New Ways to Work with Sexual Desire Differences

Guest blogger Dr. Jennifer McComb Phd, LMFT, CST

As couple therapists we often hear our clients complain about experiencing a desire discrepancy.  Sexual desire is complex and is known to be difficult to treat due to the numerous factors that influence one’s interest in sex, including relationship dynamics, physical and mental health concerns and the medications used to treat them.

By the time I see these couples in my office, familiar patterns have often emerged, with the higher desire partner generally blaming the lower desire partner for their failing sex life and the lower desire partner defending him or herself and or criticizing their partner’s approach to sexual intimacy.  These cycles are painful for couples, erode attachment security, and create even more distance between partners that makes intimacy and vulnerability difficult to achieve. They’re exactly the sort of cycles we address in stage 1 of EFT.

It is not surprising that one or both partners think something is “wrong”, as spontaneous desire, fantasizing and yearning for sexual activity have often, until recently, been accepted as evidence of healthy sexual desire. Rosemary Basson and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia have done pioneering work in the area of sexual desire – with a focus on understanding the differences between female and male desire. We now know that there are two different kinds of desire: spontaneous and responsive. Spontaneous desire occurs more in the moment, without a clear trigger and is a more common experience for men. Responsivedesire tends to be triggered in response to a particular context – typically low stress and high connection. Many women report experiencing responsive desire, but little to no spontaneous desire, with the exception of early in a new relationship.

I don’t yearn for sex with my partner in the way that he/she wants me to, but I notice that after we have enjoyed a night together and I am feeling more emotionally connected, I feel more open to sexual intimacy. Once we get started I am able to get aroused, feel desire and derive pleasure from the experience and often wonder why I don’t desire this more often!”

“I have always thought there was something wrong with me as I never really think about sex. I enjoy it when it happens, but I never feel the desire to initiate it.  My partner thinks this means I have no interest in sex, which I don’t agree with, but I guess that is how it seems.”

Although these differences are typically thought of as gender specific with women experiencing more responsive desire and men experiencing more spontaneous desire, I have worked with same sex couples where one partner experiences responsive desire while the other experiences more spontaneous desire and heterosexual couples where the typical experiences are reversed. From my perspective, it is the concept of normative variability in the experience of sexual desire that is most helpful as it moves away from pathologizing clients to understanding that they experience sexual desire differently.

This new understanding of sexual desire is important to EFT therapists because it will help you hear your clients’ stories of desire differently. Next time someone is in your office complaining of (or being blamed for) having no sexual desire, I encourage you to explore this further, as very often what clients are really saying is that they experience no spontaneous desire. This is an opportunity for you to explore how their conflict cycle impacts desire and how feeling connected, safe, and secure in their relationship can foster openness to sexual intimacy. But most importantly, you will have the opportunity to validate their experience as normal and help them (and their partner) understand that there is nothing wrong with them. This experience alone can be transformative for individuals and couples and help them re-establish a strong emotional bond as it relates to their sexual relationship.

I feel normal for the first time in my life and now my husband is starting to believe that my lack of spontaneous desire is not a reflection of his lack of desirability. We are starting to figure this out and I have noticed moments of openness to sex, which feels great. We’re no longer locked in the cycle of his pursuit and my defending.”

“I understand her better now and for the first time ever I feel hopeful that we can figure this out.”

You, and your clients, can read more about this new way of understanding desire in the New York Times article “There is nothing wrong with your sex drive” by Emily Nagoski:

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