The Monogamy Challenge: Creating and Keeping Intimacy
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Chapter 15: High and Low Desire Patterns
Another key issue is that if one person in the relationship is more comfortable expressing desire or has more in the first place, a couple can become polarized into roles in which one carries the desire and the other carries the resistance or ambivalence. This is an aspect of how opposites are attracted to each other and how we tend to attract someone who is the opposite of our primary self. The same principle can play havoc with the desire patterns in a relationship.
First, attracting opposites could result in people with two different desire patterns being attracted to each other. In purely sexual terms, a person with high sexual desire will be drawn to a person that they would unconsciously perceive to have the stability of being more reserved or having less sexual desire. The person with less sexual desire would conversely be attracted to the enthusiasm of the person with higher sexual desire. Later in the relationship, when the newness is over, these two are destined to have sexual conflict.
Their conflict will be exacerbated even further because a basic principle of desire is that the person with higher desire will force the other into resistance by pushing their desire upon them, and the person with lower desire will leave the high desire person stuck in desire by not being able to express it. If one partner is holding more desire, the other will have difficulty in finding their own desire, because they will be spending their time reacting to the other. They will end up criticizing the other for always being too sexual or not sexual enough.
Take Steve and Jennifer, a couple who were originally attracted to each other in part because they each possessed some similar opposites to those I mentioned in prior chapters. Steve had played hard in life and was now ready to settle down and be more responsible. Steve had a good job, worked hard, and had a strong sex drive. Jennifer was also ready to settle down, and stability had always been important to her, in part because her childhood was a little chaotic. Jennifer had always been more of a cautious and reserved person. She enjoyed sex, too, but was less overtly driven by it. Jennifer possessed a refined nature that Steve needed and was very attracted to. Jennifer was also very attracted to Steve’s more expressive and playful nature, which she needed in her life. These opposites were a simple but strong source of attraction, and they fell in love and got married. As life together progressed and stresses mounted, the newness and fantasies wore off. These simple differences predisposed Steve and Jennifer to become polarized into a “high” and “low” desire pattern.
As Jennifer reverted to her more cautious primary self, she became less infatuated with Steve’s more expressive and sexual nature. As Steve reverted to his primary self of being playful and sexual, he became more judgmental of Jennifer’s more cautious and less sexual side. As this polarization grew, each felt criticized and defensive about their sexuality. Steve felt rejected and judged for wanting sex, and Jennifer felt pressured and judged for not wanting sex more often. Steve wanting sex so often made Jennifer want it less. She was so busy reacting to his advances that she became further polarized into her low desire. She could not feel her desire for Steve because it was as if she was always being chased. The more Steve felt rejected, the harder he pursued. It was as if Steve was always leaning forward to try to get sex, and Jennifer was always leaning back, reacting to feeling controlled or suffocated by his advances. Steve criticized Jennifer for never initiating sex, and Jennifer criticized Steve for never giving her room to initiate it.
To break this pattern, Steve had to let go and stop pursuing sex. He had to learn to self-soothe. Jennifer had to find her sexual nature and pursue Steve. It was hard for Steve to let go and touch Jennifer less because he felt such strong desire for her. It was hard for Jennifer to find her interest when she was so caught up in rebelling from Steve’s advances.
In counseling sessions with me, they were able to talk about this and come up with some plans to correct this polarization. Steve agreed not to initiate sex for an indefinite period. I told him it might take months and that Jennifer may never want to have sex with him, but he was going to have to deal with it and self-soothe. Jennifer agreed to initiate sex when she wanted to. They both agreed to increase non-sexual intimacy and touching. They also agreed that if they did become sexual that either of them could stop at any point. This is critical: you won’t feel free to start if you don’t feel free to stop. Most people in Jennifer’s position resist kissing because they fear it will lead to foreplay, and they resist foreplay because they fear it will lead to intercourse. It is important not to worry about the high desire person being left hanging. Steve would rather have some loving touch with Jennifer than none, and he was okay with stopping. Steve also agreed to let her take and keep the lead on how far things went.
Notice what a healing role reversal this is even beyond the sexual arena. Steve was going to try to let go of controlling things by initiating, and Jennifer was going to claim her power and let go of being in the submissive or reactive position. This could teach Steve to receive and not have to be the guy who did so much. Jennifer could learn that she was worthy of being a leader.
At first these suggestions did not work. Steve said, “She’s still withdrawn and doesn’t want to be close or be held.” Jennifer said, “He’s still hovering over me asking me if I would like my shoulders rubbed.” They were both trying to do it right, but Steve was not energetically letting go and Jennifer was not energetically “coming out.” I pointed this out, and we did more work on the feelings underneath the issues. Both of them felt unworthy of love, which Steve expressed by chasing and Jennifer expressed by shutting down. Steve found self-soothing difficult and was more comfortable in the chasing/predator/hunter role. Jennifer had unresolved fear and anger from all the unwanted advances she had endured from men.
As they each worked to make more shifts in their energy and their behavior, things started to change. Jennifer had fun touching Steve, and he felt the joy of being desired. They were still prone to getting caught up in their busy lives and losing this newer balance—Steve would still push too hard sexually, and Jennifer would still forget how much she enjoyed sex—but they had more tools for identifying the issues and getting back on track. Jennifer did get to where it was okay with her for Steve to initiate sex, but in general, things worked better if he slowed down and gave her more room to initiate and respond. Steve learned that Jennifer needed three times the amount of foreplay that he did and that communication was part of foreplay.
