When a Couple Desires More Intimacy

By Karen Berry, PhD

PACT Certified Therapist

As a senior PACT clinician and sex therapist, I routinely use the PACT paradigm to work directly with couples wanting more from their sex lives. I utilize the solid container of a secure-functioning relationship where both are committed to the work of co-regulation and responsibility to help their person, yet I’ve found I need to add some additional components to get robust outcomes. I want to share the essentials that I keep in mind, that ground my case construction, so I can steer solidly in my chair.

The first component is that I prefer to talk with people about their sensuality rather than “sex.”   Sexuality is just too narrow and, more importantly, it brings to mind sexual performance. Clients frequently express concerns about whether their sex organs are functioning correctly, whether or not they are orgasming or orgasming hard enough, if they are having enough sex or the right kind of sex, and if they know enough techniques to improve their sex lives.

These are all outcome-focused.

Sensuality is highly personal and creative. It is unique to each person and each couple. Needing a particular body part to function in a particular way or having an orgasm becomes moot. Even holding hands has the potential to be deeply pleasurable and erotic.

The second component is an understanding and application of differentiation. David Schnarch, author of The Sexual Crucible and The Passionate Marriage, talks brilliantly about how sex works relationally, systematically. He explains whether it’s in sex, children, money, or time allocation, the couple is always made up of a high-desire and low-desire person, given the couple is a system. In other words, it’s normal and nonpathological for partners to have discrepancies in desire.

Schnarch also established that the low-desire partner always holds control. In my office I’ve found the low-desire person tends to agree to sex to manage pressure from their partner rather than out of a desire for sex. And they rarely make bids for sex that would really turn them on.

The high-desire partner is typically more concerned about the frequency rather than the quality of sex. The reality is, it takes differentiation (maturity) to engage in enlivening sensuality with each other.

Sexuality and Differentiation

So what is differentiation? It’s the ability to keep a clear sense of self while in close proximity to an important other. This requires a person to be able to soothe their own anxieties in the face of their partner’s reactivity while simultaneously engaging in self-confrontation.

Self-confrontation means being able to hold onto oneself while tolerating internal and external pressures — essentially the capacity to be naked and stand in the reality of what’s true for oneself. The low-desire partner needs to “own” their eroticism (what’s true for them) and validate themselves while under the pressure of their partner’s demand and anxiety that things proceed normally (their way). 

Here is an example of how I have used the PACT approach to help a couple explore sensuality and differentiation.

A middle-aged, same-sex couple reported that for the last 23 years they struggled with a desire discrepancy issue in their marriage until an affair. The low-desire partner who betrayed her partner no longer felt sexually barren after her affair and yet, securely back in her couple after successful PACT therapy, she struggled to access her eroticism. She could not feel her sexual aliveness in intimate situations with her partner.

I was curious about what happens when these two engage in closer proximity experiences within a sexual context. What happens when one or both begin to generate sexual vibes? How much is the low-desire partner simply reactive to their partner’s approach given their islandish nature? 

I placed them in a seated pose, familiar to all PACT clinicians. I moved them in close proximity, feet on the ground, knees almost touching. I invited them to close their eyes and check in with their internal sensations as I set the context. I reminded them that they were there, in my office, to increase their erotic capacities as a couple. 

Internally I reminded myself:

There’s no exact way to do this. What’s essential is that I proceed in true PACT fashion: go slowly, notice what’s happening moment to moment in an easy accepting way, indicate that what they’re going through is normal. They’ve given themselves the gift to explore growing more capacity within them and between them, weaving them together, seeing them as more alike than not alike.

I then walked them through a sequence of steps increasing potential for embodiment and connection in the relational space.

Embodiment and Connection

Curiosity guided my questions to the couple. “Are you focused on seeing your partner? Your partner seeing you? Or, your partner seeing you seeing them?” I suggested that they could titrate their experience by opening and closing their eyes like a camera shutter at any time. I noticed when this occurred, and by naming these options, I normalized this process for them. I invited them to notice how closing their eyes can change their experience. 

Next, I invited them to enhance their breathing in a variety of ways. “Begin to take in more oxygen now, and as you exhale, play with making sound. Open to breathing audibly so you and your partner can hear these breath sounds. There is no need to rush as you explore. Remember you can close your eyes any time to manage your experience and, as you are ready, come back to opening your eyes seeing your person.”

