Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

Sexual Arousal and the Ick Factor

The science behind why a partner turns you down

The blogosphere was buzzing this week with a study on sexual arousal from the journal PLoS Online that involved women performing tasks that had a repulsive, gross or  "icky" quality to them, such as drinking from a cup containing an insect or wiping their hands with a used tissue. Interestingly, women who were sexually aroused felt less disgust when doing the icky tasks than the participants who were not sexually aroused.  

The researchers concluded that sexual arousal decreases women's disgust response, since sex involves smells, sounds, tastes, touches, sights and fluids that can be considered "icky" in more sober moments.

"This results in the intriguing question of how people succeed in having pleasurable sex at all," wrote study lead author Charmaine Borg, a Ph.D. student with the faculty of behavioral and social sciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

It also explains why so many men complain that after the honeymoon stage of their marriage, their spouse lowers the frequency of sexual relations. Sonya Rhodes, a marriage and family psychotherapist and author of Second Honeymoon: A Pioneering Guide to Reviving the Midlife Crisis, noted that if a marriage suffers from a congenital lack of emotional intimacy, physical intimacy becomes a big issue. Dr. Rhodes observed through her years of clinical therapy that women tend to see sex as a natural result of a healthy relationship, while men consider sexual relations unconnected to the interpersonal aspect of the marriage or cohabitation. Thus when a marriage is ailing, the woman will be less aroused and the ick factor will become predominant. The wife will withhold sexual relations because the very notion of it now seems icky to her, whereas the man will want to have sex even when the relationship is under stress.

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This is the sad situation in which men complain their spouse is using sex as a weapon. As the man remains emotionally withdrawn from his increasingly miserable wife or live-in girlfriend, he will discover to his shock that the main reason for creating the romance in the first place, namely sex, will diminish as his wife or girlfriend's opinion of the union wanes.

From the halcyon days of the honeymoon, when he was Prince Charming, the man will find his moments of physical intimacy declining proportionally to his wife or girlfriend's' views of the emotional intimacy of the union. She will find her efforts at communication cut short by her increasingly resentful mate. In a downward spiral, the woman will tend to communicate her growing displeasure about the relationship by becoming increasingly withdrawn.

The very thought of sex with her partner or of him even carressing her now becomes revolting to her. Her body language in the home and even in public will now communicate distance. While waiting for a table at a restaurant she will now sit across from her spouse instead of snuggling up next to him. It becomes obvious to everyone that the honeymoon is over.

To the man, this is fighting unfairly. No matter how poor the emotional relations are on a daily basis, men feel their primary source of physical affection should continue to flow unabated. Best-selling author Dr. John Gray observed that resentment is temporarily washed away for men when they enjoy regular sexual relations in a committed relationship. The well of anger in a resentful man will increase as his physical relationship with his partner declines. As therapist and author Marvin Allen observed, the marriage or cohabitation now will shift from one of romance to one of conflict.

As obvious as it is to women, men are blind to the reason why physical relations in a committed relationship decline. They have no idea why their fed-up mates withdraw sexually from them. Marriage researcher Pepper Schwartz termed this resulting scenario as the most common type of sexless marriage, in which there's a lot of anger and two people who simply don't know how to change their behavior. The woman isn't feeling any arousal and the man isn't getting any. Perhaps now that we know from human biology that the ick factor is physically repelling women from their spouses and live-in boyfriends, steps can be taken to address the underlying emotional problems that lead to physical estrangement.

J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.

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