiate times and places to be in a receptive emotional state with your partner. Never obligate yourself to a specific sexual act.
4) Each partner is only responsible for resolving their own sexual tension, not the other person's.
When a couple adopts the last two principles into their modus operandi, their secondary anxiety about contracting for sex will usually dissipate over time. This is because they no longer contract for sex. Intercourse is no longer obligatory. Each partner has a great degree of choice. No one is responsible for relieving the sexual desires (or frustration) of the other. So what actually happens if intercourse is not required? Actually, a whole range of things can happen. How create can you get? Sometimes, a couple will just talk, or massage, or engage in sensual and sexual play, or help each other to masturbate, or will have intercourse. The greater the range of choices, the less anxiety there will be to perform. Even if sexual drives are unequal, when a couple reaches this state of increased relaxation about the issue of sex, they actually wind up having more intercourse because neither partner is covertly avoiding intimate connection with the other. When fear of obligation is reduced, each partner can afford to get closer with the result that they will more often get turned on. So, the new paradox becomes: The couple winds up having a higher frequency of intercourse because they no longer focus on it.
If this latter scenario is something that you both want to bring about, then there is an interim passage that you both will need to first take as a couple. While you may both agree in theory that each of you is responsible for relieving your own sexual frustrations, you are unlikely to emotionally feel that on a gut level unless you each of you are actually behaving that way. For that reason, sex therapists often prescribe certain scenarios for masturbation as a way of helping couples to recondition certain sexual feelings. The following intervention helps to do the same by a) practicing the permission and shame reduction necessary for each partner to masturbate in the presence of the other and b) showing how each partner accepts responsibility for their sexuality in the presence of the other. When both partners become very comfortable with this sexual alternative, then both partners can approach and participate in sexual arousal without actually committing to intercourse. When there is an easy alternative to intercourse, there is less to fear by approaching situations that are sexually arousing. Again, it should be reiterated that the overall outcome is often an increased frequency of intercourse itself because of lowered anxiety.
INTERVENTION #1 (For couples with simple unequal sexual drives)
Agree to abstain from intercourse for a full month. Instead, plan for special intimacy situations where you and your partner take the time to expand your sexual repertoire. During these occasions, explore massage, sensual touch, and practice ways to bring masturbation into the sexual repertoire with the other person present. Explore how each of you can contribute to the other's arousal during masturbation.
After the first practice month has passed, spend another month integrating choice into your repertoire. Agree with your partner that you will both pay attention to your energy and interest levels and sometimes choose intercourse and at other times choose an alternative sensual activity. Practice doing just that. During sensual play, sometimes choose intercourse and other times choose helping your partner to relieve their sexual tension in other ways. When both of you are comfortable with alternative choices such as masturbation or massage, then you will have promoted safety for sexual interest to flourish. While this will not equalize sexual drives, it eliminates one of the biggest problems about having unequal drives. Namely, the anticipatory anxiety that comes when a person confounds perceived responsibility with sexual feelings.
INTERVENTION #2 (When emotional distress from the relationship reduces sexual interest)
Make an appointment for marriage counselling. This is a situation that can be quite complicated and for which you will best be served by professional help.
INTERVENTION #3 (When you have always lacked interest in sex)
If this is the case, you need to first make a decision. Do you want to develop the capacity for sexual enjoyment? One factor in your decision may be that you are already in a marriage and are engaging in sex purely out of a sense of marital responsibility. If so, realize that this is already injuring emotionally. The more you practice obligatory sex, the more you dissociate sexual feelings for yourself. If you want to explore these issues, then set up a private appointment with a sex therapist of your same gender. This is an issue that should be treated first as an issue between you, your body, and your self-concept. You may also want to pick up an excellent book titled For Yourself by Lonnie Barbach. Your partner can later become involved in your sessions when you feel ready and when it will be more helpful.
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