Innovative Sex Therapy for Married Couples who are “Faking It”
We’ve all heard about faking orgasm. Forty-eight percent of American women do it, says a 2004 ABC News poll; 72 percent, says the online magazine Slate in its 2000 orgasm survey. Sex-therapist Carol Ellison reports about 70 percent in her book Women’s Sexualities, which is based on survey responses from over 2,000 women. Some of these women said they’d faked it once, writes Ellison, and some “countless” or “a bazillion” times. One woman drew an infinity sign as her answer. Their reasons for faking? Mostly to get sex over with quicker, or to stroke their partners’ egos.
But what about faking sexual desire? Or faking sexual closeness and intimacy? These are more than a women’s issue. These are what I see in many couples who seek sex therapy, especially married couples or couples in long-term commitments who see no other way to heat up sex that has gone lackluster over the years.
Faking sexual desire and intimacy can creep toxically into a relationship to undermine openhearted honesty and sharing—which are primary qualities that make sex meaningful, say more than eight in ten respondents of my ISIS survey—men as well as women. However unconscious or well-meaning, faking represents a selling-out of right relationship with your partner and also yourself.
Why do couples fake it? Some fake it to please their partners and get sex over with. Some fake it because they’re afraid to feel the full range of pleasure or pain. (What would happen to your nice neat world if you admitted you were turned on by Kink, or excited about opening your relationship? Or that you’d finally begun to feel the rage caused by abuses in your past?)
Other couples fake desire and intimacy in an attempt to spice up Johnny-One-Note sex that never goes beyond intercourse. Others fake because they can’t feel anything and they’re copying the sex-kitten and macho-hunk images they see on late night HBO. Others fake because they are so needy for emotional connection they can’t see beyond the fear that they’ll never get what they really want. One client confided, “I’ve faked my way through my whole life because I was scared if I told the truth they’d just laugh at me, then I’d die of shame.”
Most often, I’ve found that couples fake desire and intimacy because they don’t feel the same lust that used to pulse through every pore when they first fell madly in love—so they want make themselves believe they’re still that interested in sex. This is an earnest effort to feel more, to quicken those pulses, to make things good again—to “fake it till they make it,” as an oft-quoted AA slogan urges.
Bringing Back Genuine Desire and Intimacy
There is no guaranteed twelve-step program for recovering genuine feelings in sex—or in your life. But there are steps any couple can take to increase awareness of how and why they have chosen to pretend everything is the same as it always was.
Instead of focusing on the dysfunctional aspect of faking desire and intimacy, I start with the premise that faking these is a “self-medicating” response—an attempt to feel better, help their partners feel better, and maintain status quo.
I also know that every couple has a story. And in over three decades as a sex therapist, I have confidence that once the nuances of this story are expressed, unwound, and understood, that the couple has a chance to begin relating again, with genuine feeling.
The ISIS Approach
I show the couple a diagram of the ISIS model of Sexual Experience. Then I ask each of them to tell the story of when, and how, they began to fake desire and intimacy with each other—and to tell that story from each perspective: Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. I ask one partner to begin, and support the other partner in listening and holding space. Then I ask the other partner to tell their story. Then we create space for their responses—using the Wheel to show each other–literally—where they stand as their story unfolds.
This may take several sessions, or as long as the complexities of the couple’s interactions dictate. I ask them to take the ISIS Wheel home with them and continue to tell their stories to each other. In the telling and the listening lies a natural antidote to faking desire and intimacy, because it gives permission and direction for uncovering feelings that may have become buried over the years.
This gentle, client-centered approach differs from a cognitive-behavioral approach (CBT) of diagnosing the couple’s problems and assigning homework like sensate focus exercises, to address physical performance. My experience is that CBT may fall short in couples with long-withheld desire and intimacy.
The ISIS approach is based on the premise that feeling and sharing deep emotions will unlock the couple’s own ability to access desire and move closer to one another. It is based on awareness, without assigning blame for anyone’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. And it puts responsibility for initiating growth and change on the couple rather than on the therapist.
For more information, please see descriptions of the ISIS approach on my website. For much more information, please read my books— The Heart and Soul of Sex (which describes the survey that underlies the ISIS approach) and The Return of Desire (which describes the practical applications).
In addition, I supervise therapists, and conduct trainings and workshops many places in the world—I would be happy to speak with you if you contact me.