Why Desire Discrepancy Is So Tough

In all my work training therapists to talk about sex issues, there’s one thing I hear over and over:

“I’ve tried everything I can to work with this desire discrepancy, but it’s just so complicated and tangled up that I don’t feel like I’m making any progress.”

“I feel pretty comfortable talking about sex, but sometimes couples with desire discrepancy are just so complicated.”

“I see so many couples with desire discrepancies, and yet I still don’t feel like I know where to begin.”

Desire discrepancy is THE most likely sex issue for couples therapists to see, and most find it incredibly challenging to work with. As I see it, there are two major reasons for this:

  1. It’s so common. Desire discrepancy comes up all the time in therapy, simply because a lot of couples deal with it. In fact, I consider differences in desire to be completely expectable. There’s no one normal or correct level of desire, and there’s a tremendous amount of variation between people in terms of how often they like to have sex, and for how long, in what ways, and so on. At the same time, we have a cultural ideal of love as “two souls melding seamlessly into one”–setting up a situation where normal, expectable sexual differences can cause distress, especially since sex is such an emotionally charged topic. It’s easy to see how the normal variation between partners can quickly become a source of shame and pain, if partners don’t have the perspective that their differences are something to be expected and even embraced.
  2. It’s so complex. So many factors can contribute to desire discrepancy: physiology, emotion, connection, patterns of sexual behavior, trauma, religious beliefs, values, sexual templates…I could go on and on. Working really effectively with desire discrepancy requires having an understanding of many factors and how they relate to one another.

Desire discrepancies can be intimidating, but learning to work with them is so worthwhile. Because they’re so common, you have an opportunity to really make a difference in the lives of a lot of people–and to set yourself apart as a therapist. Also, if you can learn how to tackle desire discrepancies, you’ll end up with a really robust skill set for working with sex issues in general.

For the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking a lot about how I work with desire discrepancy, because I know so many therapists struggle with it. If you want to start building those skills, keeping checking back!

Putting Clients At Ease With Sensitive Topics

A lot of my clients come to me specifically to work on sex-related issues. Nonetheless, I find that even those clients are often quite uncomfortable talking about their sex lives.

That’s perfectly understandable. Most people were taught not to talk about sex openly–not even with lovers, in some cases, let alone strangers or therapists. Because of this, lots of people don’t have comfortable or accurate language to discuss sex, and some don’t know enough about sex to be specific about what is going on when things go amiss.

At the same time, I am a much more effective helper when my clients are comfortable enough to share unreservedly.

I’ve developed a few strategies that help put my clients at ease when talking about sensitive topics, including but not limited to sex. Whether or not you frequently work with sex issues in your practice, these tips may come in handy with clients who struggle to discuss topics that are sensitive, emotionally charged, and/or somewhat taboo.

  • Remind clients that you’re comfortable. Often, a client’s discomfort comes from a fear of freaking you out or putting you off. I see this all the time, even when the thing they’re afraid of sharing is far from freaky! I can’t tell you how many clients have told me that they were too afraid of being judged by their previous therapists to bring up the topic of sex. That, to me, implies that you need to be proactive. Reassure your clients that you want to hear whatever they have to tell you, or else they are likely to assume otherwise. Personally, I like to tell my clients that I’ve pretty much heard it all, and that they’d have to work pretty hard to shock me. That might be more true for me than it is for you. But even if you think your client MIGHT tell you something that could shock you, get clear in your mind why it is important for you to create a safe space for honest disclosure, and don’t make a big fuss. Probably you will hear things that are very easy for you to hear, but in case you hear something that rocks you a little, control your facial expressions, stay calm and normalize (or at least remain neutral and don’t pathologize). Get some consultation or supervision if you need to (certainly before deciding there is a problem). If you can tell you’re way out of your depth, you can always refer the client to a certified sex therapist.
  • Focus on the process, not the content. This is one of the most useful strategies in my toolkit. Focussing on process–by which I mean how an interaction plays out, and how both participants feel about it, rather than what specific activity is involved–keeps clients from feeling pathologized, while also keeping therapists from getting overly unsettled by uncomfortable explicit information. It also means that often clients can share just as much as they’re comfortable with, telling you everything you need to know about a sexual interaction, without going into details that feel too personal.
  • Ask permission before asking a question about specifics. Although focussing on process rather than content means that I let clients determine how much they’re comfortable sharing, sometimes I need to know something really specific in order to understand an interaction or figure out what the problem is. In those instances, it helps to gain consent for the deeper conversation, and explain why I need the information. I might say something like, “Would it be ok with you if I ask you some very specific detailed questions about this? This is a situation where some specific information will help me figure out what is going on, and then I’ll be more likely to be able to help”. Once in a while, a client is quite reserved and says they don’t feel comfortable. I always let them know that is fine with me. We can continue in vague terms, and focus on process, and probably make some good progress. However, this doesn’t stop me from gently inviting deeper or more specific disclosures, never with any pressure. My comfort with the topic, combined with this absolute permission not to tell me anything they don’t want to reveal, often ends up making my client comfortable enough to open up.

The Key To Resolving Couple Conflict? Uncovering Internal Motivation to Change

In my last post, I wrote about one of my strategies for working with couple conflict when partners strongly disagree. This week, I’m going to talk more about how I make space for partners to shift and grow by taking pressure off of gridlock, and creating a more creative, fluid space for collaboration.

When a couple disagrees about something, they often get gridlocked, meaning divergent positions become more and more solidified. As they argue, the partners can become completely polarized. This is the opposite of the flexibility, collaboration, creativity, flow, and teamwork that are necessary to work through a conflict in a way that strengthens a relationship rather than damaging it.

When couples are polarized, one partner is holding down position A, and the other is holding down position Z. It feels like a complete no-go. Only one can “win”, unless both give up something big, and they reluctantly and resentfully compromise to meet at position M. But if we can go a little deeper, we’ll discover that nearly always both partners can actually relate to both positions. They just feel like they need to really stomp on their position, because otherwise their partner will grab that slack and pull on it and “win.”

When I see this kind of situation, I focus first on one partner, and ask, “Is there any part of you that can relate to what she’s saying? Do you kind of see why she thinks it would be great to (save money, have kids, get a kitten, keep the kitchen cleaner)?” Then that partner can say “Well, I don’t agree, but I do see that there are probably advantages to having clean kitchen counters.”

I can continue that conversation, creating space for Partner A to have both positions. “This part of me thinks it would be great to have clean counters for all the reasons my partner says. But this other, much larger, part of me says ‘Hell no, this takes too much time, and it is not necessary, and I have more important things to do. If she wants cleaner counters, she can clean them, but not me.’”

As the dialogue progresses, both partners explore multiple perspectives within themselves. I help them go a little deeper into each part, exploring why this feels important and how the issue gets under their skin.

The key is that when the focus is on Partner A, one part of Partner A is talking to the other part of Partner A. Partner B is not yet in this discussion, and neither am I, other than coaching it along. The beauty of this is that it becomes apparent that the impasse for Partner A is within Partner A, and then when partner B does a similar exploration, we see that the same is true for Partner B. Often it turns out they agree far more than they disagree.

Sometimes I tell people “You are blaming this impasse on your partner, but the disagreement is actually inside of yourself. A part of you wants this, and another part wants that. You’re letting your partner argue for one position, while you argue for the other, but really you both hold both points of view.” Then I ask, “Can you get curious about what your partner thinks about this issue from a really creative, fluid place, rather than a polarized place? Can you express your thoughts to your partner from a fluid place where you can see multiple aspects of the dilemma?”