How to Overcome Sexual Aversion
Introduction:Sexual compatibility is very important in most marriages. On rare occasion I find a couple happily married without any sex whatsoever, but in most cases, the quality of sex
determines the quality of marriage. When a couple's sexual relationship begins to suffer,
the marriage is usually suffering. But when a sexual relationship is thriving, the marriage is also thriving.
Usually it's the husband who has the greatest need for sex, but that isn't always the case.
I am finding increasing numbers of wives who need sexual fulfillment more than
their husbands. However, whether it's the husband or the wife with the greater need for
sex, the one with lesser need is at risk for a sexual aversion.
In an effort to satisfy the spouse with the greater need for sex, the spouse with the lesser
need often sacrifices his or her own emotional reactions. Instead of sex being an experience that they both enjoy together, sex becomes enjoyable only for the one with the greatest need. And it can become a nightmare for the other spouse. In all too many
marriages, sacrifice leads to a sexual aversion, which, in turn, leads to no sex at all.
This column will help you overcome a sexual aversion if you suffer from it. But even if
you don't, it may help prevent you or your spouse from becoming its victim.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I have been married for nine years, and have two children. I have no interest in having sex. In fact, the thought of it is repulsive to me. I shudder when my husband reaches
over and touches me when we are in bed together. Earlier in our marriage I had sex with
my husband because I knew it was important to him, even though I was not interested.
Sex was not disgusting to me then, just not enjoyable. Over time, however, I began to
refuse him more and more often, and the thought of having sex became more and more
I finally told my husband that I no longer would have sex with him, and asked him to
please stop trying. I feel guilty about not meeting his need for sex, but I feel so much
better. I can finally go to bed and relax. I feel like a terrible burden has been lifted from
me. I feel safe. But I am afraid for my marriage. I don't believe we can go on like this
forever. Do you have any advice?
The reason that you and your husband fell in love with each other and were married is
that you were successful in meeting some of each other's most important emotional needs. You deposited so many love units
into each other's Love Banks that the love threshold
was shattered, and you found each other irresistible.
But you were not necessarily meeting the same emotional needs. He may have met your need for conversation, and you may have met his needs for recreational companionship. He may not have needed to
talk with you nearly as much as you needed to talk with him, but he may have spent
hours at a time talking with you anyway. And you may have watched football with him
on television, not because you enjoy violence on TV, but because you wanted to join him
in his favorite recreational activities.
The reason you met your husband's emotional
needs is that you loved him, and wanted to make him happy. He was willing to do
the same for you. You were both in the state of intimacy (see my basic concept, Negotiating in the Three States of Marriage) and in that
state of mind, you were both willing to do whatever it took to meet each other's emotional needs.
But, as is the case in many marriages, you are now no longer meeting those needs. And
the source of your love for each other is being slowly but surely squeezed out. Your
neglect of each other has probably already taken its toll, and you are probably no longer
in love with each other.
It's common sense to believe that spouses should try to meet each other's emotional needs, regardless of what they happen to
be. No one has ever seriously argued with me that we shouldn't meet
important emotional needs in marriage. And yet,
in most marriages, spouses usually stop meeting them. Sometimes it's intentional and
sometimes it's unintentional. They usually know that they should be meeting each
other's emotional needs, and yet they don't or can't
The most common reason that spouses don't meet each other's needs is that they fall out
of the state of intimacy and into the states of conflict or withdrawal. In either state of mind, people do not feel
like making their spouses happy, because of the way they have been treated. Love Busters, such as angry outbursts, disrespectful judgments and selfish demands quickly destroy the state of intimacy.
If your husband were to be angry, disrespectful or demanding, would you want to watch
football with him? If you treated him the same way, would he want to talk with you for
hours? Not unless you each had the same needs yourselves. The only way you might
meet those needs for each other is if you were doing it for yourselves. You might watch
football with your husband because you simply wanted to see the game with someone,
and he happened to be the only one around. He might talk with you for hours only if he
needed to talk to someone, and you were there to talk with him. But if you didn't have
the same needs, he'd be watching football all by himself and you'd be reading a book
instead of talking to him.
In most marriages, husbands and wives don't have the same emotional needs, or at least they are not prioritized the
same. Your marriage is that way, too. Sex has probably always been a very low priority
for you, and a very high priority for your husband. And you may have emotional needs that don't mean much to your
husband, either. But when you were in the state of intimacy, you were willing to make love to him as often
as he wanted, just to make him happy, even though sex wasn't what you needed. Your
husband may also have been willing to meet your needs, even though it may not have
done that much for him.
