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A Good Sex Life is Not Just About Chemistry

Erectile Dysfunction and Withholding Love

Though the therapist was becoming almost as convinced as Michael that maybe in fact he could no longer feel attracted to Stacey, the treatment persevered. The working hypothesis was that Michael’s erectile dysfunction was a symptom of his unconsciously withholding love and failing to fully “own” and express difficult feelings more directly with words, including anger. Even if this hypothesis were true, though, it was unclear whether Michael actually wanted to let go of his anger and hurt, because in doing so he would be letting go and forgiving Stacey. Michael said that he did not believe he could or would want to trust Stacey again. In not wanting to trust his wife again, he was in effect holding back his love, not only to protect himself but, also, (unconsciously) to punish Stacey and give her a taste of what he had been feeling—helplessness, impotence, and undesirability.

In relationships, an unconscious transmission of feelings may occur, as in this case, when one partner has strong unarticulated emotions that need to be understood and the other is unwittingly “receptive.”  An unconscious process is enacted, causing circumstances to unfold in such a way that the recipient now inadvertently finds him or herself feeling much the same way as their partner had. When the positive motive (empathy, connection) behind this transferring of feelings (called: “projective identification”), can be considered, this experience offers an opportunity for empathic awareness of one another. It can result in very powerful healing.

In this example, through becoming impotent, Michael unconsciously made Stacey feel as helpless and undesirable as he did. She was able to talk about her feelings without becoming defensive or retaliatory. When Michael knew Stacey understood experientially how he had been feeling, and actually felt this from her, and it was a catalyst of change for the relationship, shifting the power dynamic, and finally allowing him to be vulnerable with her.

As the therapy was approaching the finish line, Michael and Stacey agreed to talk more freely about Stacey’s experience during this recent sexual encounter. This was a topic that, previously, Michael had refused to discuss. When Stacey was able to show Michael that she felt deeply ashamed and even unforgiving of herself, and that she understood and cared about how this violation of trust devastated him, Michael began to be able to let go of some of his anger. He was able to open up further, finally asking Stacey what she needed from a sexual partner, a key question that had been looming over him. He confided in her about his deep fear and shame that he would never measure up to the passion his wife had in her encounter with this other man. Stacey for the first time understood how Michael really felt and what was making him feel unsafe and insecure.  This empathic understanding of him allowed her to easily reassure Michael with the truth. After all, what she had been yearning for all along was to feel loved—and to feel loved by him.

Following this conversation, Michael’s erectile dysfunction problem vanished almost miraculously. Their sexual relationship freed up, a recovery that endured over time.

How Could Erectile Dysfunction Disappear?

Feelings that are unconscious or unresolved make themselves known through actions and symptoms. What were the feelings and their disguises here? Stacey acted out feeling rejected and bad about herself by engaging in an indiscretion that affirmed her self-perception of shamefulness in the relationship. This behavior also was a sign of anger, desperation and alarm—an unconscious attempt to wake up her husband to the seriousness of the problem and the risk to the relationship.

Michael’s initial fear of being aggressive, triggered by dynamics of his family of origin, was expressed through emotional and sexual inhibition. His misplaced over-reactions with Stacey disguised the real issue–his anger about her violating trust. Michael’s subsequent lack of sexual attraction and erectile dysfunction were physical manifestations of holding a grudge, as well as feeling inadequate, undesirable and impotent in the face of Stacey’s attraction to another man.

What is the lesson to be learned from Michael and Stacey?

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Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Don’t give in to the temptation to believe the most seemingly obvious or “ easy” explanation of what a symptom in marriage may mean. Persevering to uncover the true and often underlying meaning of symptoms and behaviors may not only save your relationship, but also open you up to a deeper awareness of yourself and your partner.

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Disclaimer: The characters from this story are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas that occur in families.

Photo by BLW Photography, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

A Good Sex Life is Not Just About Chemistry

Lynn Margolies, Ph.D.

Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist and former Harvard Medical School faculty and fellow, and has completed her internship and post-doc at McLean Hospital. She has helped people from all walks of life with relationship, family, life problems, trauma, and psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety, and chronic conditions. Dr. Margolies has worked in inpatient, outpatient, residential and private practice settings. She has supervised others, and consulted to clinics, hospitals, universities, newspapers. Dr. Margolies has appeared in media -- on news and talk shows, and written columns for various publications. Dr. Margolies is currently in private practice in Newton Centre, MA. Visit her website at

APA Reference
Margolies, L. (2018). A Good Sex Life is Not Just About Chemistry. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.