What Happens When Sex Falls Flat?

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!

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!

What Kind of Partner Do You Aspire To Be?

I have a deeply-held belief that everyone has the capacity for growth and change.  Not only can we change if we challenge ourselves to do so, but also we all have room to grow.

The Developmental Model teaches us to ask our clients “what kind of partner do you aspire to be?” Asking people to reflect on where they can grow keeps them from grouchily obsessing over how they wish their partner would change, and frees them up to identify their own motivations for change. It encourages them to imagine the possibilities for their life, and their relationships, on their own terms, rather than in reaction to someone else.

Paradoxically, when clients are able to do this, it often ends up making space for their partners to become more considerate, more reliable, and more present. Nobody likes to feel pressured, coerced, or guilted into changing. In fact, pushing someone into a defensive posture is a pretty effective way to ensure that their behavior doesn’t change.

The truth is, differentiation of self is a lifelong project. We all have more work to do if we’re going to truly embody the fullness of who we want to become, in the relationships we want to have, and in the world in which we want to live. The way we draw closer to that person is by choosing, every day, to be a little more patient, a little more courageous, a little more compassionate, a little clearer about our values and how we might express them.

As the days get shorter, and winter holidays approach, many of us, and many of our clients, experience internal and/or relational challenges. This year, I am asking myself, and invite you to join me in asking: “what kind of person do I aspire to be in this world, in this family, in this relationship? What can I do to get closer to that?”