Steve and Jennifer illustrate that when the high desire person stops pushing their desire, it gives their partner room to find their own innate desire instead of reacting or resisting. When given room, whatever desire they do possess can more easily come out. It’s the same principle referred to as playing “hard to get.” When we let go or play hard to get, it creates space for the other person to come forward. The opposite is also true. If the person with lower desire finds, and comes forward with, more desire, it frees the person with higher desire from expressing desire so frequently. Being approached and desired puts them in the receptive role, and they can more easily let go of being the initiator.
David Schnarch, in his sexual and marital therapy model, expresses this dynamic as one in which the person with the least desire controls the relationship. This applies to all aspects of a relationship. With sex, it means that if one person wants to make love and the other person doesn’t, sex will not occur, and it is the person who doesn’t want to make love who has control. With money, it means that if one person wants to buy something and the other person doesn’t, a couple is less likely to make the purchase. The low desire person therefore controls the decision whether or not to make the purchase.
It is important for both parties in a relationship to let go of their position and move toward the needs of the other. In Schnarch’s model, relationships only separate when someone makes a miscalculation and decides that they can continue to control the relationship the way they want it, without shifting to incorporate the changes their partner is seeking. Schnarch also jokingly but seriously says that the statement, “I want to work on the relationship” usually means that “I want to pound you back into the shape you were in previously.”
If one person holds a lot of control in a relationship and their partner is asking for change, they may request changes of their own in an attempt to maintain the status quo, when what is really called for is for the controller to realize that they already hold control of the key areas of discourse. It is scary when our partner asks for change, and it is scary to ask for change. We all tend to remain in the status quo because we fear that our partner will abandon us if we ask for more.
If we feel that our partner holds the control of something that we desire, it is important to ask for what we want and work to feel worthy of receiving it. It could even be fair to express our needs without concern about where we will receive them. Saying that we want to have sex twice a week, and that we would prefer it to be with our mate, is the ultimate ultimatum. This would sound harsh coming from someone who already held a dominant position, but coming from someone who lacked power it might sound like a fair shift in the relationship. If a subservient partner took this “shape” or position, their partner would have to confront whether they would like to remain in control or would rather make the changes needed to keep the relationship.
Determining who controls the relationship can be simple. Just ask yourself who has the least desire for sex, who has the least desire to spend money, and the least desire for other miscellaneous things like friendships, travel, or cultural events. Sex and money are usually the two biggest areas of human need and are the main two areas where control issues can be observed. You will probably notice that the person who wants the least in these areas controls the relationship in general. Don’t be too distracted by practical reality—like not having the money for a purchase or a vacation. While it might not be appropriate to spend the money, if one person is more adamant about it, it is probably a sign of this kind of control issue. It is also common for one person to control sex and the other to control money. If this is the case, both people need to work on both sides of this issue. This would entail speaking up in one area, and listening and surrendering control in another.
Control issues are usually based on fear. People tend to seek control to protect themselves from loss or abandonment. If one person is in control of the majority of the relationship’s discourse, I encourage them to work deeply with their fear of loss and surrender it. If they don’t address their fears, the relationship will be more likely to end, as the other person breaks free of constraint and starts to feel that they deserve to receive what they want and need. Also, it helps if we try to identify with how painful it is to live without the sex, financial habits, or leisure activities our partner desires.
We need to empathize with our partner’s needs and work to get aligned with them. This was an aspect of the work that Steve and Jennifer did. Steve worked to give Jennifer the non-sexual attention she needed, but Jennifer also worked on her sexual issues and found more desire for sex. In doing so, they met in the middle and gave up their power struggle. This was a courageous act, especially for Jennifer because her lower sexual desire left her in control of sex. Because she was already getting what she wanted in their sex life (less sex), she had to empathize with Steve’s need for more sex and join him in that. If they were unable to do this and meet each other half way, they may have ended their relationship.
It is helpful to realize that the high desire person is continually giving the other control by expressing needs and desires. In the area of sex, the higher desire person is giving the other control if they are always pursuing. As Steve got better at self-soothing, he took his power back. By self-soothing, he was holding his power on the inside instead of just handing it to Jennifer. Jennifer was also probably unconsciously enjoying being in control by saying no. Having Steve want her more than she wanted him kept her secure and in control because it was always clear that he wanted and desired her. His desiring her kept any of her own fears of abandonment at a safe distance.
Mutual desire is accomplished when there is an equal flow between the partners. It is important for both partners to initiate sex somewhat equally. If one person tends to do most of the initiation, it indicates that the non-initiator probably controls sex. Once this polarization is in place, both partners have a great deal of work to do to break the pattern. Both people need to move away from their position and habits and embrace and incorporate the other’s perspective.
The solution, from the perspective of the person who has the most desire, is to let go of expecting or hoping for their desires to be met and become better at receiving love without sex. For many men, sex is the easiest way for them to receive love. This was the case with Steve; being wanted sexually was extremely validating, and sex helped him feel appreciated and nourished. He needed to learn additional ways to let the tenderness of love in. Steve learned to be held non-sexually, and he got better at self-soothing, which helped him let goof using sex to sooth himself. For Jennifer, the person who held less desire, the solution was to find her desire and have the strength to express it for herself, because deep down she also wanted more passion in her life.
If Steve and Jennifer were unable to create some equality in the desire patterns, Steve would have been destined to a future of painful celibate monogamy, while Jennifer would have continued to feel like a sex object. High and low desire patterns cause a polarization that goes beyond sex and creates anger and withdrawal issues in many areas. The conflict and distance may have motivated both Steve and Jennifer to have an affair—Steve driven by sex, Jennifer by needing unconditional love and non-sexual intimacy.