Self-help books, women's
magazines, and TV talk shows frequently offer us advice on how to restore
passion to a relationship. Does familiarity breed erotic boredom? If so,
why? Why does it often seem true that as a couple becomes ore intimate
and interdependent, their sex life suffers? How can we understand the oft-repeated
complaint that marriage produces ennui in the bedroom?
Sexual excitement is
highly sensitive to a wide array of psychological, relational, and social
needs and tensions. One of the roads to intimacy, and sometimes a major
defense against it, sexual arousal and engagement is exquisitely sensitive
to stress and conflict. On the one hand, sexual arousal and pleasure can
be used to restore identity, assuage a wound, circumvent or resolve a conflict,
or re-establish an intimate connection. On the other hand, it can be the
first thing to "go" as a consequence of fatigue, depression,
anxiety, loss, anger, worry, or guilt.
The bedroom is also a
hothouse for social tensions. Men, struggling to preserve a fragile masculinity,
and making use of their greater economic and social power, may leave their
families for younger women. Women, shouldering the inequities of their
gender roles and responsibilities, often extinguish their own desire and
desirability. The pressures of the marketplace and economic rat race infiltrate
families and relationships, making playfulness and pleasure increasingly
hard-won achievements. Social alienation clearly casts its shadows into
the most intimate area of human experience.
Notwithstanding the importance
of the wider social context, w also need to understand the private vicissitudes
and psychodynamics of the problem to do justice to the intimate personal
aspects of our sexual experience. In my clinical work as a psychoanalyst,
for instance, I have been impressed with the central roles of guilt and
worry in the etiology of sexual boredom. Certain conscious and, more often,
unconscious fantasies about a partner's interior life can lead to guilt-based
worries that w will hurt that partner if w get too aroused, or our identifications
with a partner negate arousal to begin with . Both processes are incompatible
with sexual excitement. If one is unconsciously worried about damaging
one's partner or about becoming like a partner who seems damaged already,
one can't "let go" with excitement. The whole complex of guilt
and worry is like a cold shower. But what are we worried and guilty about
exactly? What identifications are being made and how can they be dangerous?
Why do these problems get worse with familiarity and intimacy? And where
do they come from?
I believe that on the
private and intrapsychic level, the problem stems from our families of
origin. Most families have their share of tsouris. When parents are grim,
unhappy, or dissatisfied with their lives, it dampens their children's
natural exuberance. Children not only identify with unhappy parents, internalizing
their moods and temperament, but come to feel responsible, worried, and
guilty about their caretakers, and develop unconscious beliefs that they're
not supposed to be optimistic and happy themselves. Such children grow
up feeling guilty about being more happy, more successful in love and work,
more sexually gratified, and more optimistic about having good things in
life, than their parents.
Since children are still
primarily raised by their mothers, these conflicts are often most poignant
in relation to her. For instance, if your mother experienced herself as
a victim or martyr, or was depressed and devalued herself, or was self-doubting
or masochistic, you'd have hard time kicking up your heels and feeling
confident or exuberant. It would be difficult to feel robust if your mother
was fragile, to be spontaneous if she was controlled, to be carefree if
she was worried, to feel joie de vivre if her life was without pleasure.
Her trials and tribulations might not have been her fault and she may have
loved you deeply. But the essential reality is that it's hard for us as
children and as adults to feel deeply entitled to be happier and more successful
than our parents; to do so is to hurt them or leave them behind. We'll
This set of conflicts
rears its head in the bedroom. Maximal sexual excitement and freedom involves
a "letting go" of restraints, a sense that we can be uninhibited
and even a bit out of control without worrying about the consequences.
And, as much as the intensity of sexual passion is enhanced by intimacy,
it paradoxically also requires a certain lack of consideration for the
welfare of the other. In other words, we need to be able to take the other
for granted in some sense, and assume that he or she will be okay if we
yield self-control and allow our excitement to mount and become ecstatic.
It is in the nature of desire to want to aggressively and ecstatically
collide with the other at the same time that it wants to recognize and
satisfy the other.
This doesn't mean that
it's not exciting to use one's empathy to make the other happy. Arousing
one's partner is a turn-on to most people for several reasons: First, making
your partner happy satisfies a natural human longing; second, it's exciting
to identify with someone who's aroused; third, the other's arousal is intrinsically
affirming; and, finally, his or her excitement is a powerful reassurance
that he or she is happy and not threatened, weak or fragile. Problems arise
when a natural wish to excite the other becomes a worry, or when a natural
wish to not be concerned about the other's pleasure is forbidden. This
trait of selfishness in sexual arousal is frowned on by the Left and Right
alike. And, yet, without it, and without the dialectic between selfishness
and intimacy, sexual excitement is impossible.
Therefore, in order to
get excited, we have to assume that the other can take on the full force
of our excitement without being hurt or overwhelmed, that the selfish and
aggressive dimension of our sexual desire will not damage its object. In
many cases of sexual inhibition, the opposite is true. Again, in my clinical
experience, many people worry, often unconsciously that his or her partner
will feel used, abused, devalued, threatened, or overwhelmed by his or
her sexual energy or fantasies. Often a woman fears that her male partner
will feel threatened by the full expression of her female sexuality, that
he'll feel emasculated or narcissistically injured, or that he needs her
to feel weak or passive. Often a man fears that his family partner is fragile,
that she feels sexually inferior, or that she's defensively brittle about
being objectified. These are extremely common fantasies that reflect dynamics
I've also found to be present in gay couples.
