Dec 012012

Hi there.

So my site stats showed a weird little spike over the last week or so, and it turns out to be entirely from this relatively small subreddit called “DeadBedrooms,” which they describe this way:

A support group for Redditors who are coping with a relationship without any physical intimacy in it. Advice is always appreciated, just don’t be surprised if we’ve heard it all.

My original posts about responsive desire have gotten a lot of play there, helping people to understand that what seems like low desire may in fact be openness or willingness that needs the right circumstances to turn into active desire. They’ve also been learning about what women want.

They have some questions about responsive desire and the dynamics that emerge in a relationship with differential desire (which is, by the way, the most common sexual dysfunction, and in het relationships men and women are equally likely to be on the higher desire end of things). Like this question:

So the “responsive desire partner” only wants sex in response to another’s desire – but if the other expresses desire, it is treated as “pressure,” and sex is withheld as punishment?

To which another redditor replied, very cogently:

If the relationship is healthy, then a responsive desire person will feel arousal when their partner initiates and enjoy sex with their partner.

If the relationship has soured, the responsive partner stops accepting advances from their partner and then experiences no other desire spontaneously. If pressure persists, the responsive desire person feels a range of emotions with time and situation – sometimes guilt, sometimes anger that their partner only cares about sex and not them, sometimes vindictive refusal of sex – its become a battle in a larger war, i suppose.

On the other hand, a spontaneous desire person (HL) in a relationship that has soured will feel loathing for their partner but still have a desire for sex, persist in pursuing it, and when they get it, they fuck with anger and loathing in their heart.

edit: arousal isnt a choice. Do you think you’d get aroused for sex with a donkey if it made your partner happy? For many people, their feelings about their partner matter a lot in regard to their desire.

Well, exactly.

Several people asked about medical problems or hormones – a possibility, but not a probability. Depression or other mood, anxiety, or personality disorder is more likely, if it’s a mental health thing. But mostly it’s probably just stress and chasing dynamic.

You fix the chasing dynamic by deliberately changing the rules of initiation in your relationship. This is easiest to do when you have a therapist to referee, but if you’ve got great, open communication, you can do it on your own.

How common is responsive desire in women? That’s another question they have. Answer: 30% of women report never or almost never feeling spontaneous desire for sex. Maybe 40-50% more experience something in between spontaneous and responsive desire, and the remainder, about 15-25%, are predominantly spontaneous. And yes, it can change across a person’s lifespan; older women appear to be more likely to report responsive desire. And the folks who experience a combination of spontaneous and responsive desire often feel spontaneous when their sexual circumstances are highly conducive to trusting, connected sex.

Changing a “dead bedroom” usually requires some kind of change in the relationship, with curious, affectionate collaboration between both partners, because it is the relationship, and not anything specific about either individual in that relationship, that is creating the dynamic.

Can I offer one suggestion about how to do this successfully?

Humor. Don’t take it too seriously. There are things you want, and if your relationship is healthy then your partner wants to give you the things you want; and there are things your partner wants, and you want to give your partner those things. Sometimes your needs don’t overlap perfectly. I realize both people have A Lot Of Feelings and Even More Feelings about it, and those deserve and need to be allowed space to be released, but they aren’t going to facilitate the solution.

SO hey! It’s okay! If you can have the conversation from a perspective of humor and curiosity, rather than all the intense emotional drama described above, you’ll be MUCH more likely to sort out an effective solution!

And my grandmother’s advice: both people have to give 100%. If each person gives 50/50, you have half a relationship.

Hope that helps. Feel free to ask questions in the comments! (I’d say “email me,” but honestly I’m at the tail end of writing a book so my inbox is just a shitshow. Sorry.)

EDIT: Also this post about how you know when you end the relationship may or may not be relevant.

emily nagoski

  7 Responses to “for the “DeadBedrooms” subredditors”

Comments (7)
  1. I read your post with interest, having lived in a Dead and Dying Bedroom for probably close to 8 years now. I have always (in the past that is) been a willing and enthusiastic partner…now I have evolved to the point where I have closed that door completely to him.

