Once upon a time, early in my career, my supervisors assigned me a case of a couple who wanted to make a baby.* The couple took this on like top notch project managers; tracking temperature, tracking the calendar, employing the ovulation method and who knows what else. Meanwhile, Pete, the husband, developed a case of erectile dysfunction, making things, as we might imagine, difficult at best. When my supervisors said they were assigning me a “sex therapy” case, I complained, “With all due respect, what makes you think I know anything about how to do that!” to which they responded, “Oh, it’s just a symptom, the individual and relationship issues are what’s important and what you know.” Then, saying “Here, if it makes you feel better,” they gave me Helen Singer Kaplan’s sex therapy book, which I devoured.
Turned out they were right about the relationship issues. After numbers of meetings with Pete and Jane individually and as a couple, we learned that it really was all about the relationship, and the respective rights and responsibilities of each to some measure of self-determination within it. More specifically, notwithstanding Jane’s best intentions, at the very time that Pete most needed to feel his manhood, given the way things were going, he felt more like a performance show dog than anything resembling a man. Jane was clearly spearheading the project. Jane was by nature a conscientious woman, a speech pathologist, who said she could tell when Pete had just been to an appointment with me by the inflection in his voice. That’s how exquisitely on top of things Jane was – until one day Pete pulled the rug out from under her. Figuratively and literally, Pete simply pulled out.
Re-establishing rights and responsibilities
Working together, we established that each had a right and responsibility to exist as an individual within their marriage, that Pete was going to have to experience a greater sense of self, a greater sense of self-control and self-determination, for this thing (okay, for his thing) to work. Pete would have to understand how anxious it could make Jane to have to modify her usual ways of doing her ‘business’ in the world. Jane would have to learn to relax and relieve them of their highly regimented approach to sex, to allow for something that felt more natural, spontaneous, loving, even fun loving, and choice-based for Pete.
From here, I knew that, eventually, they were going to have to close ranks and restore a sense of coupledom separate from me. So I took a tip from Helen Singer Kaplan and prescribed no sex at all for a period of time. Yeah, right. Predictably so, Jane and Pete took matters into their own hands and, back on track sexually, thanked me very much and went on their way to see what they could make happen on their own.
Making a baby
Years later, while attending a ceremony to honor a dear friend’s child, up stepped Jane and Pete, proud parents warmly hugging their daughter, who was being honored on that same day. “Oh my God, I made a baby,” I thought, which of course I didn’t. They did, both as individuals and as a couple. Pete and Jane learned to use their words to communicate about power dynamics they didn’t even know existed in marital relationships. Pete and Jane opened their minds and hearts, and did what they needed to do to bring this baby girl home. Good for her. And good for them.
**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.