All Levels of Desire Are Normal

When therapists work with desire discrepancy, they sometimes fall into a counterproductive trap–identifying one partner as “high” or “low” desire, and trying to “fix” that partner’s desire level.

“High desire” and “low desire” are comparative terms. What standard are you comparing against? Is there such a thing as “normal desire” or “abnormal desire”?

I say no. Everyone’s level of desire is unique, and there is no reason to think a particular level of desire is “more correct” or “more healthy”.

As a therapist, you are in a uniquely powerful position to normalize any level of desire. The problem resides in the meaning each partner makes about their own desire level, or that of their partner, not in the level itself.

If a client were interested in shifting their own level of desire, it would only be possible in a very emotionally safe environment. Trying new things and stretching for challenging growth does not work when one feels pressured, pathologized, bad, wrong, or inadequate.

We would do better to celebrate difference in desire as expression of the uniqueness of each partner (that nonetheless can create tension), rather than pathologizing it.

Your clients probably have worked through desire issues in other areas of their lives. We all have desire differences in our relationships, whether they be about how much money to save, how clean to keep the house, or, in my house, how many cats is the right number. (When it comes to cats, I’m definitely the higher-desire partner.)

Making room for partners to hold the tension of being different from one another, and to find ways to work collaboratively with their unique differences, is both the work of couple therapy and the work of being in a long term relationship.

Here are some questions for your (and your clients’) consideration:  

  • What are your beliefs about desire? Do you believe there is a “right” amount of desire?
  • What does it mean, about you, and about your partner, that you are the higher or lower desire partner?
  • Where did you learn these beliefs about desire?
  • What other desire discrepancies have you and your partner worked through successfully?
  • What if you believed every level of desire is normal? How would that change things for you?

 

Desire is such a complicated issue because it has roots in every aspect of the relationship and of the self. That’s why treating desire discrepancy is so difficult. Reframing how you talk about desire discrepancy is a powerful first step towards freeing your clients from damaging habits and setting them on a path of personal growth.

Sex and Differentiation of Self in a Mature Relationship

This part three of a three-part series on sex and differentiation of self in relationships. If you missed the previous part, about symbiosis in the early stages of a relationship, you can check it out here.

At some point in a relationship things start to change. Partners begin to notice that all is not completely rosy, and there have been some disappointments and disillusionments. They shake off the super bonded and immersed-in-other mindset,  look around, and realize they are two unique individuals, with very different thoughts, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, and preferences. How annoying! As the fog clears, you realize you’re not all that happy they cook and eat meat in what used to be your pristine vegan kitchen. Or you feel a little cranky about how you actually never DO have an orgasm, you just fake them. How could your partner not know that? This step from the first stage, symbiosis (rose colored glasses), to the second stage, differentiation (showing up more completely and uniquely), is where many relationships get stuck.

Depending in part in how lost we got in the symbiotic stage, and how secure and grounded we are generally, this new awareness of self can be challenging and messy. Probably your clients have had a very difficult time with this transition, or are still stuck in it, maybe for many years. Some couples never get through this. Some fight, some shut down, but if you look closely, at the root of things is discomfort with our differences of opinions, preferences, and beliefs. How clean is clean? Who decides when sex is finished? Is porn ok? These are real differences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get my way multiple times EVERY DAY. Becoming able to come to terms with the idea that the differences are interesting and healthy sure makes life easier.

Why is this so hard? Because here’s the thing about differentiation: it’s scary as hell. If you figure out what you think, feel, believe, and prefer and then share it with your partner, they might not agree with you. They might be offended or angry, or collapse in hurt. If your tentative first foray into vulnerable disclosure was met with an extreme or distressing reaction, how can you steel yourself to try again, and again, and again? If you aren’t willing to risk the relationship, it is mighty hard to say something uncomfortable, however true it may be.

That’s when you have the Big Choice: differentiate or assimilate. Rock the boat, or capitulate and stabilize. Just to clarify: rocking the boat, or differentiating, is NOT the same thing as stonewalling, digging in, having a debate, or proving you’re right. What if you were to choose to get curious about your partner’s perspective, and why they see it differently than you do, rather than hammering your point in an effort to change your partner’s mind? What if you remained calm as you explained why you believe what you believe, and allowed your partner to ask questions about that in order to better understand you, with neither of you getting defensive, shutting down, or going on the attack?

Let’s make this less abstract and more specific to sex:

Do you know what you want sexually? Can you tell your partner? Under what circumstances? How about right in the middle of sex? How about if you think your partner won’t like what you want to say–for instance, that you would prefer to go back to snuggling on the couch watching Netflix? What if you lose your erection? Can both of you stay connected, sexy, and loving? Or do you make a lot of problematic meaning of the situation and pull away? Think of an opinion you have about sex–for instance, what is your opinion about crossdressing? Or polyamory? Or how about condom use? Can you share that with someone you love who might have a strongly-held opinion that doesn’t agree with yours?

A healthy sexual relationship requires differentiation–or else sex becomes an empty, anxiety-ridden performance, in which each partner plays the part they imagine their partner wants from them. The strong foundation you built in the symbiotic stage ideally should create safety for you to take some risks now.

It takes courage to ease through the vulnerability of self-disclosure and the fear of losing a relationship in order to reveal your true feelings and desires to your partner. It takes compassion to open your heart to your partner’s true feelings and desires, even if you are afraid of what they might mean. A strong relationship calls for both courage and compassion, and a therapist’s role is to help each partner discover those resources within themselves.

3 Reasons Therapy Clients Need to Discuss Sex, Not Just Connection

Q: I was taught, and have frequently heard, the truism that if you clear up a couple’s emotional connection in therapy, their sexual connection will heal all by itself. In light of all that I have been learning in your course, I am beginning to think this might be wrong. What do you think?

A: This very common belief is a grave disservice to both therapists and clients! It is certainly true that for most people, satisfying sex both fosters connection and requires connection. However, in most cases, strengthening communication and emotional connection is not nearly enough to improve sexual intimacy.

Here are three important reasons why:

  1. Accurate information is not readily available, and misinformation is plentiful. There is nothing more satisfying than offering up a few pieces of carefully timed psychoeducation and watching entrenched gridlock between partners dissolve, leading to a dramatically faster and more effective therapy.
  2. Limiting yet culturally normative views about what sex is, what constitutes healthy sexuality, and what a “good” sexual interaction looks like are usually a huge part of the problem. Discussing this directly is crucial; we don’t know we’re trapped by a myth until someone shows us another way.
  3. Sex is a taboo topic. Many couples who become able to skillfully communicate about other topics are much less effective when it comes to this vulnerable material. These are the clients who come into my office complaining that they have seen many therapists, yet their primary issue remains unchanged because I am the first one who has talked directly about sex with them.

Until every therapist has accurate information about sex, the ability to conceptualize cases beyond culturally limiting constructs, and effective strategies for doing so with skill, many clients will not get the help they need.

I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences. Did you learn that focusing on connection cures everything? Do you find that a frank, direct discussion makes a difference in your effectiveness? How do your clients respond? Please head over to my Facebook page and tell me about it!