In each of these cases,
a person's worry and guilt about a partner leads to an inhibition of sexual
interest, curiosity, and expressiveness. Compounding the problem is a natural
tendency to identify with one's sexual partner. The more I know my partner,
the more I imagine that we share our inner states. If my partner is perceived
as damaged, inhibited, threatened, or otherwise unhappy, the tendency to
merge makes the possibility of sexual spontaneity unlikely. And it is the
perception of the other's flaws, and not their actual flaws, that is crucial.
Sometimes, we mis-read or misunderstand our partners radically. But our
beliefs often dominate reality. Just as it's hard to be happy in an unhappy
family, so is it difficult to be sexually free and vigorous in a close
connection to someone whom we perceive is not. No one wants to dance on
someone else's grave. And if we feel guilty about wanting to do so, there's
no better (neurotic) solution than deadening ourselves in sympathy. The
result is sexual boredom.
When a relationship is
new, a lover can idealize a partner; these idealized qualities usually
include strength, happiness, and sexuality. In this context, the lover
doesn't have to worry about or feel guilty about the partner because the
partner is experienced as different than the parents, and thus able to
enjoy the full force of the lover's excitement rather than feel hurt by
or excluded from it. For new lovers, identifications tend to be with the
others strengths, and one's partner's separateness is reassuring. Thus,
a new lover feels that he or she can be selfish, and this adds to the excitement.
However, as lovers get to know each other better, they also see each other's
faults, flaws, weaknesses, and human frailties, and the sense of separateness
decreases. This opens the door to a number of processes which threaten
The person transfers
feelings and experiences connected to a parent onto the partner who increasingly
seems like a reincarnation of that parent, a parent whom the child experienced
as needy, weak, or devalued;
The partner's real or
imagined weaknesses and problems raise the specter of hurt or betrayal
as a result of "irresponsibly" pursuing one's selfish sexual
aims, just as one might have felt guilt over pursuing one's own needs rather
than meeting the needs of a parent; and
The experience of the
other's weaknesses or negative moods - usually exaggerated under the pressure
of one's own childhood projections - opens the door to the kind of empathy
and identification with an unhappy loved one which negates any sexual liveliness.
So, sexual vitality can
be threatened by familiarity because feeling responsible for and worried
about a partner's interior life, now perceived or experienced in more complexity,
makes a sense of uninhibited sexual abandon impossible.
This approach helps us
understand the psychological dimension of a wide range of cultural observations.
Both men and women fetishize youth, particularly in women, because it negates
the prevailing representations of devalued women in our culture. Further,
a young woman, unblemished by age or the tribulations of life, is someone
about whom a man need not worry, for whom he need not feel responsible.
In addition to its appeal to men, unblemished youth is appealing to women
because it's an antidote to internal feelings of shame. (The reverse fantasy
is seen in the recent movie The Full Monty, in which loser men, beaten
down and shamed by life, are redeemed and become heroes to themselves and
their women.) the oft-noted sexual fantasy among women in which they are
swept away by a "bad" or "rough" man is similarly related
to a woman's fantasized need for a strong and ruthless man about whom she
needn't worry and with whom she can completely "let go" without
inhibition. Finally, many elements of fashion and fashion advertising make
use of sadomasochistic or dominatrix imagery to appeal to this same need
of many consumers to either be someone who's hard and confident, or to
be (sexually) connected with such a person - guilt-free. If the other person
takes what she or he wants, so can you.
The social meanings of
these psychodynamic processes are complex and can only be hinted at here.
The fact that so man y people struggle against internal representations
of unhappy parents, particularly mothers, raises the question to begin
with of why so many women experience the kind of deep frustration and dissatisfaction
that becomes problematic for their children. The answer must involve structures
of patriarchy, imbalances of power, the relative absence of nurturing and
healthy fathers, and the absence of communities of meaning. Certainly the
kind of anxieties I'm describing are exacerbated and exploited by the capitalist
marketplace which inundates us with idealized images of youth and fantasies
of invulnerability and narcissistic perfection.
The personal and social
dimensions of sexual inhibition interact in a seamless web of causation.
Alienated social relations create unhappy or distressed people who become
anxious and frustrated parents who interact with helpless and dependent
children in ways that shape their characters such that conflicts involving
guilt, worry, and identification regularly arise and threaten the full
and easy play of erotic desire. These children's relationships thus become
enervated and they become vulnerable to the exploitation of the consumer
marketplace and to depression and other psychological symptoms that are
then passed on to the next generation. And all of this seems normal and "natural" because
an essential aspect of the kinds of psychological processes I'm describing
is that they feel like facts of human nature, fate, or biology.
In reality, these processes
are changeable. A social order that made for happier and less stressed-out
families would help, of course. Those aspects of a feminist agenda that
promote happier and more empowered women might help. On a more personal,
psychological level, individual and couples therapy can help. People can
be helped to uncover the unconscious beliefs underlying the guilt, worry,
and identifications generating sexual boredom, expose these beliefs to
the light of day, and change them. Distortions and misunderstandings can
be corrected, new learning and experimentation encouraged, and communication
improved. The factors that contribute to boredom are deeply embedded in
our culture and psyches and need to be liberated at both levels. By doing
so, we might be able to get our parents out of the damn bedroom and start
having more fun.