Enmeshment and Absence of Desire

“I love my partner but I don’t want to have sex anymore” This is a common theme in my office. The connection is there (most of the time, let’s be real), they are your best friend, you may have children together and love your time as a family. They are a great parent and you literally cannot imagine your life without them by your side. You feel stable and secure in your relationship. But you have no interest in sex. Yeah, sometimes you do it because you feel like you ‘should’ and once you get into it, it feels ok or ‘pretty good’. But that initial desire is just not there.

You remember the days where you couldn’t keep your hands off each other? You long for feeling that kind of desire again – with them. You wonder “is my relationship broken? Am I? Is it my hormones?”. Well, if you’re one of the lucky ones and your hormones are low – it may help to raise them – but I’m here to tell you that this is only part of the story.

If you are in a long-term committed relationship and you are intertwined in your partners life – this may be a sign of enmeshment. A major killer of libido for men and women – especially women. Yes, you have separate jobs, but at the end of the day the two of you live, eat, breathe EACH OTHER. This creates a lack of healthy distance in the relationship where there is no room for desire to bloom.

Partnerships, marriages, and relationships that are often the most emotionally stable can predispose to enmeshment of lives and loss of sexual arousal. Why? Well it has to do with the brain.

 

The Brain

The brain is wired to seek out pleasure and excitement through the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine and another, less well known neuro-stimulus, called the melanocortin system. Testosterone and estrogen have a role in stimulating these neurochemicals but the dopaminergic system is mission critical. Dopamine wants adventure, excitement, even conflict. It seeks thrills and when relationships are “healthy” by modern conventional standards, they are also boring sometimes. These neuro-stimulatory systems are heightened during ‘new relationship energy’ and with repetitive stimulation they become less sensitive to becoming activated.

Does your husband do the SAME move every time he wants sex? You can basically write a script, right? Combine this with normal stressors of life, financial, kids, and finally enmeshment of your lives and it often depletes the sexual energy that previously coursed through your veins.

 

So What’s the Fix?

Well, the first step is evaluation of whether you are enmeshed with your partner. Do you have separate interests? Separate friends? Do you allow for each other to be YOUR OWN person or do you feel the need to be together every moment outside of work hours? Maybe this is out of necessity – new baby, tight living quarters, world pandemic etc. However, the brain will have the best chance of releasing arousal chemicals when there is at least a perceived separation of the two individuals.

According to psychologist, author, and sex therapist Jack Morin the equation is simple: attraction + obstacles equals erotic arousal. Obstacles are defined as not being able to possess your partner in the way your mind ultimately believes it wants to. Does your partner challenge you? Hence why the term “the chase” is so arousing and propagates neurochemicals PEA, dopamine, testosterone, and DHEA (see hormone post for details on these hormones).

This doesn’t mean you need to go out and get your own apartment, although it may have crossed your mind. It does mean allowing space for the mind to wonder what are they up to? This is where the magic is. The creation of wonder and “the threat of the third” coined by Dr. Esther Perel, famous author, relationship, and sex therapist. The threat of the third is NOT about cheating or jealousy. Although Esther Perel believes jealousy can be a positive emotion, often misunderstood in a negative context. It’s not about flirting behind your partner’s back or breaking your agreed upon commitment of monogamy, it’s about creating enough distance between you that you have a chance to miss them, to wonder if someone else finds them or you attractive, and not requiring every aspect of your lives be so intertwined you’re not sure where you begin and they end. This creates sexual AROUSAL and stimulation in the brain.