You'd probably still be making love with him today, and cheerfully, if you could have
remained in the state of intimacy for the past nine
years. But there's no marriage in existence that can achieve that kind of record, and
sooner or later your husband was bound to make a mistake that drove you from the state
of intimacy into conflict. He withdrew just enough love units for you to fall out of love, and at that
moment, he wanted to make love.
You may remember the first time you tried to make love to your husband in the state of
conflict, and you probably realized then that it was
an experience you would not want to repeat. You never had enjoyed sex that much, but
now you were trying to do it after your husband had hurt your feelings. You had taken
your first step toward sexual aversion.
What Is an Aversive Reaction?
An aversion is a negative emotional reaction that's been conditioned to a behavior. In
other words, if you have bad experiences doing something, you will learn to associate
those bad experiences with the task. The very thought of it will eventually create anxiety
and unhappiness, and then doing it will make matters even worse.
Some psychologists, for reasons known only to them, like to shock rats. They have
shown that if you subject a poor rat to an electric shock every time it takes a drink of
water, it will not necessarily stop drinking water. But the rat will become very nervous
whenever it does.
Humans go through the same experience. If your boss yells at you occasionally when
you go to the water cooler, you will find yourself very tense whenever you drink from it.
Your boss's yelling, which gives you a negative emotional reaction, becomes conditioned
to your drinking from the water cooler. It's not the drinking itself that's unpleasant, it's
the association of drinking with your boss yelling that triggers your reaction.
Aversions can be created in association with anything we do. Unpleasant classroom
experiences can create "school phobia," something many children have great difficulty
overcoming. An automobile accident can leave people with a fear of driving. Even shopping for groceries can raise
anxiety in people who have had a bad grocery shopping experience.
Aversions can also be created when spouses try to meet each other's emotional needs, if the effort is associated with an
unpleasant experience. There can be an aversion to meet the needs of admiration, affection,
physical attractiveness, domestic support, family
commitment, financial support, honesty and openness, recreational companionship, conversation and sexual
fulfillment. These aversions can be created in a number of ways, but the most
common is when a frustrated spouse becomes abusive when a need is not met to his or
When one spouse tries to earn enough money for the other and he or she becomes angry
with a paycheck that's judged too small, an aversive reaction to earning a living can be
created. When a spouse tries to be affectionate and is angrily rebuffed because it isn't
done "right" for some reason, an aversion to affection can be created. When a spouse
tries to join in recreational activities, but has a miserable time, an aversion to recreational
companionship can be created.
In other words, whenever someone tries to meet an emotional need, and finds the experience particularly
unpleasant, there's a great possibility that future efforts to meet that need will be
associated with unpleasant feelings, an aversive reaction.
That's one of the reasons that it's so important to meet your spouse's needs in a way that
you find enjoyable, and why I put so much emphasis on the Policy of Joint Agreement. If you ever develop an
aversion to meeting one of your spouse's needs, you'll find it impossible to meet. You
will first have to overcome the aversion before you will ever be able to meet the need
Sex is a very common aversion in marriage. Suppose a husband is upset with the
frequency and manner in which his wife makes love to him. Instead of solving the
problem with thoughtfulness and understanding, he becomes verbally and physically
abusive whenever sex isn't to his liking. He may not be abusive every time he makes
love, and he may be very sensitive on almost every occasion. But whether his abuse is frequent or infrequent, his
wife is likely to associate the unpleasantness of his abuse with the sex act itself. After a
while, she finds the act extremely unpleasant, and tries to avoid it if she can. She has
developed a sexual aversion.
C.R., you have probably developed your sexual aversion the way most women do, as a
result of your husband pressuring you to have sex to him when you didn't feel like it. In
most cases of sexual aversion, a husband is the source of these unpleasant experiences.
You probably began your marriage not knowing how to enjoy sex, and made love to
your husband out of a spirit of generosity. You may not have known how to become
sexually aroused or how to climax. But as long as you were in the state of intimacy, the experience was somewhat pleasant for
you, because the sex act made you feel more emotionally connected to him.
Eventually your husband did something that made you feel less than generous. He hurt
your feelings. It may have been something he said to you that was angry or judgmental.
