Let’s start by imagining a common scenario, one that plays out every day in bedrooms around the world. A couple—let’s call them Laurie and Mark—are having a fun, sexy encounter, and Mark begins to lose his erection.
Mark feels embarrassed by his loss of erection. He’s ashamed and feels sure that Laurie is judging him, or at least finding him to be a turn-off. He withdraws a bit, goes quiet, and stops making eye contact.
Laurie notices Mark’s loss of erection, and also that his attitude is changed. He looks preoccupied and disinterested. She starts to think he’s not as attracted to her as he used to be. Does she look bad in this position? She pulls the covers over her body and becomes shy.
Mark takes this as a signal that she’s not interested in continuing, and assumes she is turned off by his unmanly loss of erection. He really can’t blame her, as he finds it to be a turn off too. He rolls over, pushes down his feelings and thoughts, and goes to sleep.
Laurie feels deeply sad and abandoned. She tries to make sense what went wrong. They were having so much fun a few minutes ago. Now everything is ruined. She feels like crying. She knows she will have difficulty falling asleep. She’s annoyed that Mark can fall asleep just like that, and doesn’t care enough about how she feels to stay up and talk. She can’t really blame him, though. She knows it can’t be fun to talk to her when she’s upset and crying. She vows to go to the gym in the morning, to really get serious about losing a few pounds. Having an action plan that will make the problem go away feels a little better, and she is finally able to go to sleep.
Both partners feel disappointed, disconnected, and dissatisfied. They would both agree this was a negative interaction, and one they would go to great lengths to avoid repeating. Neither is interested in discussing it. It’s too fraught and confusing.
If it happens again, they may start to build a narrative around it:
Last time wasn’t just a fluke. So he IS losing his interest in me.
This is just like last time. Laurie must be so disappointed in me. I can’t give her what she wants, and what any real man could give her.
I always knew our sex life wouldn’t last. This is the beginning of the end. I can’t live in a sexless marriage.
As this narrative snowballs, both partners get increasingly anxious about sex. They have sex less often, and disconnect more easily. They start to regard themselves or their partner as broken or abnormal, and resentments over desire, initiation, and “communication” start to take hold. When they do have sex, they hurry up in order to avoid any “cooler” moments that might result in loss of erection. Their new style of quick, business-like sex starts to feel mechanical very quickly.
What’s the core issue here? If you asked the couple, they would probably say “communication issues” or “erection issues.” If you asked a doctor, they might say the same thing, but they can’t help with “communication issues”; very likely they would write a prescription for Viagra.
I have a different perspective. I would argue that, even if you could somehow ensure that Mark never loses his erection again, the core issue would remain unchanged–because the core issue is not the loss of erection, it’s the meaning the partners are making from it, and the damage to their intimate connection that has been done by that meaning-making.
The most important thing to remember with a situation like this is that meaning making is optional. Events happen and are often outside of our control. Emotions arise unbidden too. What we can control are the stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of events and emotions.
With sex issues, there is so little access to accurate information that sometimes facts alone can make a huge difference.
Fact: erections come and go throughout sexual interactions. This is not only normal, it is expectable, usual, and common. The sexual interactions where that isn’t the case are usually pretty short and business-like—definitely not the luxurious, memorable type of interaction people dream about.
Fact: anxiety kills arousal, and an erection is a physiological sign of arousal. When meaning-making leads to anxiety, the meaning-making itself will create erectile dysfunction. This is what I mean when I say that our most common ways of thinking about sex actually create sexual dysfunction.
Next time you talk about a sex issue with one of your clients, look for the interactional sequence. Identify:
- For each partner, what event touches off negative meaning-making? (There may be several.)
- What meanings are the participants making, exactly? What stories do they each tell themselves to make sense of events?
- Are they checking their meaning-making out with their partner, using direct questions or statements about their own feelings or perceptions?
- If not, why not? What is preventing them from checking their assumptions or sharing their internal struggles in a straightforward, vulnerable manner?
- Can each partner identify ways it might benefit them to have a more accurate understanding of what goes on for their partner in these situations?
Armed with a solid understanding of the meaning your clients make out of any given sexual disappointment, you can begin helping them fact-check with their partner. From there, it is a short step to identifying opportunities to respond differently in the moments when things don’t go as planned.
Of course there is one small hitch: to help effectively in this kind of situation, you will need to be comfortable enough to have a frank and detailed discussion about the sexual interaction. If you relegate this to a “communication problem”, and don’t discuss the sexual dynamics specifically and in some detail, you will never get the information you need in order to help. So don’t be afraid to ask for a very specific interactional sequence. Without it, you won’t know what misconceptions are causing mischief, or what assumptions are undermining the intimate connection.
In the next installment, we’re going to dive into exactly where and why the interaction fell apart. Plus, I’ll show you what you can do to reframe the situation, and how to help your clients identify and focus on what they really want out of a sexual encounter. Keep your eyes out for part two!