Sexual Desire l September 2016

Tip to all heterosexual men in long-term relationships: women’s sexual desire operates differently than your own.

Although research has found that heterosexual men in the early stage of relationships typically overestimate a woman’s sexual interest, this overestimation doesn’t persist once relationships evolve into long-term. Recent studies have found that men in ongoing, romantic relationships seem to underestimate their female partner’s sexual desire. In other words, men in long-term relationships appear particularly bad at guessing whether their wives or girlfriends are turned on.i

Sexual desire is of course complicated. In recent years, sex researchers have begun to think of arousal not only as something that occurs spontaneously — the urge strikes suddenly and without warning, familiar to a great many men — but as a response to some sort of pleasurable experience. Spontaneous desire versus responsive desire. Women in long-term relationships tend to experience responsive desire.

So while it may not take much for men to feel turned on — what’s happening in the moment may not play that big a role — for many women the context is critical. Am I feeling emotionally close to him these days? Is he treating me especially well? Is the mood conducive to romance? Perhaps because spontaneous desire is what most men experience in themselves, they don’t recognize responsive desire when it stirs in the woman next to them. (By comparison, surveys have found women to be pretty good at identifying when their male partner is interested or not.)

As a relatively new concept in the field of sex research, responsive desire has been less studied than spontaneous desire, which may explain why it’s less understood. This may be the reason why it’s more likely to go unnoticed, leaving a lot of men missing out on opportunities waiting to be enjoyed.

So what should men do? Don’t assume she’s not interested. Boldly make the right overture and see where it goes. Or offer a simple wink and playfully ask, “Are you in the mood right now?”

i Muise, Amy et al. “Not in the mood? Men under- (not over-) perceive their partner’s sexual desire in established intimate relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 110(5), May 2016, 725-742.

Beyond an Apology l July 2016

“I’m sorry” doesn’t always end couple conflict in a satisfying way. Often something more is needed, an expression in words or actions that speaks to and “corrects” the underlying experience of one or both partners.

Two kinds of underlying experience characterize much couple conflicti: The first is when we perceive threat from a partner — when power or authority is flaunted in a way designed to stifle us, to demonstrate how wrong we are, to scold and belittle us. This triggers our sense of intimidation and threat.

The second underlying experience is when we perceive neglect — when a partner’s actions or words send a message of indifference, when the implication is “you don’t matter” or “I don’t have time for this” or “you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

Depending on whether we perceive threat or neglect, what leads to a satisfying resolution may differ. When we perceive threat, we want our partner to relinquish power and end an adversarial posture. Instead of a tone of intimidation behind his or her words, we want to feel a sense of equality restored, of power shared. Here are some ways it can be done:

  • Admitting fault and showing vulnerability with words like, “I know I was wrong” or “that was insensitive of me” or “I was in a hurry and should have been more careful.”
  • Showing personal respect with words like, “I shouldn’t have treated you that way” or “you deserve better from me.”
  • Compromising (rather than striving to “win” or dominate) with words like “you’ve raised some good points” or “can we find a way so that both of us get something we want?”

When we perceive neglect during conflict, we want our partner to demonstrate a true investment in the relationship — and in us. Here are some ways it can be done:

  • Offering gestures of affection, like an embrace or extending a hand.
  • Demonstrating an investment in the relationship, with words like “I’m glad you raised this matter” or “it’s good that we talked.”
  • Showing an interest in more — not less — communication, with words like “is there more you want to say?” or “are you satisfied with the response I’ve given you?”

The right words and actions can often exceed — without necessarily precluding — the value of an apology in effectively resolving conflict.

iSanford, K., & *Wolfe, K. L. (2013). What married couples want from each other during conflicts: An investigation of underlying concerns. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32, 674-699.


Observe Yourself l May/June 2016

“My friend Caroline is driving me crazy,” your partner reports, exasperated. “She keeps pushing me to go shopping again, but I don’t have her endless energy for that.” Quickly, you’re poised to suggest a way she can beg off on her friend’s invitation. But before the words come out of your mouth, you notice you’re about to give advice. You notice that familiar impulse to help and solve and suggest … and you remember her telling you that she doesn’t want advice all the time — she wants simple listening. Because you noticed your impulse, you’re able to slow down and take another path. You won’t slip into being Mr. Fixit.

“I don’t want to visit your parents this summer,” your partner announces. “We saw them twice already this year, and you know how difficult your mother can be.” You’re ready to point out that the two of you visit his parents a lot more often than your parents. But before you open your mouth, you notice your body tightening, and the feeling of irritation … familiar signs of defensiveness. Because you noticed all that, you slow down and say only “tell me more,” deferring comments until later. You’ve learned that conversations rarely go well when you become defensive.

Noticing what’s stirring within us — observing ourselves before we open our mouths — allows us to sidestep our automatic and quick reactions that can get us into trouble. Noticing is the logical brain at work, and the best way to keep the emotional brain from hijacking the moment (see Two Brains, April/May 2014).

One of the greatest gifts we can give our partner — and ourselves — is being fully present in conversations. Being fully present requires that we prevent our own thoughts and feelings from getting in the way of our best listening (see How to “Get It,” April 2015). It begins by noticing our thoughts and feelings as they stir within us (see The Mind’s Traffic, Sept/Oct 2015). Noticing gives us the power to handle our quick reactions wisely: to think about where those reactions are coming from, and to set them aside until the proper moment, at least — if we find ourselves worked up — until we’ve “cooled off.”

Learning to observe ourselves requires practice — lots of it. But when the payoff is less bickering and fewer fights, you’re sure to find the practice well worth the investment.