Having worked with couples for over 30 years, I've often observed a phenomenon that goes against just about everything therapists have to say about women and sex. And what ‘s that? Perhaps Billy Crystal said it best when he proclaimed that women require a reason to have sex--whereas men, well, they just need a place.
And this humorist almost certainly meant--as do therapists typically when they discuss this fundamental gender discrepancy--that in general women desire sex when they wish to physically confirm their emotional connection to their partner. Men, on the other hand, are far more likely to want sex simply on the basis of testosterone levels, which routinely define the strength of their libido (though to be fair, a male's sexual interest, particularly as he ages, can also reflect his need to re-establish an emotional connection experienced as lacking).
But returning to the notion that women need a reason to have sex, and that for them sex usually involves far more than acting out libidinous urges, what are the other reasons for them to desire sex beyond physically expressing feelings of emotional closeness? Based on my own clinical experience, I can think of many. But the rationale I'd like to focus on here is one that's rarely alluded to in the literature: namely, a woman's wanting sex--and at times desperately so--out of fear that her partner may be on the verge of leaving her. That is, she may actively pursue her spouse sexually to help deal with powerful feelings of anxiety, stemming from her intuition or knowledge that her relationship is in jeopardy--fragile, teetering, or on the brink of collapse.
The woman's apprehension about a possible break-up may derive from her partner's broadly hinting that he wants out of the relationship or, in fact, from his directly informing her of his intentions to move out and file for divorce. Or it's possible she might suspect that he's having an affair; or (because of the vast emotional distance separating them) that he's actually fallen in love with someone else and, on that account, secretly planning to desert her. In a panic about it all--especially if she still feels devoted to him, or there are children involved and she's frantic to keep the family together at all costs--she may be desperate to initiate sex to feel less helpless, as well as to exert some control over (and hopefully alter) her husband's errant, non-loving behavior toward her.
I call such sexual desire "fear-inspired": a perhaps unprecedented drive toward physical intimacy rife with contradiction and paradox, yet at the same time accurately mirroring the mixed emotions she's experiencing in a situation felt to be gravely threatening and precarious. As a consequence of her distress, or anguish, she's strongly impelled to prompt a heated sexual encounter whereas previously she may have shown ambivalence, apathy, or even a marked antipathy toward making love with her partner. Withdrawn and quite possibly sexually shut down, in the bedroom she may take on the role of "aggressor"--or, probably a better term, "seductress."
It all makes perfect sense. If the woman has been told, or at least senses, that her spouse is giving up on the relationship--or is emotionally or sexually involved with another woman--alarm bells can immediately start bellowing inside her head. Up to this point, and for any number of reasons, she may have lost almost all sexual interest in him. Maybe because of numerous unresolved arguments, misunderstandings, and resentments. Or because of not feeling sufficiently cared about by him. Or because he's become so preoccupied with work that he barely seems to notice her anymore. Or maybe it's because she's become so absorbed--probably with her children. And so on, and so on.
Nonetheless, she may still assign a high value to the relationship--or just to staying married. At the very least, she may simply not be psychologically prepared for the emotional chaos so characteristic of separation and divorce. Whether jealous or not, if only to protect her vulnerability, she may be willing to try almost anything to escape the painful sting of rejection.
There's an old country western ballad called "The Other Woman" that covers--albeit simplistically--something of the psychological dynamic of this not uncommon phenomenon. Here, excerpted, are a few of the lyrics:
The other woman is in for the fight of her life
I've loved him too much and too long, to have him taken away . . .
I'm going to bury the hurt, gonna get down to work
Roll up my sleeves and be what he needs--a lover at night
Oh and not just a wife, you bet your life, I'm gonna keep him.
Note the tremendous will and determination in this female persona to change her ways in the face of what she can't help but view as imminent calamity.
Ironically, the sex that can emerge from the considerable trepidation and anxiety I've been describing can be unusually passionate. Though I've already characterized such sex as "fear-inspired," the very intensity of this fear can transform itself into substantially heightened sexual arousal--such that the end result of lovemaking can be electrically charged (what noted sex therapist, David Schnarch, actually refers to as "wall socket sex"!). It's as though, ironically, the woman's pronounced fear of abandonment renders her capable of having more abandoned sex than she may have been capable of before.
As regards the subtitle of this piece, "A Woman's Ultimate Defense--or Weapon?", it should now be apparent that experiencing the threat of a permanent break-up, the woman's reactively intense desire for sex deserves to be seen as both "ultimate defense and weapon." Obviously, her intention in being as enticingly sexual as possible is to defend her all-important union--to protect it from further deterioration and, hopefully, to breathe new (and impassioned) life into it. But her freshly instated (or re-instated) sexuality is also about exerting maximum influence over her partner's deliberations as to whether or not to stay with her. So "rolling up her sleeves" and being what (at least she thinks) he needs, enables her to employ what might be her ultimate weapon: the feminine allure that may have led to his decision to commit to her in the first place.
© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.