If you are partnered, does one of you want much more sex than the other? Couples who have a desire discrepancy (and that’s a lot of couples) sometimes develop a pattern of having constant “mercy sex,” in which a low-desire partner is having sex simply because the high-desire partner is interested.
Now, having occasional mercy sex is a very loving thing to do. The low-desire partner can enjoy the feelings of closeness and love and generosity that come from doing something that gives their loved one a lot of pleasure.
But a problem arises when the entire sexual relationship devolves into mercy sex. This happens more frequently than you might expect.
It arises often when the high-desire partner responds to frequent sexual rejection by becoming grumpy, angry, sullen, or withdrawn. The low-desire partner finds the life with the high-desire partner has become so unpleasant that they begin to have unwanted sex just to get the day-to-day emotional relationship back on solid footing.
After all, who wants to live with a sullen, grumpy, hostile partner?
As I described in 2015, habitual mercy sex leads to steadily more unpleasant sex. The low-desire person’s attitude is let me “check the box,” let me get this over with, so that I can’t be accused of not having sex.
The sex act becomes shorter and shorter, primarily focusing on intercourse. The low-desire partner does not get any of the stimulation or pleasure that he or she might want. They might actually split off, emotionally or mentally — for instance, thinking of their to-do list.
And if it is a heterosexual couple and the female partner is having intercourse without being sexually aroused, she may develop a sexual pain disorder.
The inevitable result is that the low-desire partner becomes convinced that sex is very unpleasant. They might literally think, “I hate sex.” Which leads to more avoidance. And the circle goes round and round.
They can’t be blamed for thinking they hate sex. They have created a pattern of sex that has zero pleasure for them. There is nothing for them in the sex they are having. In fact, they feel resentment, not pleasure.
It is not easy for a sex therapist to help a couple break out of this pattern, but it is possible. It’s a process. The therapist has to unpack the whole pattern, so in such cases I share my mercy sex diagram with the couple. There are a few major tasks to be accomplished:
1. The therapist has to get both partners to agree to stop the pattern. This will create a lot of anxiety in both of them. And it only will work if the low-desire partner agrees to do some deep work in discovering what she or he actually enjoys in the realm of sensuality and sexuality. This could take many months of work — and even longer if there is a trauma history.
2. The low-desire partner will inevitably talk about how frightened they are of their partner being furious at them if mercy sex is withheld. The low-desire partner needs a safe place to talk about how upsetting the high-desire partner’s old pattern of sullen, withdrawn, or angry behavior used to be. Often, there are issues in the person’s family of origin that contributed to terror of their partner’s anger.
3. The high-desire partner will feel anxious and manipulated by the therapist. The high-desire partner needs to have a safe place to talk about their distress over past feelings of sexual rejection and the new worry that without mercy sex, that they will not have sex ever again. The therapist has to empathize with the feelings of fear and sexual rejection. The high-desire partner has to commit to controlling the feelings of anger, hostility, and resentment that have created discord in the rest of the relationship, so that the repair process can proceed.
4. Each partner needs reassurance. Ultimately, with sufficient buy-in from both, the process will work. If each partner does the work, the sex that they will have going forward might be less frequent, but it will feel much more satisfying. The high-desire partner will discover that, in fact, the mercy sex they were getting felt empty. The low-desire partner will find that they can tolerate the high-desire partner’s disappointment when they need to say no. The low-desire partner will also discover that they don’t hate sex after all, that if they ask for what gives them pleasure, and their partner is attentive, loving, and giving, that they actually do enjoy sex.
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