    It’s him that doesn’t want me. Actually, he’s never wanted anyone..words can’t express what it feels like to have someone who understands so much about you as a person…yet holds you so far away.

    The times I’ve been so desperate for affection…anything. A kiss, or a hug or anything. Nothing. Year after year after year. I tried, oh I tried…the result was always the same…awkward pity and obvious discomfort.

    So now I’ve closed the door. Shut myself down. So the kids can wake up to Mom and Dad…and meanwhile I try to forget that I was ever a woman.

  2. Went back to reread the “What Women Want” post and realized I should probably reread the entire blog. That post is pure gold. Also metabolic mortgage would make a great name for a band.

  3. I’m just curious if you see a lot of responsive desire people who are also overfunctioners . . .

  4. I’m one of the people that found my way here through that subreddit. I’ve pored over much, though certainly not all, of your articles, and now check back semi-regularly. Your writing and to some extent the posts and comments in /r/DB are definitely helping me to understand, if not yet change, my situation. So, thanks. :)

  5. I think you’re glossing over the fact that ‘responsive desire’ is a lesser desire than active desire. It’s not a spontaneous need, or a spontaneous want, it’s simply an ‘eventually getting into it’. Spontaneous desire isn’t an answer, it’s at best a compromise.

    Not wanting someone sexually at all _unless_ they initiate isn’t desire. It’s responding to someone else’s needs. Not your needs, someone else’s.

    I don’t like a lot of things, but some of them I can get into with enough prompting and maybe a sense of duty, but it’s not the same as wanting something because _you_ want it. I won’t do any of those things spontaneously because -get this- I don’t want to spontaneously do them.

    Does that mean I enjoy doing these things I don’t spontaneously want less? Yes, on the whole it does, otherwise I’d want to do them spontaneously. For example I don’t like surprise birthday parties, does it mean I don’t enjoy them _eventually_ after the awkwardness and feeling of fear has passed but do I want them? No. Do I just go along with them? Sometimes. Do they make me happy? Definitely not as much as non-surprise birthday parties. Do I look forward to them? No.

    I seem to be simply stating the obvious here but here goes: I want things that make me happy and things that make me happy makes me want them (I’m not sure why this is so unclear it needs to be stated).

    It seems as if your argument leads to the conclusion that responsive desire is equivalent to active desire and that seems like some political mealy-mouthed cop-out.

    • It sounds like (a) you have a responsive desire style and (b) you HATE your responsive desire style, not least because it means you don’t like sex as much as people who have spontaneous desire enjoy sex. Is that accurate?

      If that’s accurate then can I send you a copy of chapter 5 of my book, which is specifically about learning to like your body the way it is? I’ll send chapter 2, the one about responsive desire, with it. I’d love to know if anything in there is persuasive in anyway.

      Because the deal is, responsive desire (“openness” my students call it) isn’t a “lesser” desire style, it’s just not the style that our culture values (probably because it’s not the style that characterizes most MEN, and our culture is ALL ABOUT making the typical male experience the definition of “normal.”) There’s no evidence I’m aware of that spontaneous (“wanting” or “eager”) desire folks enjoy sex more than responsive desire folks.

      If you’re responsive and you WANT TO WANT SEX, you can make that happen. When a partner in a relationship has responsive desire, the couple has to create contexts that feel right for that partner, contexts that CREATE wanting. Context. Situation. Setting. Dynamic. It’s the context that generates the arousal. What if your entire life is foreplay, and every moment is an opportunity for the creation of desire? There is great power and potential in responsive desire, but modern western culture does nothing to teach people how to maximize it.

      Just BTW, the research on the relationship between wanting and liking (as in “making you happy”) is pretty clear that the two are not nearly so tightly linked as we tend to think. You can want things without liking them and like them without wanting them. Happens all the time.

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