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.
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?
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.
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.