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!

Why I Teach Anatomy to My Clients

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I think discussing sex in therapy is crucial. Sex issues have emotional ramifications, and I hope I’ve convinced you that the ability to communicate openly and honestly about sexual desires, preferences, and boundaries is an important relationship skill, and that therapists have a role to play in helping clients develop that skill.

In addition to working with the emotional aspects of sex issues, I also very often spend time in the therapy room educating my clients on topics like sexual health and anatomy. Sex is a stigmatized subject, and many people don’t have access to trusted, reliable, and accurate information on sexuality. Many people have had only abstinence-focused sex-ed in school, or no sex-ed at all. Many people have gotten most of their information about sex from porn and peers.

Lack of access to information about sexuality can end up having all kinds of negative effects on mental health and relationships. For instance, many people feel embarrassed by the appearance of their sexual anatomy. This is the result of a lack of accurate and non-judgemental information about sex, and it can do a lot of harm to self-esteem. Sharing accurate information about anatomy can do a world of good. Even something as simple as asserting that  everyone’s body is different, and wide variation is completely normal, can make a huge different in people’s lives.

There are also cases of sexual problems that can be resolved with just a little bit of anatomical info. For instance, many people don’t realize that it takes a person with a clitoris an average of twenty-five minutes of direct clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm. Lots of people think there’s something wrong with them or their partner if they can’t orgasm just from penetration, or if they can’t orgasm in just a few minutes. In a situation like that, you can provide a lot of relief by supplying a few facts about orgasm and anatomy.

I believe in the importance of providing accurate, non-judgemental information about topics your clients struggle with. I’m always surprised at how many people express astonishment and relief when I provide simple psychoeducation about anatomy, and debunk a myth or two. As I see it, alleviating distress in this way falls well within the bounds of a therapist’s role.

Does this leave you wondering where you can get accurate information about anatomy, and learn how to share it with your clients skillfully? You might want to consider joining my 2019 course, Assessing and Treating Sex Issues in Psychotherapy. Sign up for the waiting list now, and you’ll be the first to know when sign-ups open this February!