Desire Discrepancy Lesson #2: Look for the Blocks

I’m continuing my series on desire discrepancy this week. If you missed last week’s post on normalizing variation, you can find it here.

What do you do if you’re seeing a couple with a big desire discrepancy, their marriage is on the rocks, and you recognize that you can’t wave a magic wand and make one partner want just as much sex as the other one? Sometimes there are things you can do that will increase desire for the lower desire partner, and other times there are not. The good news is, even if you can’t directly affect desire, you can certainly help your clients remove obstacles that prevent desire from blooming.

There are lots of factors that can impede or inhibit desire, and often they fall right into your wheelhouse as a therapist. Whether or not you’ve had training in sex therapy, I’m certain you have the skills to work with issues like anxiety and depression, both of which strongly inhibit desire.

My Will Lily assessment will help you identify some very common blocks–for instance, sex pain, which is, quite understandably, a major inhibitor of desire. If your client is experiencing sex pain, they absolutely must resolve it if they are going to have any kind of positive experience of desire.

Similarly, internal or external pressure is a common inhibitor of desire. Even without full-blown coercion, it’s very common for people to feel subtly pressured into having sex they don’t really want to have, for a variety of reasons–fear of disappointing their partner, for instance, or a belief that once a sexual interaction starts, they don’t have a right to stop or redirect the activity. Over time, subtle pressure can really put a damper on desire and do lasting damage to a relationship. Will Lily can help you identify cases like this in the very first session.

As I continue this series, I’m going to be talking in more detail about some of the factors that can inhibit desire. In the meantime, keep looking for the blocks. They can take all kinds of forms. Are your clients dealing with intensely demanding, stressful work schedules? Are they listening with one ear for the baby crying in the next room? Are they dealing with grief, or working through past trauma?

Identifying and working with factors that inhibit desire is absolutely necessary to increasing desire. No matter how much desire there is, these factors will stop the action.  Helping your clients remove obstacles is what creates space for desire to blossom.

Desire Discrepancy Lesson #1: Normalize Variation

Last week, I wrote about why desire discrepancy can be such a challenging issue for couples therapists to work with. If you missed last week’s post, you can read it here.

If you think about it, it’s not all that surprising that desire discrepancies are common. People vary widely from one another in preferences, desires, experiences, and beliefs. Of course they’re going to vary in terms of their level of desire for sex. It’s completely to be expected!

You wouldn’t assume that two partners would have the exact same preferences about how clean to keep their kitchen, what they like to do for exercise, how much money they want to put in savings each month, or how often they want to travel. Couples have desire discrepancies of all kinds, in all sorts of areas, and very often they are able to resolve them gracefully, while acknowledging the validity of each partner’s perspective. So why do we so often expect our partners to have similar levels of sexual desire to us, and feel such pain when that is not the case?

Our cultural ideas about love and romance are responsible for some of the distress. We are taught to think about love as “two souls merging into one.” Romance upholds similarity as the marker of a good relationship–two perfectly-matched people meshing seamlessly together.

That messaging is particularly strong when it comes to sex. Rather than acknowledging that everyone is unique, and that strong couples can (and must!) learn to value and embrace their differences, our culture teaches us to see differences in sexual desire between partners as a flashing warning signal that something is terribly wrong. In this way, what starts as a perfectly normal variation in sexual desire between partners can get so loaded with shame, stigma, and pathologization that it begins to drive the partners apart.

That’s why I make a point to normalize variation whenever I can. There’s no “normal” or “right” amount of desire for sex. Some people want lots of sex, and that’s healthy and okay. Some people want no sex at all, ever, and that’s also perfectly healthy and okay. Also, it is very usual and expectable for desire to shift over time, with age, stress levels, physical health, and hormone changes. It is just not productive or helpful to pathologize your own or your partner’s (or your client’s) level of desire.

Normalizing variation, and helping your clients see their desire differences as simply one aspect of their unique individuality, and not a sign of something wrong in the relationship, is a wonderful first step.

Stay tuned for more on working with desire differences and associated stresses, and I commend you for diving in to conversations about sex and sexuality with your clients!

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!