Updated: Aug 9
TW: This post references sexual trauma.
“What’s the most common problem you see in couples?” someone asked me this weekend.
Therapists get that question all the time.
The most common problem I see is probably the issue of desire discrepancy, or more specifically, women who dislike/fear/hate or otherwise don’t want sexual activity but are married to men who want it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the most common problem in couples. It’s just the most common problem I see in my practice, since it evolved as my (accidental) area of professional focus. Nonetheless, based on not only what I hear from clients but also, responses to blog posts, social media, and emails on the subject, it does seem to be a prevalent issue in general.
There are many reasons why a person might develop a sexual aversion, or a very low desire (which are not the same thing) for an otherwise beloved partner, in an otherwise happy, safe relationship.
But most of them boil down to one general principle:
Humans typically crave and gravitate toward what feels good and pleasurable, or what has felt that way in the past. And conversely, we tend to try and avoid what feels painful, unpleasant, or dangerous, or has felt so in the past.
This doesn’t mean that anyone who doesn’t enjoy sexual activity has been sexually assaulted, although that is certainly one example of an experience that can and often does create powerfully negative associations and aversion.
But more often it means that someone may have sustained a far more nuanced form of sexual trauma, whereby they engaged in sexual activity in a way that was technically consensual, but didn’t feel good or pleasurable, or perhaps felt painful or uncomfortable. Calling this a trauma might sound extreme, and for some people, it might be. But if someone had the kind of sexual experience, either once, or in many cases, repeatedly, that resulted in their nervous systems developing a fearful association with it, then this unwanting is the body responding to it in a way that is consistent with how bodies and brains are designed to protect us from perceived danger or pain.
If I go to a great restaurant and eat delicious food, but then on the way out, the maître d punches me in the face, or I get violently sick with food poisoning, the likelihood is that no matter how good the food tasted, I won’t want to dine there again.
Likewise, when a woman has even some amount of pleasure, but the encounter ends off with her feeling physical pain or psychological distress, her body’s takeaway message and memory is: “This is not a safe thing to do.” It’s not always even a conscious formulation. So then, often, she’ll override her visceral resistance, hoping it feels good the next time, or feeling that she’s doing something brave or moral. But then the more times she subjects herself to this physical pain or psychological distress, the more fear and aversion her body develops in response to it, in a vicious cycle of repeated and reinforced trauma. The likelihood is that if they keep going like this, it probably won’t get better, and there’s a good chance it will get worse.
This doesn’t mean this couple is doomed to either have to give up sexual activity or submit to a lifetime of painful or unpleasant encounters for one partner.
The approach that we (or at least I; I can’t speak for everyone) use in therapy is to take a detailed assessment of what kind of dialogue and physical touch is happening between them in the bedroom and how it’s landing somatically and psychologically. We then do some psychoeducation work around the roles of desire and pleasure, and how pressure impacts it. We then carefully rechoreograph the couple’s sexual repertoire to incorporate only the kind of interactions that feel good, and temporarily eliminate whatever hurts or feels bad. (I call this their modified touch menu.)
Oversimplified: this serves to rewire the neural circuitry of the client’s sensory system, and over time, to first decrease, and eventually reverse the negative association and fear response she may have with her husband’s body, the bed, maybe even her own body and sexuality. Through this, instead of her bracing herself for pain or discomfort, she can slowly learn to relax into happy-anticipation of the pleasure-touch that is the new routine, without fear that anything “bad” will happen, because that has been disarmed.
Over time, and with repetition, the bodies and minds build up trust and desire, and the capacity to grow interested and curious in exploring more kinds of touch, within the time frame and the safety of the newly corrected pleasuring dynamic.
There is a lot more detail to this process; both the evaluation and the reconsolidation of the sexual sequencing and sensual toolbox.
But the gist of it generally comes down to the following principle:
Do more of what feels good for the person who’s been un-enjoying, and eliminate what hurts or feels bad. Then, once the fear response has been reduced to zero (or at least negligible), a new positive association can begin to develop around touch, with the possibility of gradually exploring and incorporating more and more pleasuring, at a pace and in a manner that’s not only consensual but desirable and mutually pleasurable.
*Please note: As stated earlier, this is an oversimplification of very sensitive and customized work. This is not a guide for how to do this intervention at home, or for a therapist, educator, or coach to try and implement without training or supervision. The purpose of this post is to explain the theory behind both the problem and the practice, not to suggest that it can be performed in a casual or templated way. It’s also to educate and empower people struggling in relationships like this to discuss it constructively with each other and to consult with their own trained and qualified professionals about whether this sort of intervention would be appropriate for them. If you’re suffering in this way, and someone is advising you to keep subjecting your body or your partner to painful or distressing sexual activity, (or “to fake it til you make it”) please know that there are other approaches which oppose that entirely, and that you can pursue treatment that’s more aligned with a goal of striving for a sexual experience that is not just consensual, but healthy, desired, and mutually pleasurable.
**If you’d like to learn how you can do more to prepare the next generation (or re-parent your own “inner child”) toward healthier, holy sexual self-knowledge and intimate relationships, please check this out: elishevaliss.com/sacrednotsecret
Read next article here: The Unconsummated Couple