Like many marriage therapists trained as sexologists, I find that a hig..." /> Like many marriage therapists trained as sexologists, I find that a hig..." />

Women Wanting More: The Delicate Balance of Love and Desire

Couple in bed looking away from each otherLike many marriage therapists trained as sexologists, I find that a high number of couples who contact me are struggling with loss of desire—usually experienced by the female partner in heterosexual married relationships. Since women’s level of desire is generally lower to begin with, this can cause real problems in relationships that began heavily laden with hot sex—and most do!

Decades as a couples therapist have confirmed for me that men usually think more about sex, fantasize more about it, initiate more, masturbate more, and work harder to get it. What I’ve also observed is that women tend to be more aroused by the novelty of a new partner. Can you anticipate some problems here?

Compilations of female fantasy, such as My Secret Garden, have illustrated for decades that women are turned on or sexually aroused not by relationship, per se, but by a sense of being desired, ravished, or irresistible. Initially we might seek commitment because it signals that we are chosen—uniquely desired. But once he marries you, your guy is stuck and not supposed to hook up with anyone but you.

I’ve blogged before about the danger of domesticity undermining desire. Author and therapist Esther Perel discusses this in her excellent book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Experience: “The very elements that nurture love—reciprocity, mutuality, protection, closeness, emotional security, predictability—are sometimes the very things that stifle desire.” Marriage frequently causes a steep decline in sexual desire, especially for wives.

For some women, legalizing their relationship via marriage renders sex so easily available and sanctioned that it loses the forbidden and erotic quality that formerly turned them on. Others find that over-familiarity with their spouse leads to a decline in mystery, romance, and sexual experimentation, as well as lessening interest in caring for their appearance. Postnuptial weight gain (not pregnancy) often results, which can be a turn-off for both partners.

Women who do become moms often find the role of mother to be extremely desexualizing and experience real difficulty shifting from the Mommy role to the lover role. One of my clients recently lamented that her best friend now referred to her as “the head matron,” which didn’t sound remotely fun, sexy, or adventurous!

As Perel wisely points out, our vision of ourselves may be more crucial to desire than our relationship to our partner. “Over and above anyone else,” she writes, “women are their own point of reference for how sexy they are.” This self-scrutiny plays out most obviously and agonizingly in our body image.

A poor body image doesn’t just inhibit desire—it can hijack our view of our entire sex life. In a 2010 study of 154 women published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Cindy Meston concludes that women who had low self-esteem and thought about physical appearance during sex had less satisfying sex and were more distressed about their sex lives.

Recently, one of my male clients complained in his individual session with me: “I could feel she was wet, so I tried to penetrate—but she stopped me and told me she just wasn’t turned on! What gives, Jill? Am I crazy?” His report of how aroused he was remains closely correlated with his genitals. Not so with his wife! She needed to be aroused between her ears as much as between her legs.

This might explain why Viagra just doesn’t work for women. It increases genital blood flow and puts genitals in a slippery state but does nothing to affect the way women feel subjectively about the erotic experience (or lack thereof) that we’re having.

In my next blog, I’ll talk about an approach that is showing real promise in helping women to synchronize mind and body to overcome desire issues. So stay tuned!

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nan

    March 21st, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    I think that what most men fail to see is that for us, it is all about how we are feeling and thinking and not just about genital arousal. They think hey, it seems it’s all systems are go, but they have done nothing really to show us that they love us and for me, I know this is a real turn off.

  • daniel k

    March 21st, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    its not like men can just proceed with sex by just being turned on.we need to be in the right frame of mind too.its just that for a group of men sex feels like something satisfying and something that could make them feel better,put them out of this miserable frame of mind.does not mean its purely physical for men either.

    and I can imagine how body image would disrupt the sexual desire in women.they are always under pressure to look their best and with hot sex being associated with looking at your very best thanks to popular media,things tend to get bad for those that could have put on a bit of weight or had a baby.

  • Susan Beggan Paganie

    March 22nd, 2013 at 9:58 PM

    I think sexy is a state of mind that is difficult for some women (and men) to connect with due to the onslaught of media that projects unobtainable body types to us on a never ending basis. If we can let go of those images and expectations and become comfortable with who we are and with our partner, we are freed to enjoy the pleasure. In most mature clients I see, it is so much more about the relationship. If we feel we are in trusting, nonjudgmental, caring arms it frees us to be vulnerable. Being with someone who loves us for who we are, can make us feel sexy no matter how we look. Sexy is so much more a state of mind rather than a certain body image. Sure, we can all appreciate someone who is blessed with a wonderful physique, but let’s face it, how many people in your life really look that way? We are all people doing the best we can do. And sexy begins somewhere in the brain…with a thought, special words, feeling loved and wanted. It begins with the actions of a person who makes us feel special. Light some candles, play some soft music, go the extra mile to help your partner feel like they are the only thing you are thinking about, give them mindful, loving attention…..the magic will happen. Trust me.

  • Annie

    March 25th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    One of the biggest problems that I think that many women and men both have to face is that once we get married the desire goes out the door. Why? I think that for the most part most of us really stop trying as hard as we once did I know that there was a time when I wouldn’t dare be with my husband without shaving my legs and just being “ready” if there was the chance to have sex But now? I am lucky or he is lucky if I shave them once a week! It seems that once you get married and have a family the priorities completely change and we all stop making enough time for our spouses. I really think that this lack of attention to one another is probably one of the major reasons for divorce and unhappiness in marriages today.

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