All couples in long term pairings know something of the vicissitudes of desire. The sexual intensity that more often typifies the early stages of a new relationship cannot remain the same over years of familiarity. The up close and personal experience of day to day coupledom means witnessing one’s partner in their least attractive states, both physically and mentally. The intimacy of familiarity is double edged. Whilst bringing a sense of safety and security to a partnership it inevitably over time erodes an experience of the unknown, of mystery and “otherness” in which early attractions were ignited.
The capacity for surprise enjoyed by new lovers is intoxicating, the investment in pleasing each other extremely high…each person keen to present the best possible version of themselves. This stage of idealisation is both necessary and natural but inevitably gives way to a more complex intimacy as couples get to know each other as whole (flawed) people….for better and worse. A sense of responsibility grows wherever we find ourselves caring about the well-being of another. Discovering the fears, insecurities and sensitivities of someone to whom we are growing close adds a layer of emotional complexity that on entering the bedroom can, over time become a vampire to desire.
Sexuality and Shame
A shameful secret in many relationships today is a lack of sex. Diminution of sexual desire has become a source of shame (and blame) in a cultural context in which desiring and being desired are highly valued. The idealisation of sexual intensity becomes a burden to many people who experience its absence as a private and very personal failure. Many couples are plagued by the doubt that they are not having enough sex or at least enough of the right kind of sex. All too many people believe that something about their sexuality is either abnormal or wrong. With the exception of new lovers at the height of their infatuation vast numbers of people in our culture feel less than happy with their sexuality.
Our sexuality is forged in the cauldron of family life and cultural context. So attuned and wired are we to the feeling states of our early carers that it is virtually impossible to imagine a childhood utterly free from any feeling of guilt or rejection. Our sexual fantasies and preferences are always creative solutions to unconscious problems. They arise from a need to transcend feelings of guilt, worry, rejection and helplessness. To a large extent these feelings are an inescapable part of the human condition and sexual desire will always have to navigate the complex landscapes of our internal subjectivities.
Pleasure and Pain
Beset, as is so often the case by painful judgements, it would seem a courageous enterprise to seek a greater understanding of our sexuality. We might develop greater tolerance and compassion both for ourselves and others when we learn more about the very important personal (and cultural) meanings in our sexual responses and attitudes. Taking the shame out of sex and broadening the conversation about our appetites need not be a passion killer…. The unrelenting grip of shame over time undoubtedly will be. At the end of the day, sex will most likely always remain complicated but understanding its dynamics need not put a dampener on pleasure. A failure to do so may make pleasure far harder to share.
Gerry Gilmartin is an accredited, registered and experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor. She currently works with individuals (young people/adults) and couples in private practice. Gerry is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice.
Further reading by Gerry Gilmartin –