But you made love to him anyway, out of obligation. That experience was downright
unpleasant, because you had absolutely no interest in being emotionally connected to
him at the time. You probably wanted him to get it over as quickly as possible. Your
husband may have had no way of knowing that you were suffering, because you didn't
want to confront your husband with your resentment.
From that point on, your sexual experiences became predictably unpleasant. You made
love because he expected it, not because you were willing, and you did whatever you
could to avoid it or to make it brief. Whenever he would reach over an touch you at
night, you knew that the nightmare was about to begin again. You eventually hated his touch. You may have told him how much it bothered you, but he would do it
anyway. There was no way to stop him. Eventually, you developed an aversion to sex.
The same thing would have happened if you had tried to watch football with your husband. In the state of intimacy, you would have enjoyed the experience, because you felt emotionally bonded to him. But if he had hurt
your feelings, and then expected you to watch football with him, it would have put you
on the path of a football aversion.
If you had felt obligated to watch football with him, week after week, with no natural
interest of you own, and no feeling of intimacy, it would have felt like torture to you.
Eventually you would have felt disgust and revulsion whenever football was mentioned.
Had you started your marriage with an agreement that you would only make love to
your husband when, and in a way that, you would enjoy it and respond sexually, you
would never have had an aversion. Your sexual interest would have increased over the
Unlike football, you are wired physiologically to enjoy sex. If you had made love to your
husband on your terms and for your pleasure, it would only have been a matter of time
before all the connections would have been discovered. Then, you may have come to
need sex more than he does.
But because you did not understand how important your emotional reaction was, you
not only didn't try to enjoy the experience sexually, but you also put yourself though
emotional pain in your effort to meet your husband's need for sex. Your effort to meet
his need unconditionally did you in, and now you're not meeting it at all.
Sexual aversion is usually poorly understood by those who have it. These people
commonly report that engaging in sex is unpleasant, something they want to avoid.
They may find that sexual arousal, and even a climax is also unpleasant. There isn't anything they like about it, and some actually experience a panic attack in the sex act itself.
When they're asked to explain why they feel the way they do, few have a clear understanding of their reaction. They often blame themselves.
Their ignorance comes from a poor understanding of where their feelings come from.
People often have the mistaken belief that they can decide to feel any way they want.
They can decide to feel depressed or they can decide to feel cheerful. But those who
suffer from chronic depression usually know it's not that simple. And when people have
a sexual aversion, they cannot simply decide to feel good about sex.
Emotional reactions are not based on our decisions and an emotional aversion is no exception. An aversion is an unconscious, physiological association of a particular behavior
with an extremely unpleasant emotional experience. Those who have that association
have no control over the aversive reaction that is inevitable.
So when a person has had repeatedly unpleasant experiences making love, and the association of those experiences with sexual behavior has led to an aversion, they experience
emotional pain whenever lovemaking is anticipated or attempted.
As in your case, sexual aversion is a disaster of major proportions for couples. Sex is
a need that should be met in marriage, but if a spouse has an aversion to meeting it, it
becomes almost impossible as long as the aversion exists.
To avoid aversions in the first place, keep unpleasant experiences to a minimum. That's
why I am so adamant about couples learning to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without
an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). If they apply the policy to
their sexual relationships, making love would never be unpleasant for either partner.
Not only does it help them create a lifestyle of compatibility, but it also eliminates the
possibility of any aversion to meeting each other's needs.
Overcoming Aversion to Sex
The symptoms of aversion to sex are fear of engaging in sex, trying to make the sex act as
short as possible, finding that you need to build up your confidence and resolve before
sex just to get through it, thinking of excuses to avoid or postpone sex, and feeling ill just
prior to sex and somewhat depressed afterward. Some people actually experience panic
attacks while engaged in sex. Your symptom of revulsion at the very thought of having
sex is also a typical symptom.
However, one symptom that is not due to sexual aversion is vaginal pain. It can cause a
sexual aversion, but it is not a symptom of aversion itself. If you experience vaginal pain
or discomfort when you make love, it is probably due to an infection or a reflex called
vaginismus. I cover that subject in my column, (How to Overcome Pain During Intercourse).
Any of the symptoms of sexual aversion will interfere with your ability to meet your
husband's need. How can you meet his need for sex if you have even one of these reactions? You can't. You must completely overcome the aversion if you ever hope to enjoy
a sexual experience with your husband. And then be certain that the conditions that led
to your aversion are never repeated.
