Q: I’ve been with my partner for two years and I love him deeply. He wants to get married, but for me the problem is that we have a good sex life, but not a great one. It’s nice, but there isn’t a lot of passion in it. With my last boyfriend, the sex was off-the-scale hot, but I finally broke up with him because he could never make up his mind that he wanted to stay with me. He was always taking “time outs” and saying “I’m not sure,” and no matter how much I jumped through the hoops I couldn’t get him past being forever on the fence. I know that this is a pattern that goes back to my father. My dad left the family when I was very young, and he went through the motions of having continuing a relationship with me, but his heart wasn’t in it. Whenever he visited me, he just seemed to be in a hurry to leave, no matter what I did to get his attention. Chasing guys who aren’t emotionally available has been my pattern my whole life. Now, when I finally do have a guy who totally wants me, there isn’t a lot of passion. Am I settling if I stay with him? — Robert
A: I think that some of the insights of sexologist Jack Morin may help explain your predicament. According to Morin, what turns us on is governed by our “core erotic theme,” a template or scenario which is usually learned in response to the emotional climate of our formative years. In your case, your core erotic theme appears to be about pursuit. You may have eroticized the struggles and challenges of trying to win over people who are indifferent or only mildly interested.
This kind of core erotic theme is what Morin called a “troublesome turn-on” because what causes intense sexual excitement makes it hard to meet other important needs. Some people, for instance, long intensely to be in a relationship, but are only attracted to others who are already committed. Others are only turned on in situations in which they’re in potential physical danger. It seems that you acquired your core erotic theme in your struggle to get your father to pay attention to you, and now you are used to chasing guys who aren’t interested. When you’re in a relationship where there aren’t obstacles and struggle, you just don’t get as excited.
One interesting thing about troublesome turn-ons, is that, even when the childhood situations that created them are long in the past, the turn-on can remain as strong as ever. It seems that once sexual arousal has been paired repeatedly with a particular theme, the momentum of the conditioning makes the core erotic theme highly resistant to change. In your case, it sounds as if you’ve stopped chasing emotionally unavailable guys and have let yourself love someone who loves you back. That’s a huge gain in self-esteem that finally means you can find happiness in your relationships. The trouble is, you’re just not as turned on in situations where you don’t have to fight for love and attention.
So what do you do? You could dump your current boyfriend and find another guy who will frustrate you emotionally, so that you can have hot sex again, but I’m assuming you agree with me that this would be self-destructive. Here’s another option: stop thinking of the “hot sex” you had with former boyfriends as the gold standard against which all other sexual experience must be measured, and start to pay more attention to nurturing the “warm sex” you have with your current partner. Relax into what it feels like to be held by a man who already holds you in his heart, without your having to do anything to earn it. Let yourself take in the sensual subtleties and the deep safety of caressing and holding someone who wants to be right where he is. My hunch is that you’ll find that, while warm sex is a different “flavor” of sex than you may be used to, it has a depth and a joy all its own.