Desire and Arousal: Do You Know Your Pathway?

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Written by: Dr. Tracy Dalgleish

A common challenge that presents in my therapy room related to intimacy and sex is the differences between desire levels. One individual laments that their partner doesn’t want to have sex, while the other says they’re always being asked. It’s a conundrum that many couples face - not just those who are struggling in their ability to connect. On one hand, the difficulties with desire and arousal can be traced back to the challenges people have when it comes to simply talking about sex - what turns you on and off, what you like in bed, and how you like to be initiated. On the other hand, there is a key piece of education that people are missing when it comes to actually understanding desire: There are different pathways in the body and the brain to desire.

Two Pathways to Desire

Do you remember the honeymoon stage in your relationship? (Also known as the limerence stage). I imagine you can call to mind several moments from your dating days filled with excitement, passion, and time. The sheer thought of your new partner coming to pick you up in just four hours, feeling their body close to yours, taking in the sight of them.

Welcome to spontaneous desire. Spontaneous desire is just that - it’s spontaneous. It comes from out of nowhere and doesn’t need any kind of bodily activity. It’s often felt intensely in those early days by many. Spontaneous desire starts in the mind. A thought. A memory. It enters into your consciousness and then follows a sense of longing.

Now, several years later, maybe more stresses, moves, job changes, family conflict, and one or more kids, that spark feels like a distant memory. Instead, coming together feels like a chore, like another request of you from your empty bucket. It feels easier to say, “not tonight” and “I’m too tired.” Yet, if you were to put your bodies together, perhaps you would feel something different. A slow longing kindling in your body.

Responsive desire is experienced following bodily stimuli and feel-good touching. It's responsive. But if touch comes when you’re overstimulated, dysregulated, or planning the kids’ extracurricular activities while texting the other parents, it will feel unwelcomed and intrusive. For some, they need the physical touch and quiet mind to help ignite desire and arousal. This is the essence of responsive desire.

I describe these two pathways of desire using the passing of time in a relationship, yet this isn’t what necessarily happens. Instead, this example is the all-too common experience that many (not all) people have. It’s important to know that you may lean towards one type of desire throughout your relationship, or through different seasons and experiences in your relationship.

Key Factors Contributing to Desire and Arousal

Once you have identified which desire pathway you tend to lean towards, and discover your partner’s, now it’s time to explore the key factors that contribute to this.

Inside my Nurturing Intimacy webinar, I teach you more about the cyclical nature of arousal for women, research to come in the last two decades that shows women and men experience the sexual process to orgasm and pleasure differently.

I want to share this key piece, as it relates to what so many of you tell me.

There are multiple factors that contribute to your desire and arousal, including the emotional and physical state of your connection. This is why it’s important to consider your definition of intimacy and to ensure that you are not narrowly defining it as racing across the finish line to the big O or only one type of activity (for heterosexual couples, penis in vagina).

There is one sure factor that will contribute to your desire: The weight of your mental load.

When your to-do list is a mile long, and you continue to hold the invisible and cognitive labor in the management of your home, family, and relationship, it is akin to wearing a backpack filled with bricks. With the weight of this sack, you can’t possibly ask yourself to then find a true sense of desire. How you tackle the mental load as a team will also impact the health of your overall intimacy, which is why it’s so important to step back as a couple and reassess how things are going.

If you haven’t yet grabbed my book, I invite you to pick it up anywhere you buy your books, and you will receive my special bonus guide: 5 Steps to Redistribute the Mental Load. And if you’re a book lover like me, checking out NYT bestselling book Fair Play by Eve Rodsky is a must.

Desire X The Mental Load

Something I have come to recognize about desire is that women tend to have spontaneous thoughts about sex and their partners. However, these thoughts and memories come at inopportune times, only to be pushed away and not acted on. Throughout the day, the thoughts and wishes get pushed even further by the to-do list, which requires energy from you. By the end of the day, you have poured out all of your energy to other parts of your life. Entering into sex is now asking you to dig deep from an empty cup. This isn’t possible, which is often why I tell mothers (and parents in general) to ensure they are building intimacy with themselves first.

If thoughts of sex and intimacy are being further pushed away by the long to-do list, it brings into question this: How could we be doing this differently?

The mental load pushes any of those spontaneous desire experiences away from us, which then calls on us to tap into responsive desire. The challenge is that, like most things that require energy from us, we tend to flat line and stay with what is comfortable and familiar. Those sweatpants you put on two hours earlier? You’re more likely to want to stay in them than to show up in bed with your partner.

Here is my favourite analogy by Emily Nagoski in Come As You Are. When you get the invite to the party, you immediately RSVP yes and feel a sense of excitement for the social event. As Friday night rolls around, that excitement wanes, and you question whether you should go at all. But what we all experience is the deep connectivity and aliveness we get when we are with other people. Rarely do we say, “I shouldn’t have gone to see my dearest friends.” (We might say we shouldn’t have eaten that last..., or drank that extra..., or stayed out that late…).

Sex, too, is like saying yes to the party. How many times have you and your partner said, “Why don’t we do that more often?”

One Step Forward

You’re reading this blog because something is important to you and you want to continue to nurture the feel-good intimacy in your relationship. Here is a homework assignment that you can try this week.

  1. With your partner, schedule a time where you plan to intentionally focus on exploring each other’s bodies. You might decide that is a time for sex, or maybe you’re in a season (postpartum; health conditions) where you are taking off the focus on the O. That’s okay too! Be really specific about that time, but please don’t wait until the end of the day. Nobody “feels” like doing anything at the end of the day.
  2. As the time to be together approaches, notice your internal process. Is your body feeling excited or like it’s another chore? (Don’t judge the experience, just notice it. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong with you!). Where are your thoughts when it comes to being beside your partner? People with responsive desire need their bodies to be touching, agreeing to go to the party, quieting their minds and being present side-by-side.
  3. Considering all nuances that may occur to derail your plans (nothing is rigid, we must always be flexible), commit to showing up to the party. Put your bodies beside each other, even when the mind says, “I’m too tired.” Hot tip: Tell your partner what mental load items they can take off your plate and ensure that laundry basket of unfolded or dirty clothes isn’t in your room.
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