Mark and Stacey found themselves, after just two years of marriage, facing an all-too-common issue – a difference in sexual desire that created confusion and resentment.
Therapist Richard Schwartz said in counseling this couple, as with all couples, it’s important to take a few steps back and reflect on the bigger picture - how the two people relate to each other. Schwartz said couples therapy can be most successful when reaching toward the true goal of intimacy. A healthy sexual relationship is a powerful pathway to that goal. But the steps on path have to begin with partners knowing themselves, and understanding the other person, so the sexual relationship can be not only passionate, but compassionate.
The Connection Between Intimacy and Sex
“No other area of a couple's life holds as much promise for achieving intimacy as sex,” says Schwartz in an article “Helping Struggling Couples Get to the Root of Intimacy Problems” in Psychotherapy Networker. “Indeed, the promise of intimacy may be as important as lust for drawing human beings toward sex in the first place. My goal now is to help partners reach the kind of soul-deep connectedness in their sexual encounters that can transform their lives and their relationship with each other.”
Negative Responses Compound Sexual Issues
When couples struggle with a lack of harmony in their sexual relationship, an ongoing pattern of desire and rejection can dig the couple into negative patterns that worsen the sexual relationship, as well as the broader emotional relationship.
Schwartz found this negative pattern creating disharmony between Mark and Stacey.
“Now, not only do I not get my sexual needs met, but I feel rejected because most of the time I get shot down when I initiate," Mark told the therapist.
At the same time, Stacey told the therapist she hungered for more emotional connection in their sexual relationship.
“For me to want to make love, I have to feel emotionally connected to him and, to be honest, most of the time, I just don't,” said Stacey. “It's gotten to the point where any time he touches me I freeze up. I'm afraid to respond even affectionately because if I do, he thinks it's an invitation to sex."
Uncovering the Innocent Physical Self
During individual counseling sessions with Schwartz, Stacey recalled a time when she was six-years-old and her father was getting her ready for a bath. She sensed, in an instinctive, childlike way that there was something wrong – and bad - about the way he looked at her. Although nothing happened, the feeling of distrust and fear stayed with her when she felt physically vulnerable as an adult. She also recalled her mother making distasteful comments about sex and even though Stacey was too young to understand, the feeling stayed with her.
Mark, in private counseling sessions with Schwartz, recalled a time when he was 13 and other boys made fun of him in the locker room. That’s when he began to develop his “macho” persona that he felt he needed to rise above the teasing.
Once they recalled their negative associations with sex in the comfort of private sessions, Schwartz began specific therapeutic techniques to help them replace the negative memories with more positive images. That helped both of them release the negative patterns that had created obstacles in their sexual relationship.
Healing the Physical and Emotional Connections
“When I brought them together for a joint session, I told Mark and Stacey, ‘No wonder you feel so hopeless. You never had a chance for real intimacy. As you heal these parts we've found, you'll finally have a chance’,” said Schwartz.
Describing the new, clearer relationship as a “self-to-self” connection, Schwartz said many positive developments occurred during a year of couples counseling.
“Mark and Stacey reported continuing changes in their sexual and nonsexual lives together. Each was becoming a different person with the other. In fact, they were becoming a lot of different people with each other in ways that increasingly energized, touched and delighted them both.”
When a couple can have honest and satisfying sexual experiences, the physical intimacy becomes a backdrop for a safe and wonderful relationship on many levels, said Schwartz.
When each person in the couple understands how to build authentic “self-to-self moments,” one-upon-another, said Schwartz, “… the storms of life cannot interrupt a deeper, more enduring current flowing between them.”
Schwartz, Richard, “Helping Struggling Couples Get to the Root of Intimacy Problems,” Psychotherapy Networker, Sept. 28, 2017.