You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling: The Meaning of Sexual Boredom

Article excerpt

Rodney Dangerfield once joked: "Last time I tried to make love to my wife nothing was happening, so I said to her, `What's the matter? You can't think of anybody either?"' This bit alludes to the problem of sexual boredom in intimate relationships. In reality, it's not funny. 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 more intimate and interdependent, their sex life suffers? How can we understand the oftrepeated 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, we 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, unconscions fantasies about a partner's interior life can lead to guilt-based worries that we will hurt that partner if we 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. …