Duty Sex and the Cycle of Dread, PART 1

Welcome back to our discussion about sex after betrayal and the specific ways a betrayed partner’s sexuality can be injured through the experience of being cheated on and lied to. This week we are going to focus on an issue that can be caused and/or exacerbated by betrayal but can also be present without the experience of betrayal. This is the issue of “duty sex” and the cycle of dread that can develop around it in a relationship.

Duty sex is when sexual interactions shift from an enjoyable expression of play, connection, intimacy, and togetherness to a divisive issue that creates dread and turns sex into a duty undertaken as an obligation or to avoid feelings of guilt or obligation. Typically, this dynamic evolves when one partner desires and pursues sex more frequently than the other. The lower-desire partner can begin to react to the sense of pressure resulting from being sexually pursued by losing their connection to their own sexual desire and instead becoming pre-occupied with and reactive to the pursuing partner’s sexual desire.

In this dynamic, both partners come to feel that the other person’s sexuality is controlling the sexual relationship. The higher-desire partner feels like the lower-desire partner is in charge of the frequency of sex and whether they will get their sexual desires met. The lower-desire partner feels like the higher-desire partner’s sexuality has taken over the relationship and that the higher-desire partner’s needs are more important and dominant. The higher-desire partner can become preoccupied with obtaining sex, and the lower-desire partner can become preoccupied with avoiding sex.

As the cycle of dread takes root, higher-desire partners can lose their connection to sex as an expression of the relational bond and become focused on the physical pleasure of sex as a release or high. Meanwhile, lower-desire partners can lose their connection with their own sexual interest and desire and become focused on either avoiding sex or engaging in sex only as a means to manage or appease the pressure they feel from the higher-desire partner.

With duty sex, both partners are caught in the cycle of dread. For the higher-desire partner, dread is about not knowing when sexual activity will happen and feeling fear that it may not happen for a long time. For the lower-desire partner, dread is about time passing where the pressure to reconnect sexually is growing and the person is unable to find any sexual desire within themselves but feels guilty and obligated to meet the sexual needs of the higher-desire partner. Both partners become anxious and preoccupied with the sexual relationship and the resulting distress.

As stated above, this dynamic can evolve in relationships where there is no sex addiction or betrayal. In such cases, two partners with different levels of sexual desire, may find themselves over time in a pursuer-distancer dynamic. Other times, this dynamic arises out of (or is made worse by) sex addiction and betrayal, with one partner’s sexual desire increasing or decreasing as the result of betrayal trauma.

Either way, couples struggling with duty sex and the cycle of dread typically respond well to Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. EFT is a methodology that helps partners empathically and vulnerably enter into the experience of their significant other and come together in their desire to create a sexual relationship that honors both of their needs and desires. Essentially, EFT helps them learn how to deal with their differences in a way where they do not continue to trigger each other into distressed and defended states.

Next week we are going to look more deeply at what happens when the cycle of duty sex and dread evolves as a result of sexual betrayal.

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