When Passion Is Unacceptable: A Hidden Cause of Sexual Problems

[ 0 ] January 15, 2014 |

What happens when the mind and body don’t agree on what turns you on? Sex advice from Dr. Marianne Brandon…Upset Caucasian Couple Not Getting Along In Bed

Sexual dysfunction is common – surveys repeatedly find that many men and women struggle between the sheets. Oftentimes, sexual dysfunctions are multifaceted, having biological, emotional, and relationship components. Because of this complexity, they can be challenging to treat. In this article, we will explore one potential emotional component of sexual dysfunction that often goes unaddressed: when the mind and body do not agree about what is titillating. In other words, sometimes what the body responds to sexually is judged as unacceptable or inappropriate by one or both partners.

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For the most part, our sexual tastes and predilections are relatively inflexible. People can’t will their bodies to be sexually excited by a certain type of partner, or by a certain type of sex. Sexual arousal is relatively innate, and passion cannot be forced. It’s kind of similar to our preferences for food. I can force myself to eat mixed fruit for dessert, but I cannot make myself enjoy mixed fruit more than chocolate soufflé.  A similar predicament can happen in the bedroom.

Let’s consider some examples…

A couple comes to my office for sex therapy. In the first appointment, they describe the woman as having libido problems for several years.  They both recall that sex was satisfying when they were first married. Now, years later, she can’t seem to rally for sex. It is clear that they love each other, and they say, as so many couples do, “Everything is perfect except the sex.” In therapy, we explore new techniques, improving sexual communication, and the cultivation of a healthier lifestyle to support her libido. In spite of their hard work, and a deepening emotional intimacy, she feels little change in her sex drive. We decide to do some individual therapy at her request. When she and I are alone, she very hesitantly discloses that she does not find monogamy exciting. She loves her husband, but she longs for the experience of new sexual partners on occasion. She acknowledges that she doesn’t actually believe her sex drive is low, it’s just low for her lover of many years. And she verbalizes tremendous shame and guilt that she has these thoughts. She is unwilling to discuss them with her husband for fear of hurting his feelings. She prefers to maintain a stagnant sex life.

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Another example: A man comes to therapy referred by a urologist with a diagnosis of erectile dysfunction. He apparently has no physical reason for his erection difficulties.  His doctor suggested he explore possible emotional components. He is in a long-term relationship, and he loves his partner. As we discuss the details of their sex lives, it becomes apparent that he is dissatisfied with the limited variety of their sexual interactions. He longs for more creative sex. She feels comfortable with a relatively restricted repertoire. In sum, he no longer finds sex stimulating enough to become erect.  What appears to be erectile dysfunction is really just a manifestation of his desire for more intense sex play with his wife.

These sorts of issues are not uncommon in my therapy practice. And as you can probably imagine, they can be challenging to resolve. Sometimes people are afraid to discuss their preferences with their intimate partner for fear of offending their partner, or of being rejected themselves. Sometimes people have already discussed their needs with a partner who feels unable to accommodate them. And occasionally people won’t even admit to themselves what would excite them – people can be their own worst critics, judging themselves more harshly than their partner might.

Related: Between the Sheets – What Are You Really Telling Your Partner?

I approach each of these cases differently. It depends on my patient, the quality and strength of their intimate bond, and how important sex is to them. Are they risking having an affair or leaving their marriage over the issue? Is their current sex live satisfying enough that they can use fantasy and masturbation to give them something of what they are longing for? Could I serve as a helpful mediator and perhaps find a workable compromise for the couple, or does even the idea of these discussions feel too risky to them? Obviously, these are individual, and very personal, decisions.

Oftentimes, what people secretly desire isn’t as unusual as they may fear. Most people don’t speak openly about their sexual fantasies. As

Dr. Marianne Brandon

Dr. Marianne Brandon

a result, most men and women are unaware of the wide diversity of sexual fantasy and behavior that people enjoy. One common reaction to discussing their interests with a sex therapist is relief – people often feel “normal,” less embarrassed and ashamed, when they learn more about how others have sex. Sometimes people do find ways to share their interests with their partner – by watching sex scenes in movies or pornography, roll playing, or renegotiating the “rules” of their relationship. Oftentimes if one partner is sexually dissatisfied, the other may be as well, and thus both parties may be positioned to create a more flexible approach to their love-making.

For a culture obsessed with sex, we hold surprisingly fixed and even rigid expectations about what “appropriate” intimacy looks like. But rest assured that the ways to love and be loved well are as truly as unique as there are marriages.

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Category: Intimacy, Relationships

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About Dr. Marianne Brandon: Dr. Marianne Brandon is a clinical psychologist and Diplomat in sex therapy through AASECT. Dr. Brandon is Director of Wellminds Wellbodies LLC in Annapolis, Maryland. She is author of Monogamy: The Untold Story and co-author [...]
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