Should You “Just Do It” To Fix A Desire Discrepancy?

The conventional wisdom about desire discrepancy in a relationship is “just do it.” I’ve had many clients whose previous therapists have recommended some version of this approach, ranging from “ice-breaker sex” to “it’s like doing the laundry; sometimes you just have to get it done”.

I get that when a couple hasn’t had sex in a long time, it can become difficult to find a way to connect, get started, get vulnerable, or initiate intimacy. People frequently ask me “Where do we start? We’ve forgotten how to find one another”.

The problem is that desire can be a fragile thing, in need of a gentle touch. When desire is fragile, tentative, small, or hesitant, it can very easily tilt over into aversion if emotional pressure is applied, or even perceived.

So, what’s the difference between a tentative sexual encounter that results in a stronger connection, and one that has the unintended consequence of creating an aversion, or increasing anxiety?

Willingness.

Willingness is the crucial ingredient that is required for a sexual interaction to be a positive experience. Notice that I didn’t say “desire.”  In fact, desire is optional. Willingness is NOT optional. In order to run the experiment of trying to connect sexually after a dry spell, both partners need to feel willing. They might also feel worried, anxious, concerned, shy, tentative, vulnerable, embarrassed, or anything else. But as long as they are able to identify willingness, there is a good chance the interaction will be successful.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself to help yourself get in touch with willingness:

  • When sex goes well, how do I feel about myself?
  • When sex goes well, how do I feel about my partner?
  • What do I want to express to my partner sexually?
  • What makes a positive sexual interaction for me? How do I help create that?
  • What types of intimacy sound fun to me right now?
  • What types of intimacy would I prefer to postpone for another day?

Remember, you don’t have to do everything all at once. Consider inviting your partner to do something that sounds fun to you. Let them know, for now, your experiment is to keep it simple and stick with what you’re most comfortable with.

If you would like to have a conversation with your partner about having sex, try taking turns with these conversation prompts:

  • A part of me wants to have sex because….
  • A part of me is not so sure about having sex, because…

Make sure both of you respond to both prompts, so you don’t reinforce a polarized dynamic. Then see if you can work together to come up with a strategy to help you both get something you want from the interaction, while helping one another feel as little anxiety as possible.

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.

Willingness is Enough

If you move in sex-positive and/or feminist spaces, you may have heard the term “enthusiastic consent.” Enthusiastic consent is the idea that consent requires the presence of a “yes,” not just the absence of a “no.” The enthusiastic consent movement is doing a lot of important work reframing our cultural dialogue around sex and fighting against coercion and assault. However, sometimes I think the term “enthusiastic consent” can obscure something important—namely, that sometimes willingness is enough to engage in a sexual encounter.

Some people experience desire spontaneously. That is, they’re going about their day, and then all of a sudden they think, “Wow, I’d like to have sex”–and then, perhaps, they act on that desire in some way. This way of experiencing desire is what we tend to think of as the “normal” way. But it’s far from the only way, and in reality, it’s no more normal than any other experience.

Other people tend to experience more responsive desire. That is, they start to actively desire sex only after a sexual encounter is underway. They start with willingness, and their desire blooms as the encounter continues. This is a perfectly normal and healthy way to experience desire.

Because we tend to think of spontaneous desire as the norm, people who more frequently experience responsive desire may be pathologized as having low desire, or even NO desire. They may think of themselves as lesser or broken. Their partners may fear that they are not attracted to them, because they don’t tend to initiate sex. All of these problems could be avoided with the understanding that all ways of experiencing desire are normal.

Recognizing that willingness can be enough to begin a sexual encounter is an important way of validating and normalizing responsive desire. We can fight for the importance of affirmative consent, and work to eliminate even subtle forms of coercion, while recognizing that there are many healthy reasons to say “yes” to sex besides having an explicit experience of wanting. Here are a few:

  • To experience connection and closeness with your partner
  • Because you know desire will bloom as the encounter continues
  • To relieve menstrual cramps
  • To attempt to get pregnant
  • To enjoy giving your partner pleasure

 

In your own life, and for your therapy clients, how can you validate different ways of experiencing desire, and multiple reasons for having sex, while still addressing the issue of coercion?