One of my specialties is working with couples who are struggling to rekindle their sexual desire for each other. It’s a frequent enough occurrence in my practice, that I’ve been interviewed in a number of media outlets about it, including the Huffington Post. As I indicated in that article, the loss of desire in a long-term committed relationship is not uncommon and is often related to a number of factors that go way beyond the simple idea of attraction. Often there may be complex emotions that have come between the partners over the course of time, corroding the foundation of closeness much like water creates cracks and rifts in bedrock over time.

I’ve explored different facets of overcoming emotional issues and resentment with couples in other areas of my blog both here and here and here. In this particular post, I want to focus on a different, yet essential aspect of getting couples back on track– carving out the space for each other. First, though, I want to take a step back and make some general observations about my experience with successful treatment outcomes in couples therapy. I’ll then come back and tie this back into my original point, since I think both are interconnected.

Usually when I work with a couple, I am very active and give homework that is relevant to the particular situation. It’s not that I am passive or don’t give homework to my individual clients, it’s just that the level of conflict or tension that a couple brings into the room almost requires a more prescriptive and assertive stance on the part of the therapist. Inevitably, I find one common denominator in those couples who make quick strides in couples treatment and those who don’t. The couples who do well do their homework. It’s seemingly that simple. But there’s far more to it. It’s not just that the couples who don’t do their work don’t want to see results. Far from it, they keep coming back to treatment hoping to fix what ails the relationship, but seeming to be unable to take one single step forward as soon as they get home.

What’s going on here? Are these folks ambivalent about making the necessary changes to fix their relationship? I think it’s much more complicated than that. In my experience, most of these couples sincerely want to have more sex and have more desire. That’s not the source of their ambivalence. Instead, what makes them most anxious is simply the act of making space for each other. In other words, being alone with each other. Without any fluff. And without any distractions. What is so scary about focusing on each other without any distractions? I’d say a lot, and it comes back not to sex, not to desire, but to the emotions that they are afraid will bubble to the surface. And so, as is usually the case, sex therapy becomes much less to do with the mechanics and nuts and bolts of sex or with some linear understandings of the stages of arousal, but rather with the ability to stay present and vulnerable with painful emotions. This is what we call ‘intimacy’.

Let’s take a look at how this works. An initial problem relating to sex could start out in a number of ways. It could start out mechanically with a few bouts of performance anxiety that then escalates into a bigger emotional problem related to fear and shame. Typically the performance issues cannot be resolved without first addressing these more problematic underlying emotions. Or the lack of desire could be directly related to problematic emotions that have contaminated the relationship, such as anger and resentment (which is basically anger mixed in with a dose of entitlement). Once again, we come back to the primacy of emotions. And this is where things start to unravel.

You see, when folks are struggling with the emotions they experience for each other, what they naturally want to do is avoid each other. And this avoidance takes a number of routes. This avoidance may include filling up the evening with distractions. You know, stuff like TV. LOTS of TV. In fact, when I think of it, every (and I am usually very cautious to say ‘every’) single time I’ve ever seen a couple struggle to make any headway with the homework, inevitably there is a very large and loud TV set lurking somewhere in the picture. And it’s just so hard to turn it off. Because there are so many favorite programs to see. And then I ask, what’s more important, your TV or your marriage? And it’s always the marriage. Until the couple gets home and the TV looms large and inviting in the living room. But in reality, it’s not the TV. There’s always TIVO or Netflix, or whatever. It’s just that it’s SO DAMN HARD for these couples to make the space to just be with each other.

Or it could be a very active social life. Having friends and a strong feeling of support is important, I get it, but that’s not what I’m referring to here. I’m referring to the couple that spends each waking moment with other people just so that they don’t have to spend a moment alone. And so I’ll hear that they didn’t have time for the homework because of their busy social calendar. But again, it’s not about being social, it’s about avoiding being alone together, which is what is required to deepen the relationship. But here’s an important opportunity for growth– once a couple is done making every excuse in the book, once it is no longer feasible to scapegoat the TV set or the friends, then and only then are they ready to finally admit that there is something internal, something emotional, that prevents them from moving closer together.

That’s when it gets painful. And that’s when the hard work begins. And that’s when real change can occur. Because if we can work through these difficult emotions that keep folks feeling estranged, then the rest of more surface level stuff, like the physicality and sexual initiative can begin to resume. But to get to those desired objectives, to bridge the sexual alienation and rekindle the flame of desire, couples have to start with the first step, making the space for connection.