My last post on mismatched libidos generated responses about the premise that there is no such thing as libido, but instead “arousal response”. It may matter academically how it’s described, but for our purposes, I think the more important question is what happens when your sexual “get up and go” has “got up and went”, and it doesn’t come back, i.e. no libido/sexual arousal. When avoidance kicks in to such a degree that there’s no chance for an arousal response, it’s no longer wanting less, it’s not wanting any. Much of the time, there’s no affection either, as the avoidant partner doesn’t want it to “lead to something else”.
Now what do you do? This is a common dilemma for couples coming to therapy. And once again, it’s not just women. There are many reasons for this, and I’d have to write a book (which I am, though with a broader look at love and relationships, including this topic) to address them all.
I’m going to focus on women this time around, on one very important, but often overlooked concept which I frequently see: the loss of sexual identity. In our and other cultures, women are socialized in such a way as to give away their sexuality to the male in their lives. I do want to be clear that this is not a blame statement for men, nor for women.
This can begin much earlier than with adult relationships. Back to toxic gender mythology–“She’s a tease.” is something of which no girl or woman ever wants to be accused. This loss of sexual identity does not happen to every female, but it happens too frequently to be ignored. Understanding it, whatever your gender, can be a huge help in changing and moving past it.
Consciously or not, she feels once she has reached a certain level of sexual intimacy, every successive sexual encounter must go at least that far. Now, I’m talking bases, but I’ve never really understood the universal (?) definition of what constitutes 1st, 2nd or 3rd base. I’m pretty sure intercourse would be a home run, but even that is open to question! In other words, if he gets to 2nd base once, he always gets that far, etc. This is the place where a sense of being in charge of her sexuality is at risk of eroding. Contrary to what many males believe, women lose the feeling of having any control regarding sexual intimacy with their partner. This goes hand in hand with loss of her own sexuality.
Once on this path, her sexuality increasingly belongs less and less to herself. Self-pleasuring may also cease. Women often feel that if they’re not being sexual with their partner, it’s certainly not okay for them to be sexual with themselves, lest they feel guilty about it. So they may just shut it down altogether, until it just seems to disappear. Eventually, it’s as if they never had it to begin with.
Once there, further fallout occurs. Feelings may include guilt for depriving her partner (no awareness of her own deprivation), resentment because she feels guilt or obligation, and often resultant anger. This is often accompanied by a belief there’s something wrong with her, frequently shared by her partner.
Here’s how I approach this dilemma in my work; however, if you and your partner can undertake this process on your own, go for it. In this instance, do try this at home! Of course, therapy is always an option should you need it.
First off, I encourage her to take back her sexuality and begin to experience it. This phase is just for her and is entirely self-focused. Of course I hope she will share and enjoy it with her partner later, but that’s after she’s claimed/reclaimed it as belonging to her.
This concept of loss of sexual identity is often foreign to most people. Though it may be unconscious, if a woman has relinquished her own sexuality, sex no longer serves to meet her needs, only his. This disconnect may be labeled as asexuality, but that isn’t the case here. It’s simply the end point of a destructive process. I’ve heard women say they would be just as happy to never have sex again! How sad to relinquish that part of oneself.
People often experience losing part of themselves in relationships. They stop speaking up and sweep things under the rug in service of peace at any price and call it “compromise”. Traditionally, women have had a difficult time asking for what they want and need. This certainly applies in the sexual arena, if asking or if saying “no” is already challenging. Sadly, I still see this with younger women who are able to be assertive in their careers and other aspects of their lives, but not with their partner, and especially not with sex.
Resources include books on women’s sexuality, e.g., Becoming Orgasmic: A Sexual and Personal Growth Program for Women by Julia R. Heiman, Ph.D. and Joseph LoPiccolo, Ph.D.; erotica in books, e.g. My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday, Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James, and films on websites such as www.comstockfilms.com. In addition to books and films, I often recommend the use of “sex toys” and suggest external use first. Be creative–go with whatever works for you! For additional resources, feel free to visit my website.
Phase one comes with certain mutual agreements. There is no sexual intimacy between the couple during this time. I often hear “We’ve come to a sex therapist who tells us to stop having sex?” Yes, strange, but true-and temporary. She’s claiming the space she needs to focus and stay true to her own sexual needs and desires, to replenish what probably once existed but has disappeared from view. If her partner can understand and support this process, the second phase is much more likely to more quickly occur. It gets more complex, however. Sexual references, innuendos or jokes are included in the “no fly zone.” Women often hear those as subtle pressure, which may not be intended but will likely interfere with progress to the second phase: resumption of sexual intimacy between the partners.
People want to know how long this first phase lasts. My stock response (flip, I admit) is that my crystal ball is still at the shop, so I don’t know. It may take a while; however, if you consider how long it took to get to “that place,” patience and no expectations regarding a time will serve best.
I encourage couples to talk about how things are going, but again with the caveat that there is no pressure. It’s best to let her lead the way in this arena. And yes, guys, she is “in control” of this part, but she has to be for it to work. Think of it as advancing the ball toward the goal of resuming sexual intimacy, and give her the space to get down the field to the goal line. As for the ladies, if you feel pressure, say so. It may not be intended, so be mindful of that fact and don’t accuse, but articulate your feelings and own them as belonging to you, not because you were “made” to feel them.
Last, once things are back in gear– sexually speaking–stop being goal oriented, (i.e., intercourse and orgasm). The goal has already been reached. Now it’s time to begin a mutually wonderful intimate sexual experience, whatever happens or doesn’t. Hopefully, the results will be well worth the wait.