Remember how you developed the aversion in the first place? You associated a certain
behavior, having sex, with an unpleasant emotional reaction to something your husband
did to you. Eventually the unpleasant reaction was triggered whenever you even
thought about having sex with your husband, and certainly whenever you made love.
To overcome the aversion, you must break the association of sex with your husband from the unpleasant emotional reaction. The easiest way to do that is to associate sex with the
state of relaxation.
Those without a sexual aversion may suggest that you take the direct route: Try
to relax next time you make love. However, you and anyone else experiencing this
hardship knows that the direct route is usually impossible to follow. The very thought of
having sex with your husband probably puts you in a state of near-panic.
So that's where we will begin -- with your thoughts.
Step 1: Learn to relax when you think about sex.
The exercises that I am recommending to you will require about 15 minutes of your time
every day. It is very important that you not miss a day, because the process will not
work as well if you allow time gaps in the procedure.
Sit in a comfortable chair in a room by yourself with your eyes closed. If possible, play
relaxing music in the background. Think of various experiences that you have had.
Some of them will help you relax and others will make you feel tense. If you have an
aversion to sex, whenever you think about making love, you will probably feel your
tension rise and it will definitely feel unpleasant to you.
Stop thinking about sex, and redirect your thoughts to relaxing experiences. Then focus
on relaxing each muscle in your body. Begin with your feet and move all the way up to
your head, focusing your attention on relaxing every muscle along the way. It may take
you five minutes or more before you know that all of your muscles are fully relaxed.
When you are completely relaxed, think about making love again, but this time remain
completely relaxed. Don't allow any muscle to tense up. As you think about sex, you
will notice that some thoughts don't bother you at all, but others, like making love to
your husband, may make it almost impossible to remain relaxed.
Don't think about making love to your husband just yet. Think only about sex, in
general. Leave your husband out of your thoughts altogether. Investigate your own
reactions to sex by imagining various aspects of sex. If you have any sexual fantasies,
think about them, and what it is that makes them appealing to you. Then, without
thinking of your husband, think about other aspects of sex that are less appealing or
downright unappealing. Be completely relaxed while you are thinking of all of these
When your first fifteen minutes relaxation exercise is over, take notes of what you
learned about yourself. What sexual thoughts were appealing to you, and what thoughts
were unappealing? What thoughts made you feel relaxed, and what thoughts made it
difficult for you to relax? The contents of this journal should not be shared with your
husband until your sexual aversion is completely overcome and you have a mutually
fulfilling sexual relationship with him.
If there were certain sexual thoughts (not related to your husband) that made your
muscles feel tense, or made your stomach feel tight, repeat this 15 minute exercise each
day until you can think about them without feeling tense. You should also journal after
each session to help you think through the reactions you are experiencing.
Step 2: Learn to relax when you think about having sex with your husband.
If you have an aversion to sex with your husband, you will feel an unpleasant tension
whenever you think of making love to him. So in this step, the goal is to be able to think
about it without feeling tension or experiencing an unpleasant reaction.
As I've already explained, an aversive reaction is created when an unpleasant emotional
reaction is associated with a situation or behavior. The way to reverse that association is to try to stop the unpleasant reaction from occurring when the situation or
behavior is present. If you can feel relaxed just thinking about sex with your
spouse, that also tends to "extinguish" the aversive association that was previously made.
Close your eyes, sit back, and relax. Be certain you are alone and without anything or
anyone to distract you. Relax all your muscles from head to toe as you did before, and
think about making love with your husband.
You will notice that certain thoughts are more upsetting than others. It could be that one
of the ways your husband wants to make love is particularly upsetting to you. (The
thought of him forcing his hand over your body, particularly putting it between your legs
raises your anxiety level.) Eventually you will find that even thoughts of the
most upsetting sex acts will no longer elicit an unpleasant reaction. That's because with
proper relaxation, you can extinguish your emotional reactions to almost anything.
The information you learn about yourself in this step will help you in the next step, so be
sure to continue taking notes in your journal after each 15 minute session. You should
document aspects of lovemaking with your husband that create the greatest stress for
you. Even though you will learn to be relaxed when you think about them, you will not
want to repeat them when you get back to making love to him again.
Step 3: Learn to relax when you think about having sex with your husband with
him in the same room.
As soon as you have learned to be relaxed when thinking about making love to your
husband, you are ready for the next step, inviting him to join you in the same room.
