Late on a chilly spring night several years ago, my husband inquired when I would be coming to bed. "Mmm, a little later," I replied. Translation: "Do you want to make love?" Answer: "Not a chance." The dialogue was familiar, but this time it was edged with a quality of brooding tension that distinguished it from the hundreds of similar invitation-and-refusal scenes we'd enacted before. When I finally came to bed that night, my husband was still awake, bristling with outrage and hurt. "Every night, it's the same routine," he stormed. "Aren't we ever going to have sex?"
The provocative core of new research is this: each of us approaches our erotic encounters already primed by a premixed neurochemical and hormonal "cocktail" that influences both the strength and staying power of sexual passion. Having delved into this new biological evidence and observed its impact in my own couples therapy practice, I’m convinced that as long as our clients remain unaware of these bodily processes, they’re at high risk for making disastrous decisions about their intimate commitments.
To begin to understand the biology of desire, think back to the last time you fell fiercely, feverishly in love. He, or she, merely walked into the room and your body was zapped by a thousand-watt current, transforming you from a reasonably rational, functional adult into a trembling, mushy puddle of pure yearning. Some scientists now believe that the frenzied euphoria of romantic love may well be a bona fide, altered state of consciousness, primarily brought on by the action of phenylethylamine (PEA), a naturally occurring, amphetamine-like neurotransmitter.
At first glance, the proposal that something as fluffy-sounding as "desire education" could make any difference to dispirited couples sounds inflated, if not preposterous. Faced with the typical couple's end-of-their-rope discouragement, how is dispensing a bunch of facts on body chemistry going to make any difference?
In my experience, the difference is as profound as hope. For beneath the "dry" facts on neuronal and hormonal processes lies a radically normalizing, shame-reducing message: sexual passion is rooted in our natural body rhythms. That means that if the thrill is gone or if the thrill is different for you than it is for me, I haven’t failed and you haven’t failed. Nor has our relationship failed. Maybe we've got a chance.
To begin this process, I ask each partner to share with each other what kind of sexual-emotional activity would feel most loving and satisfying to them. As they gradually deepen their understanding that their partner's experience of passion is both different from their own and entirely valid, they become more generous in their capacity to stretch to respond to it. The result isn't blood-boiling sexual fireworks, but rather a budding sense of mutual intimacy and trust that begins to energize both erotic and emotional connection. Slowly but perseveringly, they began to feel their way toward a state of marital grace that I call mature love.
These are the moments when therapy becomes a high-wire act, as we try to maintain a fragile balance between a generous acceptance of biological reality and a fierce, nonnegotiable allegiance to consciousness. If we’re serious about trying to stem the tide of marital and family misery in this culture, our clients' most torturous questions about their intimate relationships will require arduous discussions about choice and responsibility, as well as about the proclivities of neurons and hormones. Our body chemistry counts—much more than we ever imagined. But in the end, biology is only backdrop.
In our newest Webcast series—The Changing Face of Marriage—Pat notes that in an age of information overload, where choices on how to date and communicate seem endless, we’re being faced with a paradox of choice. Satisfaction is constantly being reevaluated and ultimate happiness always seems out of reach. But by teaching clients to “right-size” their lives and focus on core values, we can help partners learn to navigate together through the sometimes bewildering options couples face today. As part of our 6-session Webcast, you’ll learn specific techniques for helping clients develop these crucial navigational skills.