As a sex therapist, I often work with long-term, committed couples struggling with a variety of sexual difficulties. The most common issue is the problem of mismatched sexual desires. The partner who wants sex more often usually ends up feeling rejected, wondering whether their partner still finds them sexually attractive or whether their partner is cheating on the sly. If one partner suddenly seems to have lost interest in sex or is pulling away after years of closeness, the real reasons often have very little to do with attraction or infidelity. Sometimes the problem is blamed on porn, especially if the one pulling back is a male who is caught watching porn instead of being physically intimate with his partner. However, increased porn viewing is often the symptom rather than the cause of lack of desire.
Usually, emotional and power dynamics lie at the heart of these situations. One partner uses sex as a way to convey strong emotions that they normally are not comfortable expressing directly. Or they may use it as a weapon to reassert a sense of power and control. By withholding sex, a partner may find a source of leverage that they may otherwise feel they do not possess. Below are the three main causes behind desire discordance in relationships.
1) Anger- Often, individuals never learned healthy expressions of anger in their families of origin. Anger may either have been taboo or only seen when built up to the point of rage. As a result, many people experience anger as dangerous, something that leads to negative consequences, and so must be avoided at all costs. Individuals with unresolved anger or without healthy models of conflict resolution, are not comfortable communicating their anger appropriately to their partner. This anger may be suppressed and reappear in other, more indirect and passive aggressive ways, such as refusal to have sex. The withholding of sex, then, is a form of punishment for some other perceived slight that angered the partner.
2) Resentment- This is very similar to anger, but refers to anger which has built up over time, and has hardened into a negative and condescending attitude towards the partner. Resentment is corrosive, highly damaging, and very difficult to overcome once it has taken hold. For this reason, it is very important for couples to have an early intervention if they find themselves even starting to experience a sense of resentment. When resentment plays out sexually, it often takes the form of long-term abstinence from relational sex, refusal to meet the partner’s specific sexual requests, and even behavior meant to ridicule and sexually shame the partner.
3) Power- This is also closely connected to anger and resentment, but refers more to the relational balance between the couple. If one partner feels like they do not have a voice, they may use sex as a means to gain concessions from the other partner. Power dynamics always play a role in relationships, but if they are unacknowledged or completely out of balance in a non-consensual way, these power inadequacies often get expressed sexually. In this way, sex is a bargaining chip, used both for specific concessions, as well as for an internal sense of power or superiority over the other partner.
Sex is often the arena where relational problems such as hostility or power imbalances get acted out when both partners do not possess the tools to openly discuss them and collaborate on changing. As a therapist, my task is to help both partners understand their role in their relationship problems and help them to appropriately verbalize their feelings and needs in a collaborative way, rather than physically acting them out. For most, sex is a source of pleasure, joy, and satisfaction. But often, it can be utilized and experienced as a source of rage, hostility, power, and aggression. By bringing these submerged dynamics to the surface, I allow couples to confront their true motivations and decide whether they will choose to collaborate for change or continue in their negative spiral of passive aggressive sexual hostility.