Amy: Strange as it might sound, as part of my therapy with couples, I find myself saying things like “Sometimes a man needs to enjoy being a ‘selfish beast'”. I know out of context this sounds crude, and probably politically wrong coming from a politically progressive, feminist therapist. So, before our readers get all up in arms, allow me to explain…
Not surprisingly, in working with couples, the sexual connection–or lack thereof–often becomes a part of the therapy. I’ve seen couples where a husband’s problem with “sexual performance” is the reason they’ve come in to therapy. And again, not surprisingly, “performance” is often subtly and intricately related to the underlying dynamics of the couple. (The majority of my sexual dysfunction cases relate to heterosexual couples, so that’s what I’ll be talking about here.)
Most often issues around male sexual dysfunction concern either premature ejaculation or not being able to sustain an erection. This, of course, is frustrating for both partners. Sometimes it leads the man, often unconsciously, to avoid sex with his partner all together. This naturally creates a feeling of emptiness in the marriage, and can spur a low-level bickering, stemming from the partner’s unmet needs.
I’ve learned a lot over the years from the couples I’ve seen where the guy has trouble “getting it up”, so to speak. (This excludes cases where erectile dysfunction reflects a medical condition or issues related to aging.) Usually, I can see that the guy has trouble “getting it up” outside the bedroom. With his wife. In the relationship.
Most of the time, these are the “good guys”. These guys are the conflict-avoiders who may worry about too much heat in the relationship. Sometimes they come from families where their father was a brute, or cruel in some manner. Or the father may have been risk-avoidant himself, never appearing to want or need anything. Or these men may come from families where their mother was particularly emotionally fragile, even mentally ill. They come into their relationship pre-programmed to over-protect their spouse.
While I realize these are broad generalizations, I’ve seen enough couples like this to know that these past relationship patterns can be powerful. These men don’t want to be The Man Who Hurts Women. These latent dynamics can show up, unannounced, in a man’s current relationship with his partner. And often the partner contributes, in some way, often unintended, to her husband’s “failure.”
One thing I know: When I see a couple who are dealing with the man’s sexual dysfunction, I expect to see what I’ve seen many times before. I’m pretty sure the guy is afraid of his spouse. And he probably doesn’t even know it.
I remember one case where the girlfriend was determined to create an atmosphere where she and her boyfriend could enjoy “Tantric sex”. A diligent student, she consumed a host of educational material about the joys of slow sex, which she insisted her boyfriend read. I remember hearing their story in my office, where the girlfriend made sex–that alive, primal experience– sound about as tame and un-sexy as you can get. The boyfriend, not wanting to let her down, followed the instructions to the letter, except for one problem: He couldn’t perform. He got so tied up in knots trying to “get it right” that he totally forgot about his own pleasure. Whoops. Their sex life improved after I got them to throw away the metaphoric script.
I had another case where Jules, the husband, had been unable to maintain an erection when having sex with his wife for over two years. A dutiful husband and father to their two teenage daughters, Jules’ sexual “failure” became a source of shame for him in his relationship. His German-born wife, Brigit, was a real pistol: Opinionated and feisty, she felt continually let down by what she saw as her husband’s lack of sexual proficiency. But Brigit was also intelligent and thoughtful, and she allowed herself to be challenged in the course of our therapy. After several months, Jules grew bolder with his wife, both in the office and at home. And Brigit seemed to enjoy this new, livelier husband. As she said, acknowledging her own ferocity with a smile, “I have claws, but they’re retractable.” Their sex life re-awakened, along with the rest of the relationship.
And for our male readers, one more thing: In all the cases I’ve seen where men have become more attuned to their own playful, selfish sexual pleasure, the women have gotten a lot out of it too. Most of the time, these women find it a turn-on when they know that their guy’s pleasure is important to him. A Selfish Beast can be surprisingly attractive.