Once they do, I say, “Next, send your breath down into the pelvis and buttocks. Notice what’s happening in your own body, in your person’s body. On the exhale, make sound, an audible breath, maybe a sigh or a releasing sound. This kind of embodiment practice builds energy to enhance sexual capacity. Again direct your energy and awareness into your pelvis and buttocks. Continue to breathe audibly. No judgment. To be able to feel in real time in each other’s presence while being seen is essential to developing your erotic capacity.”  

The couple complies. They have no place to hide as they both take risks being awkward and unsure while being regulated by me.

Touch and Sensual Play

The next step in the process was asking them to touch with hands, hold hands, and then add movement to the touch. The high-desire partner began swaying toward and away from her partner’s body, moving her partner’s hands actively.

The low-desire partner immediately began to tear up, her posture slumped slightly. I asked the high-desire partner what she was observing, and she saw these changes.

I invited the low-desire partner to share her experience. She said she felt engulfed and overwhelmed. She shared about losing herself, that she couldn’t hold onto her own internal experience.

I switched to the high-desire partner’s experience. She talked about feeling overcome by her own energy, wanting to pull her partner close and then sensing rejection and feeling hurt.  The long-shared history provided countless experiences to make negative meaning out of what had just unfolded.

This is the core pattern, the fractal that plays out for this couple most every time they move into sensual play. This repetition also leads them to anticipate a negative outcome when either of them thinks about engaging in sensuality, which exacerbates their inability to function as a co-regulatory team.

This rich, pregnant moment of clarity brought insights to both partners. The low-desire partner realizes, “When I move in too quickly, I feel engulfed and go offline. This is about me, not my partner.”

The high-desire partner discovers, “When my person says no or backs away, I can now see what’s mine. I move in so quickly with such urgency because I am anticipating rejection and fearing the past will repeat itself. My fear propels me forward in a way that I’m not attuned.”

The data is clear, neither of them were operating in a two-person system when it involved their shared sensual experience. Neither could muster any curiosity about their partner in real time. Everything became personal due to a perceived threat from each of their own meaning-making systems. 

Mutual Pleasure and Secure Functioning

As the therapist regulating the couple, I slowed things down yet again, continuing to weave the narrative of secure functioning, showing them concretely how they are more alike than not. They've both felt broken, they’ve both had ways of reacting to threat that contributed to this stressful reoccurrence, they’ve both been unable to be genuinely interested in their person while exploring mutual pleasure.

“It makes sense you haven’t been able to do this well together,” I continued. “With the growing clarity that you’re in this together, you’re accepting that you’re more alike than not alike. Wanting your sensual life to blossom, new options can begin to unfold as you develop your own voices about what’s really happening in your sensual experience.”

As this couple moved toward greater differentiation within the larger frame of secure functioning, the low-desire partner began to say, “Wait. Slow down. Make room for me.” This allowed her own intact sensual experience to unfold in real time. When the high-desire partner noticed her own anxiety, she began to soothe herself, tolerating the discomfort to make space for new unpredictable outcomes.

Today, as both declare what’s true, the old narrative of  “There’s something wrong or broken” about them sexually continues to unravel. A shared narrative is taking its place, and they are learning how to move in closer, how each one works in the presence of the other. 

Clarity and Capacity

Secure functioning with its focus of co-regulation and the partner’s responsibility to help the other frequently falls short when it comes to facilitating couples who want to attain more from their sex lives.

By adding the component of differentiation, a light is able to shine on the work an individual must do to hold onto themselves without the support of their partner — work that requires self-soothing and self-confrontation to grow the capacities to have sex and sensuality worth wanting with their partner.

This vignette is one example of how I get robust outcomes when a couple desires more from their sex lives. As the therapist, my role as master regulator is key. Through the clarity of my therapeutic stance as well as my support and attunement, the couple is able to do this intimately revealing, vulnerable, and challenging work. By slowing things down, both people have an opportunity to learn more about themselves and take responsibility for their preferences in pleasure.

This is differentiation.

At the same time, they begin to operate as a two-person system in which both can continually update their “owner’s manuals” regarding their partner.

This is secure functioning.

Sensuality becomes a collaborative and creative experience lived moment to moment in each other’s care.


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