A Gentle Approach to Desire DiscrepancyJun 14, 2023
Building Capacity for Pleasurable Connection
There are a lot of reasons I don’t recommend that clients “just do it” to resolve a desire discrepancy:
- Your client may have unresolved sex pain, which can lead to emotional, physical, and relational damage if left untreated. (More on sex pain here.)
- Your client may be experiencing consent violations in their relationship; consent violations can be very subtle, or even entirely internal, and still cause serious harm. (More on subtle consent violations here.)
- Your client may be asexual, meaning that “having more sex” may not be an expectable or desirable treatment outcome for them, and a course of therapy focused on increasing desire when they don’t want it would be marginalizing. Because asexuality is still underrepresented, your client may be asexual without yet realizing it. (More on asexuality here.)
- Your client may have experienced sexual trauma; “just do it” is not a trauma-informed perspective or intervention, and is likely to do harm.
Even beyond those considerations, recommending clients jump in and “just do it” may do more harm than good. When partners aren’t having sex, and they’re unhappy about it, they’re probably disconnected in a number of ways. Whether they’re lying next to each other in bed at night, or just doing chores in the same small space, there’s a wall that’s gone up somewhere between them. Whatever underlying dynamics are creating this disconnection, asking them to have icebreaker sex is not just asking a lot; in fact, it’s likely to create further blocks.
So, once you’ve assessed and discussed all the foundational conditions I covered above, how do you start to make progress?
Let’s say your client wants to experience more sex, does not experience pain with sex, and isn’t feeling coerced. From there, there are a lot of options, but one great place to start is by building embodiment. Very often, I’ll find that my clients are disconnected from their own bodies, and with that, shut out from their experience of pleasure. I ask my clients: What would happen if you started noticing your experience of pleasure? I’m not talking about just in the context of intimate touch–I’m talking about everyday, accessible moments of physical pleasure, like:
- The feeling of warm water on your hands when you wash the dishes
- A beam of sun hitting your face when you step outside
- A pet curled up in your lap
- Getting into a bed with clean sheets
- Touching the petals of a flower
- Etc. (This is where I ask my client when they experience sensations that are pleasurable as part of their everyday life.)
As a person begins to experience more connection with pleasure, they are simultaneously increasing their experience of embodiment, because sensations happen in the body. Focusing on pleasure and noticing it when it happens naturally is a great first step; then, they can focus on intentionally making the pleasurable experience longer and deeper, with increased awareness of the bodily experience.
For some people, this takes a long time to build; for others, it just needs a little time and attention. For those who have physical or sexual trauma in their past, or a current experience of pain, the body may not yet feel like a very safe place to be. In that case, it will be worthwhile to slow down and focus on building safety, security, and self-efficacy as a foundational piece of this work. A good therapist or coach can help with this.
If the goal is ultimately to include a partner in an experience of pleasure, consider how to make an incremental progression so your client can organically build the skills and capacity for connection with another person while experiencing physical pleasure. One way to begin might be to share an experience of daily pleasure with their partner. That could start very small—say, with sitting across the table, holding cups of tea, breathing in the steam and relaxing together, appreciating the multi-sensory experience.
Many people already do this without much conscious awareness—for instance, sipping coffee together in the morning and sharing an “ahhhh” moment and a smile. The project here would be to make it conscious; increasing an awareness of both the sensory experience and the connection between people, and then allowing it to grow, and intentionally encouraging it to be a substantial, important, and purposeful shared experience of pleasure.
You can build from there to small, low-anxiety forms of touch. If, say, sex is a 10 on a scale of anxiety-producing touch, and coffee is a 0, shoot for something between 2 and 4. That might be holding hands while out on a walk, snuggling up on the couch while watching a movie, or sharing a shoulder massage. It should be comfortable, easeful, and just a little anxiety producing–because that activation makes things feel alive, and the goal is to stretch.
Remember to tap into the skills built already: tune in to the body, notice all the sensations, intentionally grow positive sensations, and attend to the connection between partners, as well as the bodily and sensory connection with self. Cultivate awareness of your own experience, as well as your partner’s experience, and see if you can build pleasure for both.
Originally published on Psychology Today.