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 unpleasant.

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?


Dear C.R.

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 do it.

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 her satisfaction.

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 again.

Sexual Aversion

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 years.

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.

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 things.

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 simplest requests.

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 him.

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 listen.

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 with him.

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.

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