Sex is one of the strongest motivating forces in life. It has the potential for creating intense pleasure and fulfillment or for causing considerable pain and suffering. The effect of a natural expression of sexuality on one’s sense of well-being and overall enjoyment of life cannot be over-emphasized. The way people feel about themselves as men and women, their feelings about their bodies, and their attitudes toward sex contribute more to a sense of self and feeling of happiness than any other area of experience.
A “healthy” orientation toward sexuality is reflected in a person’s appearance and attractiveness, in the ability to be tender and generous to others, in a sensitivity to children, and in one’s level of overall vitality. The combination of loving, sexual contact and genuine friendship in a stable, long-term relationship is conducive to good mental health and is a highly regarded ideal for most people.
On the other hand, disturbances in one’s sexual life can have serious negative consequences: the unavailability of sexual pleasure and fulfillment causes irritability and tension; jealousy often leads to passive brooding and low-grade anger; and sexual withholding activates regressive or childlike feelings of inadequacy in oneself and rage and desperation in one’s partner. An individual’s basic attitudes, thoughts, and feelings about sex largely determine the extent to which he or she relies on inward, self-protective mechanisms or seeks satisfaction in a real relationship. Relegating sexuality to a completely separate and discrete sector of life also contributes to a basic distortion of human sexuality. This compartmentalization takes sex out of the realm of being a ubiquitous part of a person’s human nature.
Most intimate couple relationships start out with the individuals spontaneously expressing their sexual feelings but often degenerate into a Fantasy Bond typified by sexual withholding and other maladaptive responses. People who are involved in long-term intimate relationships are, for the most part, deeply affected by the declining quality in their sexual relating. However, unless they are troubled by a specific sexual problem, they may be unaware of the extent of the damage they sustain in the privacy of their bedrooms.
Most people view their mutual patterns of withholding and their diminished sexual attraction to each other as part of the normal course of events and mistakenly place the blame on the familiarity, routine, and daily contact inherent to a committed relationship. In truth, once people have been damaged in their basic feeling about themselves in their early lives, they find it difficult to offer or to accept love and close companionship. They hold on to their negative self-image because to change would lead to anxiety.
In time, destructive changes tend to occur not only in the area of people’s sexuality, but also in individuals’ fundamental feelings about themselves as men and women. The problem often can be traced to disturbances in the original mother-infant dyad or family constellation, and their reenactment of these dynamics in the present. Beyond a certain point in the early phases of a new relationship, most people gradually stop responding to each other according to present-day reality. Instead, regressive, childlike feelings and reactions gradually replace adult responses. One’s original feelings toward one’s parents are transferred onto the loved one. This process can be likened to the phenomenon of transference which occurs in psychoanalysis.
There are other factors that affect sexual relating in long-term relationships. When men and women experience child sexual abuse, their sexual lives as adults may be problem-free until they enter into a deep relationship, at which point they begin to have trouble. In Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (2006), we described several individuals who were abused sexually as children and who became increasingly intolerant of closeness, affection, and passion as their relationship became more meaningful. They began to hold back their responses either sexually or emotionally, trying to stay away from the special combination of love, sexuality, and tenderness that can be the most satisfying. It seemed that they were unconsciously holding back a full sexual response to avoid reawakening painful feelings or memories from their past.
In withholding their sexual responses, individuals are denying their need for another person or for anything outside the self-parenting system. To varying degrees, they fantasize that they can entirely meet their own needs, that they can “feed” themselves, in effect. To help understand where one stands in relation to this defensive process, it is valuable to examine one’s sexual life and sexual fantasies because they symbolically express the individual’s attitudes toward the giving and taking of love in relation to other persons. This analysis also reveals the manner and the extent to which people have retreated to an inward style of self-feeding in order to gratify themselves, as compared with the ability to have a deep feeling, emotional exchange with another person.
This maladaptive process negatively affects marital relationships by limiting sexual responses and/or by distorting one’s views of sex based on the past. These inappropriate responses vary in intensity and become compulsive to the extent that the individual experienced deprivation, rejection, or sexual abuse, or has other issues of unresolved trauma or loss. By understanding and working through the defensive, regressive ways of relating sexually described here, many people have been able to regain the friendship, affection and lively sexuality that characterized the early phases of their relationship.