This is the first in a series of interviews with experts.
Marianne Brandon, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, offers some startling advice to women in long-term relationships in her new book, Unlocking The Sexy in Surrender.
As a psychologist specializing in sex therapy, how many couples come to you because of a lack of interest in sex?
Lack of sexual passion is the most common problem sex therapists see in our practices. It’s far more common than problems with any specific sexual behaviors. While every couple is different, the most common scenario I see are couples with a strong emotional connection, a caring and respectful commitment to one another—they like one another—but they just don’t feel the sexual spark any longer. Maybe he prefers porn. Perhaps she prefers reading erotica or online flirting. But even though they started out with a lot of sexual passion, it’s not there any more. The women in particular usually say they want greater emotional and physical intensity in their sexual relationship—like they used to have.
A lot of therapists are trained to believe that sex problems stem from emotional or communication problems. Is this what you find?
In my first five or six years as a therapist, whenever I worked with a couple with problems with sexual desire, I did start out by trying to help them resolve underlying emotional conflicts. Maybe conflict over pushy in-laws; resentment that one partner works too much or works too little; or frustration that one partner spends too much—or is too stingy. However, even after these emotional issues dramatically improved, the sex rarely did. After a while, it became clear to me that the methods I had been taught simply did not work for sexual problems. Something else was going on, something other than emotional or psychological conflicts. That’s when I turned to other kinds of research looking for answers—biology, anthropology, neuroscience, and the latest sex research.
So what is the root of these couples’ sexual problems? Do we just get bored with the same thing?
Familiarity with one another is a very vague description of the problem, but if we brush off a lack of sexual desire as “simple boredom” then we overlook the critical details of the true cause of sexual stagnation. We can go deeper and ask: What is it exactly about familiarity that is affecting us so much? What is happening in our sexual brains that causes them to shut down? Can we do better than just saying that boredom dooms us to bad sex?
It turns out that new findings in biology and neuroscience provide us with much greater clarity about the diminishment of sexual passion. It turns out that the problem is not nearly as simple as "familiarity." And once we understand what it really is, it becomes clear that this problem is actually the single greatest challenge to long-term relationships in the twenty-first century.
And what is it?
It’s a conflict between one of the greatest cultural triumphs in the history of our species and one of the most primitive and potent animal instincts in our species. It’s a conflict between the admirable values of feminism and the neural reality of our primal sexual brain.
Women have made marvelous progress over the last hundred years. We run Fortune 500 companies, win Nobel prizes in science, fly fighter planes over battlefields. We have taken control of our lives. But ironically, when we enter the bedroom, this urge for control comes into direct conflict with our sexual brains.
Within the classroom, stateroom, and boardroom, our similarities are more evident than our differences. In the bedroom, however, our differences matter—and matter absolutely. This psychic split is especially vivid in long-term relationships, which tend to push a couple’s interactions out of the realm of animal passions and into more cerebral realms of compromise, equity, and familiarity.
But what the science shows is that our animal sexual brains crave an asymmetry of power in the bedroom. Women’s bodies still long to be sexually taken by a man who is capable of over-powering her with his strength, but chooses to love her. And men still crave a responsive, open lover—one who will enthusiastically follow his lead. The exquisite dance of sexual domination and submission remains an intoxicating element of love-making, in spite of our desire for equality in other aspects of life.
What can couples do with this knowledge?
The first step is recognizing the problem: Once you understand that the problem is not that he is playing video games, or that she is working late, or that it's not the simple fact that you see each other every day, it becomes possible to make effective changes.
There are steps you can take to restore sexual passion once you begin to understand that it’s not boredom itself that’s the problem—it’s that your familiarity works against the asymmetric power roles that your sexual brain craves. Once these roles are restored, there’s often a resurgence of sexual passion. But this certainly isn’t easy, especially for modern, enlightened couples who are used to respectful, equitable interactions. It’s a very difficult tradeoff to manage, and this is why I’ve devoted my career to helping people figure out how to implement this tradeoff and restore erotic intensity to their lives. That’s why I wrote this book—I want to take the insights and practical techniques that actually work in my clinical practice and share them with everyone.