'can' versus 'must'

Here’s a chunk of research that uses new language to talk about something I try to explain all the time.

I typically talk about it as the chasing dynamic, where the more one person asks someone for something, the less that person is inclined to say yes.

“Can” and “must.”

In his book “Righteous Minds,” Jonathan Haidt describes experimenting with his little kid, who had exhibited symptoms of being allergic to the word “must.”

“You MUST have ice cream.”

“I don’t want any!”

“You can have ice cream now.”

“I want some!”

He uses this as an introduction to the confirmation bias, the fallacy we’ve all committed of deciding that the world works a particular way, finding evidence that supports our conclusion, and then confidently ignoring any evidence to the contrary. It is, he says, as though we ask ourselves “CAN I believe this?” when we want to believe something and “MUST I believe this?” when we don’t want to believe it.

Me, of course, I instantly considered the ways this distinction might relate to sexuality.

See, I think there’s a kind of self-imposed “must” in folks who are the lower-desire person in a relationship. And that self-imposed “must” has the same effect on a person’s sexual interest as a parental “must” has on a little kid.

“You MUST! You’re supposed to! It’s expected!”

“I don’t want to!”

It’s called reactance, and it’s one of those basic psychological things. I don’t know anything about the brain parts or neurochemistry of reactance (though I wonder if it’s related to the ironic effect), but I know that when you tell a couple at the start of sex therapy that they’re not allowed to have sex, very often the first thing they do is have sex.

Of course the next question is, what can you do about this internal must?

Counteract it with an external one, of course!

You may NOT have sex. You may NOT initiate.

It can even be part of a response to erection troubles: if your partner is struggling to get an erection, say, “Awesome! I LOVE playing with a soft cock. Don’t get hard, whatever you do, I want to suck your softie.”

I’ve heard some folks talk about it as a way to deal with orgasm challenges: “I’m going to masturbate for half an hour but I’m not allowed to come. I’m just going to experience lots and lots of pleasure, but orgasm is OFF THE TABLE.”

Changing the power dynamics (power (n): controlling access to something in which another person has a vested interest, and both people behaving as though this is true) can change the sexual context in a way that frees up the sexual inhibition system.

Try it out some time! Let me know how it goes.