At first, he should simply sit somewhere else in the room and read a book. Even though
he is not paying much attention to you, you may need to start practicing relaxation all
over again. His very presence may make you tense.
If you relax all of your muscles from head to toe, you will eventually find yourself
comfortable once again. Then, as you think about making love to him, continue to relax.
At this stage, your husband should not say or do anything but sit and read a book. If he
cannot follow that simple instruction, we have serious problems. The reason you have a
sexual aversion is that he has tried to make love to you in a way that is enjoyable for him,
but unpleasant for you. To overcome your sexual aversion, he will need to learn to take
your feelings into account when he makes love to you in the future.
But in this step, if he refuses to follow the assignment, and instead of quietly reading, he
starts talking to you, or walks over and touches you, stop the procedure entirely. There
is no hope for a successful transition to sex with your husband if he cannot follow your
It is essential for your husband to understand that you, not he, must be in complete
control of your recovery process or it will not work. If he cannot or will not agree to that,
it not only explains why you have the aversion to begin with, but also explains how his
lack of cooperation has prevented your recovery.
Continue these exercises every day until you are completely relaxed thinking about
making love to your husband with him in the same room. And don't forget to take notes
in your journal that describe your experience.
Step 4: Learn to relax when you talk to your husband about having sex with
Now you are ready to tell your husband what you are thinking. Sit back in your
comfortable chair and close your eyes. At first, limit your description to sexual situations
that you find easy to talk about, and avoid talking about those sex acts that you find
particularly disturbing. When you first start talking about sex, you will find your
tension rising again, but after a little practice, you will learn to be relaxed as you describe
your feelings. He should say nothing to you as you talk to him. All he should do is
As I mentioned earlier, if your husband decides to take charge, and tries to talk you into
making love to him after you describe your thoughts, tell him that it is that very thing
that created the aversion in the first place. If he cannot follow the program, end it.
Eventually, you should describe as many sexual situations to your husband as you can
think of. You may want to refer to your journal to help you remember what some of
them were. Whenever you talk about them, try to remain completely relaxed, and you
will eventually find that even your most disturbing sexual memories will no longer elicit
a tense or anxious response.
Step 5: Learn to relax when you make love to your husband.
You should ease into a sexual relationship with your husband very slowly and
comfortably. Continue to spend 15 minutes each day on this assignment so that you do
not lose momentum.
First, you should learn to become comfortable with affection, being able to hug, kiss and
hold hands without any fear that it will lead to sex. Then, have your husband rub your
arms, feet and lower legs, backs, and other non-erogenous zones (avoid breast, stomach
and genital areas), again without it leading to sex. Do the same for him.
When you are comfortable being touched by your husband in non-erogenous zones, and
you are comfortable touching him, you are ready to begin the first stages of making love.
I have not discussed feelings of sexual arousal with you, because our goal was to
overcome aversive reactions. But by the time you are able to talk to your husband about
having sex with him while feeling completely relaxed you may have already started to
experience feelings of sexual arousal. The affection you experienced may also have led to
feelings of sexual arousal. That feeling of sexual arousal is your signal to make love to
your husband. Don't ever try to make love without it.
Remember, if any aspect of lovemaking is unpleasant to you, figure out a way of making
it enjoyable. Have your husband rub your back in a way that you enjoy, not just a way
that he enjoys. Resist the temptation to go ahead and make love just to make your
husband happy, because it is likely to set you back. Remember, if this program is not
successful, you will probably go back to not making love at all.
When you are ready for intercourse, have your husband lay entirely motionless on his
back at first. Sit or lay on top of him so that you are in complete control of the situation.
Experiment with different positions and methods of intercourse so that you can learn
how your body works to create the most enjoyable feelings. Only relinquish control to
him after he has become educated in what it is that enables you to enjoy the experience
Sometimes you will experience what
behaviorists call "spontaneous recovery," because your habits will all be very new. Spontaneous recovery is when you suddenly feel the old aversive
reactions without any warning. When that happens, it just means that there are residual
effects still present that crop up from time to time. You'll find that these unexpected
intrusions will decrease over time until they hardly ever occur.
Amazingly enough, if you understand how to turn lovemaking into an enjoyable
experience, you will probably want to make love more often than your husband does.
Why? Because the more you enjoy something, the more you will want to do it. That's
why the Policy of Joint Agreement leads to
passionate and frequent sex.