Like 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!
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