Getting that loving feeling back, Clare and Tom's story
27 March 2008
Tom and Clare are an attractive couple in their mid-30's with a young child. They used to have an active and varied sex life but Clare is no longer interested in making love. It's become a cause of arguments and so the couple seek marriage counseling.
There are a number of possible reasons for a loss of libido : anti-depressants, the contraceptive pill, diabetes, anemia and hormonal changes after a baby to name a few. Clare had tests which gave her the all-clear on the main medical causes. In effect her low libido wasn't attributable to anything physical she just had no interest.
In fact, unexplained low libido in women is so prevalent in America that the American Medical Association has a term for it, "Female Sexual Arousal Disorder" (FSAD). It's not that women with this disorder cannot achieve orgasm, when they do have sex it can be quite fulfilling, it's simply that they do not have any noticeable sex drive.
There is some evidence to suggest that women are biologically destined to experience a reduction in libido once they have formed a "pair bond" with their partner. It may be that it's the female body's attempt to ensure that the male stays interested - a kind of biological game of "hard to get". Alternatively it may be because men do not appear to experience a reduced sex drive so that the woman unconsciously knows that she can have sex at any time and so becomes disinterested in it.
The counselor that the couple worked with used the love triangle to explain that Clare and Tom's relationship had moved away from the passionate corner of the triangle toward the area known as "companionate love" (love without passion). She offered them a multi-step plan to re-ignite their passion.
Step 1 : Get her some space.
The first recommendation was that Tom take on a more active role in their children. Clare felt that she was shouldering most of the parental work. Clare felt some resentment as a result and resentment is a major dampener of passionate feelings. Clare needed some time to herself, to feel that she had a life of her own outside of the roles of parent and homemaker to feel herself again.
Step 2 : Get to know each other again
Tom confessed that he had a high sex drive. It hadn't been a problem before but as Clare's own libido faded away he found it hard to understand why. He had become frustrated and his attempts to get Clare to be his bedroom playmate again had pushed her further away. Clare perceived that Tom was always pestering her for sex and it made her want it even less.
The counselor recommended a gradual approach to re-introducing sex into their lives. Each week Tom and Clare were given "homework" designed to reduce pressure on Clare and to re-connect Tom to Clare as his lover rather than an outlet for his sexual frustrations.
It wasn't easy. For several weeks the couple were allowed only to touch non-sexually, to cuddle, to kiss without doing more. Each week they were allowed to go a little further. For Tom it was very frustrating, he wanted desperately to get to the end-game and to be allowed to have sex again but the counselor warned that this would simply derail the whole process. And it was starting to work for Clare, she felt romantic feelings coming back for Tom until one weekend, much to her surprise, she felt a lustful longing for him.
After 5 weeks of this therapy the couple got their erotic life back. You could say they had successfully moved their relationship out of the companionate love zone into the consummate love zone of the love triangle.
The first time I read Clare and Tom's story I thought it was really about a cure for Clare's problem. Since then I have done a lot more research into the science of romantic love and I see now there was a lot more to it than first appears.
Clare felt that Tom wasn't doing enough with the children, she felt that the relationship wasn't fair. Was she unconsciously reacting to that by punishing Tom through withdrawing from sex as might be expected from Equity Theory (see Fairness and sexual satisfaction?)
And the therapy of a slow build-up back to sexual intercourse is a mirror of our dating experiences. In the early days of courtship we do a lot of holding hands, kissing, progressing through what kids call "the bases". First base, second base... Was that activity somehow re-setting the relationship back to a fresher state? Was Clare learning to be sexual again or was Tom learning to love and nurture his wife again? Or was it a little of both?
In relationships, especially romantic ones, things are not always as they seem.