by Karen Berry, Ph.D.
PACT faculty, Warwick, NY
Often when couples come to therapy seeking assistance with issues related to sexuality, the problem is not what it appears to be. They describe issues such as sexual dysfunction, discrepant desires, pain during intercourse, inability to maintain an erection, and/or profound loss of interest. But often what we might call the “ick factor” is what is actually driving their presenting problems. Thus it is essential to look more deeply in order to get to the real difficulty. When the real problem is successfully addressed, treatment is much more effective and true healing becomes possible.
For example, when one partner discloses difficulty tolerating the other’s body odor, taste, and/or touch, the tension in the therapy room grows palpably. Until I studied PACT and began to think in terms of psychobiology, this was a moment I dreaded as a psychologist and a sex therapist. This was painful and overwhelming to the couple and to me due to the meaning inferred: “I find you disgusting.” We would do our best to bumble through the conundrum, but rarely did the couple or I feel peaceful in the presence of this reality.
Everything in my office began to change when I read Love and War in Intimate Relationships (2011) by Marion Solomon and Stan Tatkin. I began to understand the psychobiological reasons some people are repulsed by their partner’s taste, smell, or touch. Some individuals who lacked skin-to-skin contact in early childhood possess an acute ick response to all near-sense experiences (i.e., touch, taste, smell, and near vision). The extreme ick response is most likely only a consequence of a nervous system developing and adapting to ensure survival. Now I see that it is simply another obstacle that, if understood and normalized, can be managed collaboratively within a secure-functioning relationship.
Every couple is unique. They consist of two human bodies—with two nervous systems and different family histories—and had little or nothing to do with each other until they became a “we.” The key to collaborating is deciphering what the words and behaviors mean to a particular dyad. A couple who present as scared to talk openly with each other about the difficulty pose a different problem than a couple filled with of blatant anger and hostility toward the ick factor.
Let’s look at Donna and Marcy, who are in their late thirties, successful, professional, married, and with two children. Their marriage is in trouble. The tone between them is cold and separate. Touch is nearly nonexistent, never mind sex. Marcy is angry about this. Donna doesn’t mind, and justifies her unwillingness to engage by stating, “I show you my love in other ways.” Neither partner wants a divorce, but Marcy is furious and threatening.
Reunions, for this couple, are challenging, no matter what time of day. But late nights when Donna returns home from work are particularly difficult and set the tone for the next day. We enact this repetitive event in the office. Marcy pretends she’s asleep so she won’t have to deal with the rejection of Donna’s complaint about her breath. Donna agrees she finds night breath repulsive, but she’s angry and hurt about returning from work with no welcome. Both are suffering, alone, and angry. We work together to make adjustments and build ways to reunite that feel good and doable to both.
As we continue our work, it becomes clear that the issue of Donna finding Marcy’s breath offensive permeates their connection. It has far reaching implications. Focusing on ways to amplify their positive states together, I ask Donna to sit on Marcy’s lap. I watch carefully as they orchestrate this task. At first, they laugh, having fun. As they proceed, they appear awkward with each other. Clearly, this is not something they do. Eventually I ask Marcy, “Does she look comfortable?” In unison, they speak again about Donna’s aversion to Marcy’s breath. Donna’s aversion is so extreme that she also hounds her children about their breath. It is clear that she is awkward about closeness—not only with her partner, but also with her own kids.
I get curious. What else is going on here? As they sit face to face, touching, I ask Donna how far back this goes: “What’s your earliest memory of being so anxious about breath—yours or others?” At first, she has no association. Then, she remembers being at school with her mom in the auditorium. A classmate seated nearby said to Donna, “Your breath stinks.” Donna’s mom provided no comfort for her humiliation. The issue became traumatic because no adult helped her metabolize this painful event. Therefore, the unremembered, unresolved trauma emerges in other situations. Finally, Donna has a family member, Marcy, who is able to provide healing. Now that she understands, Marcy has compassion for Donna. She truly comprehends that this is not about herself. She no longer feels threatened. Together, they can collaborate on managing the obstacle of Donna’s acute ick response.
This collaboration allows them to heal Donna’s trauma. She can now receive comfort from a loved one for the first time in her life. This healing also allows Donna to become less awkward with physical touch with her loved ones. The future is much more hopeful for this couple and their family.
Copyright Karen Berry