A New Approach to Resolving Desire Differences in Couples
Part 1 of this discussion summarized the many myths about desire differences and the sex-therapy approach to resolving them—using either self-help or professional therapy. The sex-therapy program helps many couples, but not all. Recently, Canadian researchers reported an effective new approach: eight weeks of group therapy that produced significant benefits. It’s based on reimagining lovemaking to facilitate sex worth wanting.
What If Low Desire Is a Reasonable Response to Lackluster Sex?
Back in 2005, the Canadian team was not focused on desire differences. They wanted to understand what produces fantastic sex for long-term couples. They interviewed 64 veteran spouses who said they had great sex, and asked them what produced it. The participants included 33 men, 30 women, and one transgender man. Their ages ranged from 23 to 82 (average age of 57). They cited eight major elements of superlative sex:
- Being present. The couples focused entirely on each other and on their lovemaking. As one said, “The room could be on fire, and I wouldn’t notice.”
- Deep connection. This involves the feeling that two souls have merged into one.
- Profound intimacy. The couples thoroughly cherished each other, which included mutual trust, respect, caring, and admiration.
- Empathetic communication. Verbally this means real listening, sharing of secrets, and taking risks. Nonverbally, it involves loving touch.
- Authenticity. Being who you really are, feeling uninhibited, and being able to experience pleasure the way(s) you enjoy.
- Surrender. Letting go. Feeling comfortable giving oneself to one’s partner, as in “I’m all yours.”
- Exploration. Viewing lovemaking as play that produces pleasure and laughter. “Let’s try this and see how we feel.”
- Transcendence. A meditative feeling of bliss, peace, ecstasy, transformation, and timelessness.
Some of the hot-sex long-term lovers also valued two additional elements, but called them less important than the “big eight”:
- Orgasm. Most participants said orgasm helped produce erotic satisfaction, but was neither necessary nor sufficient for great sex.
- Lust. Few wanted to rip their partners’ clothes off, but among those who did, that feeling added to their enjoyment and satisfaction.
The Canadian team’s work led to a fine book, Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers by Peggy Kleinplatz, Ph.D., and A. Dana Menard, Ph.D. It also led them to wonder if the eight (plus two) elements of optimal sex might help resolve chronic desire differences. To find out, they recruited 50 women and 40 men involved in 45 couples—38 heterosexual couples, six lesbian couples, and one gay couple. Participants ranged in age from 29 to 69 (average age of 43). Half of the low-desire partners were women, and half were men. Some had not experienced partner lovemaking in more than a decade. The only exclusion criteria were imminent divorce and a history of violence in the relationship.
Over eight weeks, the couples attended 16 hours of group therapy, either eight two-hour sessions or four lasting four hours. Pre- and post-surveys documented what happened.
Initially, the therapy team, one man and one woman, debunked the many myths that spoil sexuality, for example, the mistaken notion that sex means vaginal intercourse. They explained that satisfying lovemaking need not include intercourse, that it’s based on leisurely, playful, mutual whole-body massage and loving touch that eventually—after 20 minutes or so—extends to the genitals. Subsequent sessions featured a massage therapist who expanded participants’ appreciation for pleasure derived from touching and being touched. In addition, the therapists assigned homework, none of which involved genital play: readings, videos, and couple exercises focused on enhancing playfulness, deepening trust, being in the moment, and asserting sexual likes and dislikes.
After eight weeks, post-testing showed significant improvement on 17 of 23 items, among them: sexual arousal, function, creativity, and delight, emotional openness, surrender to pleasure, ability to be present during sex, mutual initiation of erotic moves, balance between giving and receiving pleasure, and ability to respond to partners’ touch. The participants said the greatest benefit was overall sexual satisfaction (p < 0.001). In most cases, the benefits lasted for at least six months.
Many participants expressed surprise at how quickly and dramatically their sexual interest and frequency changed. As one couple reported in their evaluation, “We just had an overnight away together, and things were different. So much less stress and pressure. A wonderful, loving, fun time together that felt easy and special.”
From Frequency to Quality
In long-term relationships, desire differences are virtually inevitable. The standard sex-therapy approach involves negotiating a mutually acceptable frequency and scheduling sex dates. It helps most couples, but many gain little or no benefit. This study’s novel approach focuses not on the frequency of lovemaking, but on its quality. The results are impressive. I hope sex therapists incorporate it into their practices.
While all eight (plus two) elements of sexual quality were valuable, erotic experimentation was especially important, more important than even orgasm. Experimentation involves a willingness to take risks and suggest new moves. Many people recoil from rocking the boat, fearing the risks over the possible benefits. But what about the real risks of sexual stagnation? As Bob Dylan once sang: “Those not busy being born are busy dying.” Sexual novelty releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure. Anything new piques erotic interest and usually boosts pleasure. And as this study shows, erotic novelty also contributes to frequency.
Many people believe that sexual transcendence—that is, erotic bliss and ecstasy—happen by magic and only with “soulmates.” Actually, this study demonstrates that transcendent sex involves skills that can be learned. The Canadian team corrected participants’ sexual misconceptions and helped them climb out of their ruts and focus on each other and on mutual erotic pleasure. That helped resolve desire differences complicated in some cases by more than 10 years of mutual resentments.
Whether or not your relationship is plagued by desire differences, this program can add zing to your lovemaking. Check out Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers by Peggy Kleinplatz, Ph.D., and A. Dana Menard, Ph.D. And if you’re in therapy for desire differences or considering it, mention this study and Magnificent Sex to your therapist.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.