One of the most common concerns I come across as a therapist is in the difficulty many people experience in reconciling relationships (love) with sexuality (lust). Indeed, I would say that almost all sexual difficulties exist within the framework of relationships. Very few would seek out help if their sexual difficulty were not interfering with some aspect of an existing relationship or in the possibility of starting a new one. Whether is is dysfunction, compulsivity, or just an inability to get one’s needs met, all sexual issues become magnified under the microscope of romantic relationships.
Often, core emotions interfere with integrating one’s sexuality into the relationship. For example, fear or shame often prevents an individual from not only directly stating his or her needs and desires in the moment but may even lead to starting up a relationship under false pretenses. I’ve seen countless individuals trapped in an unfulfilling and unhappy life of their own doing because they were too ashamed to be open about their sexuality with their partners from the very beginning.
Sometimes the sexual desire is so shameful, that the individual has learned to compartmentalize it and only experience it in secrecy. As a result, that person splits the sexual desire from any emotions that are connected to other people and relationships. It is only safe to be enjoyed alone or with another individual from whom all emotional attachment is removed. In other words, the individual’s sexuality (lust) can only be shared with an objectified other. And never with a person with whom that individual has an emotional connection.
The famed sexologist Jack Morin called this the “love/lust split.” According to him, the best method of treatment was to reduce shame and depatholoze the sexual interest while at the same time helping the individual to tolerate an increased expansion of sexual experience with his or her partner. As I often instruct my clients, growth often necessarily involves learning to tolerate ever increasing levels of anxiety.
This idea of the love/lust split also reminds me of the work of another prominent sexologist, John Money. According to Money, children are all endowed with a healthy “love map,” that they develop through sexual exploration which occurs at a very young age. For him kids, playing “Doctor”was healthy and normal. However, if kids were made to feel shamed or afraid of this kind of healthy sex play, they may develop a “vandalized” love map, in which their normal sexual interests might get warped due to the influence of fear, anger, guilt, shame, and other negative but powerful emotions. Here we can envision the process in which the negative emotions create the love/lust split as an example of a vandalized love map.
Dr. Money went on to identify a number of sexual pathologies that stem from this vandalized love map process, including the whole range of paraphilias. Today though we know there is a big difference between someone who would be diagnosed as a paraphiliac and someone who is merely into elements of kink. For more detail on these differences, please check out my article Kinky Sex or Paraphilia? However, the point still remains that whether someone can only enjoy sex in one narrow way (exhibitionism, for example) or only with a stranger, then at least some elements of this love/lust split are in motion.
Helping my clients to integrate their sexuality within their relationships is one of the core aspects of my work. To do so, we need to take a look at what emotions are intertwined with their sexuality, how they have learned to defend against those emotions, and then help them to tolerate ever increasing amounts of new experience in order to resolve the separate elements of love and lust.