Sometimes sexual problems are the body’s way of communicating a message to us that cannot yet be put into words or understood. In this vein, symptoms — psychological, emotional or sexual — can be seen as unwavering messages from the heart, boldly alerting us to our innermost feelings and thwarting our efforts at self-deception. These signs from our inner selves bear wisdom that is expressed unconsciously through the body and mind. When these signs are decoded and understood, the symptoms — no longer needing a voice in the body — may almost magically disappear.
Michael, 32, and Stacey, 29, had been married 5 years and were struggling with a sexual problem. Both of them feared that Michael was no longer attracted to Stacey, since he had not initiated sex in a long time and, during recent attempts, was unable to maintain an erection. Erectile dysfunction medicines were ineffective.
Notably, the couple had recently been through some family crises with Michael’s family of origin when some disturbing events came to light. That situation conceivably could have accounted for Michael’s initial lack of interest, as well as feelings of inhibition about any behavior he might have perceived as aggressive, including sex. However, although these events might have contributed to Michael’s initial retreat from sex and the negative spiral that ensued from Stacey’s reaction, they were not enough to explain the ongoing story between them.
The immediate reason for the couple seeking counseling at this time was Stacey having just revealed to Michael that she had had sex with another man, a one-night stand with a stranger. She described this episode as passionate but meaningless. She viewed her infidelity as a “cry for help” in the relationship and confessed to Michael about it immediately afterwards. She felt ashamed of her behavior and hopeless about being forgiven. She could not even forgive herself, knowing that she hurt Michael and forced his hand in the relationship. Michael, however, did not feel that Stacey was ashamed at all, rather, he saw her as minimizing the whole thing on top of having the presumption to expect “credit” for having been honest about what she did.
“I’m no longer attracted to my wife.”
Michael spoke privately in an individual therapy session about his lack of attraction to his wife, focusing on her weight gain and failure to exercise. Michael continued to insist that he did not feel “chemistry” towards Stacey despite the fact that, as they both agreed, they had enjoyed a mutually satisfying sex life earlier in the relationship and had apparent chemistry then. Michael maintained that he saw Stacey more as a friend and would be willing to remain in the marriage without sex because he loved her and didn’t want to lose her. Stacey, however, made it clear that she would not stay in a sexless marriage, stating that it made her feel unattractive, rejected, and deprived.
Michael talked about not trusting Stacey, now that she had cheated on him, and felt that she was “dirty” since she had been with another man. However, he did not connect these feelings with his focus on what he viewed as negative aspects of Stacey’s appearance. Michael seemed angry with Stacey over her infidelity but played this down in her presence during the sessions, generally acting caring and congenial towards her. In contrast, however, at home Michael apparently often became quite angry and over-reactive during arguments about other less consequential issues.
Michael and Stacey had trouble staying with difficult conversations. Feelings often became too heated, ultimately leading to an impasse in which they would both shut down in anger. During therapy sessions when they were able to safely talk and ask one another questions, they discovered that many of their assumptions were inaccurate regarding what the other thought and felt about various things that had happened in their relationship. Through this process, Michael and Stacey repeatedly learned the truth about how they had actually affected one another at key moments, and the meaning that different events had for each of them. A striking awareness on both their parts ensued on these occasions, when it became obvious that many hurt and angry feelings were the result of misunderstandings and misperceptions of each other. These incorrect assumptions harmed their relationship.
During much of the therapy, Michael’s erectile dysfunction appeared to be an untreatable problem between them. Michael and Stacey both knew that if this issue continued, their marriage would not endure. A time limit was imposed on the counseling, putting their marriage to the final test to see whether they could move beyond this stalemate.