Allow me to paint an example. Your devoted partner and husband of several years travels away with friends for a weekend. A boys weekend where assuredly some debauchery and mischief was guaranteed. Maybe they went to a few bars and perhaps his eyes wandered over to a cute brunette with curves like a coke bottle. You know he would never act on it. Her eyes shoot him a glance and suddenly the thought crosses his mind. But that’s as far as it goes…

What is going through your mind right now? Anger? Jealousy? Arousal? For many couples it is all three. And the result is better sex in the days and weeks following such an encounter whether one or both partners are aware of the threat of the third. Many couples will welcome this type of play into their bedroom with discussion of attractive strangers and fantasy.  The boundaries have to be clear but if you can open your mind to these interactions within the confines of sexual intimacy, you will likely be rewarded with an uptick in erotic encounters within your existing relationship. You can thank the curvy girl at the bar, she got you a few orgasms this week 😉 Now all joking aside, if this feels unsafe or reckless in your relationship, by all means, disregard my advice but the point is the desire is often the intersection of longing and mystery, frequently absent in many enmeshed, codependent, long-term relationships.

I want to touch on the term of codependency and define it apart from interdependency. I’m not advocating that committed couples not spend time together. Nor am I suggesting that all activities have be done apart – playing doubles tennis, or watching a favorite sporting event together can be a great way to form connection – another critical part of the libido soup. However, when you can’t have fun unless your partner is there or your happiness is completely dependent on them, is where things can get dicey.

Do you find yourself dependent on your partner to validate you? Do you need them to be by your side for an event or you’re not going? What about the reverse? Do you find they are constantly seeking your approval or needing your help with things that a functioning adult should be able to do on their own? What about reminding them to do the laundry, pick-up kids, pay bills, etc. Do you feel like you are the organizer of both of your lives? How sexy is that to you?

Well, if any of these feels familiar there may be an element of codependency on one side or both. Dependency in relationships is natural. People have their natural gifts, things they enjoy doing, polarity in male-female dynamics, and all of these things can make a beautiful partnership. It is the feeling that we are incomplete without our partners that it can become pathologic and ultimate toxic to our libido activating systems. What if you feel like your partner is going to fall flat on their face without you? Does that turn you on? I doubt it.

Interdependency is when partners can lean on each other for support but don’t require the other person to breathe. Codependency is taught as a goal to young girls and women through songs, fairy tales, and movies that by the time they are old enough to think for themselves, the societal conditioning has already been achieved. Women are taught, subliminally or outwardly that true love is being swept off her feet, never to want for anything again. How unfair for the men who are the partners of these women to have to live up to this fantasy? Who can compete with Prince Charming? In reality, we all know this isn’t how the fairy tale goes. What if we reframe the narrative? What if our partners met our needs, sometimes, and other times we meet them ourselves?

My point is simply, two halves that make a whole, also make a codependent couple. Two whole beings that come together create support without falling apart when they are separate.  Interdependency instead of codependency allows for your partner to be your person without losing yourself in the process.

 

Connectedness and Avoiding Disconnect

In the psychological theory of attachment, different attachment types seek out connection and retract from connection for different reasons. Understanding and learning about your own attachment type and your partners can help you best connect and feel safe in doing so. Different attachment types become aroused when their need for safety and security is respected by their partner.

Everyone has certain requirements in order to feel open to connecting with their intimate partners. For some, it may be they’ve had enough time to themselves to recharge, and for others, they need to feel loved, secure, and safe with their partners to be vulnerable. Connection is also an important ingredient for libido – many partners can simply not engage in sex unless they feel intimately connected emotionally. Stereotypically, this is more women than men. Connectedness does not mean enmeshment, as we discussed earlier, it means feeling like you are deeply seen and understood by your partner, an essential ingredient for the human psyche to feel safe.

In summary, libido science continues to borrow from all facets of human psychology. From our relationship with our primary care takers and the safety we feel as adult partners to the threat of the third and the play it can invite with couples who choose to acknowledge it. The more common relationship pitfalls like enmeshment and codependency can all be explored within the confines of a curious relationship.

Arousal is complex, to say the least. Connection is a bare requirement for some to achieve sexual arousal and yet irrelevant for others when looking at pure lust and carnal attraction. Dialogue with our partners continues to be the primary method through which working through these challenges can be most successful. I look forward to continuing to learn and explore with you.

 

 

Writer: Michelle Leary
Writer: Michelle Leary
February 7, 2023

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