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Saturday, March 4, 2023

Understanding Why You and Your Partner Might Experience Differences in Sexual Arousal: Spontaneous and Responsive Sexual Arousal

In her groundbreaking book, Come As You Are, Dr. Emily Nagoski explains why two people in a relationship often experience differences in sexual arousal (see my article: Spontaneous Sexual Arousal and Responsive Sexual Arousal Are Both Normal).

What is New Relationship Energy (NRE)?
Before delving into the topic of spontaneous and responsive sexual arousal, it's important to understand the impact of New Relationship Energy (NRE) at the beginning of a relationship.

During the early stage of a relationship, differences in sexual arousal aren't as noticeable because both people are experiencing New Relationship Energy (NRE), which is a potent cocktail of oxytocin and dopamine.  

New Relationship Energy Can Produce a Strong Sexual Response

New Relationship Energy (NRE) usually involves a strong emotional, physical and sexual response.  It's what people often experience when they say they feel "love at first sight" or a powerful sexual attraction.

NRE occurs during the so-called honeymoon phase of a relationship when both people feel high from the chemicals in their brain when they get together. And when they're not together, they are filled with anticipation about the next time they'll see each other (see my article: A Cornerstone of Eroticism: Longing and Anticipation).

Although many people enjoy NRE, others find that it clouds their judgment in terms of choosing a healthy relationship (see my article: How Do You Know If You're in an Unhealthy Relationship? ).

It can also be exhausting because people often feel "love drunk" with feelings that cause them to obsess about the person they're in love and/or in lust with.  For these reasons, many people don't trust NRE, especially if they have history of making poor relationship choices.

The NRE spark can fade anywhere from a few months and to a few years.  After that, if the couple remains together and all goes well, the couple can develop a more mature kind of love that is more likely to stand the test of time.

After the NRE fades, differences in sexual arousal become more apparent, and many couples think there is something wrong because one (or both) of them might not be experiencing the strong sexual desire they did at the beginning of the relationship.

Understanding Spontaneous Sexual Arousal and Responsive Sexual Arousal
Some couples assume that their relationship is doomed if one or both of them don't feel a strong sexual desire for each other.  But what this often means is that they experience sexual desire differently (see my article: Understanding Sexual Desire Discrepancy).

Differences in Sexual Arousal After NRE Has Worn Off

One of them might experience spontaneous sexual arousal where they can feel sexual arousal at the drop of a hat--anytime and anywhere.  These people usually don't need much physical stimulation because all they have to do is think about sex and they're sexually aroused.

And the other person might experience responsive sexual arousal where they feel turned on after they begin having sex.  It often takes them longer than people who experience spontaneous arousal to feel turned on.

Spontaneous arousal is what is usually portrayed in movies and TV programs where both people can't keep their hands off each other and they're ready to have sex anywhere and anytime.  

But, in reality, according to Dr. Nagoski, not everyone experiences spontaneous arousal. Dr. Nagoski cites 75% of men and 15% of women as experiencing spontaneous arousal, and 5% of men and 30% of women as experiencing responsive arousal.

In her book, Sex Talk: The Five Conversations That Will Transform Your Life, author and sex therapist Vanessa Marin, also discusses the difference between spontaneous and responsive arousal.

She summarizes it by saying that with the spontaneous type feels turned on spontaneously when they think about sex.  And the responsive type starts having sex and then they feel turned on.

According to Ms. Marin, anybody can experience either spontaneous or responsive arousal at different times and with different people, but most people tend to experience predominantly one or the other type.

Why Is It Important to Understand Your Own and Your Partner's Sexual Arousal Type?
After the initial period of a relationship when the NRE has worn off, it's important to know what you each need to get sexually aroused.

If you tend to be a spontaneous type and your partner is a responsive type, you might be ready to have sex as soon as you think about it.  But you need to know what your partner requires to get turned on.  

Also, if your partner is the responsive type, they need to be willing to start having sex to get sexually aroused (see my article: For People With Responsive Sexual Arousal, a Willingness to Start Having Sex is Often Enough to Get Them Sexually Aroused).

With the responsive type, context is very important.  For instance, they might not feel like having sex if the bedroom is messy, if they're feeling stressed out about something else or they're worried about the kids coming into the bedroom.

With the spontaneous type, context tends to be less important generally speaking. When they have the urge to have sex, they often couldn't care less about their surroundings.  If the sexual urge occurs while they're in the car on a dark street, no problem.  Ditto if they feel the sexual urge in a park, they might try to persuade their partner to go to a remote area in the park to have sex. In an elevator where they're alone with their partner, they might press the stop bottom to have a quickie.  The taboo aspect of these sexual activities is usually a real turn-on for them.

One of the problems with the differences between the spontaneous type and the responsive type is that most people don't know about the responsive arousal type because they've only ever seen spontaneous arousal portrayed in the media.

Even people with responsive arousal usually don't know about it because it's not common knowledge and this important information isn't usually taught in Sex Education classes. Even many couples therapists aren't aware of it.  

So, many people with responsive arousal feel like there's something wrong with them.  They might even feel broken, especially if they have a partner is ready to have sex anytime and anywhere.

As a result, people with responsive arousal don't know that, in most cases, if they start having sex they'll get sexually aroused (assuming that it's the type of sex they enjoy).  They assume that because they're not feeling sexually aroused immediately (like their partner with spontaneous arousal) they're just not going to get sexually turned on at all.  This often leads to their avoiding sex altogether because it makes them feel inadequate.

Similarly, the person who is the spontaneous arousal type probably assumes that since their partner isn't feeling aroused at the mere suggestion of having sex, this means they're not going to get aroused at all.

Being able to work on these differences assumes that each person knows their sexual arousal type, knows what turns them on, what turns them off, and what turns their partner on and off.  

This lack of knowledge can be a major obstacle for people, especially people with responsive sexual arousal.  They also might not know what turns them on, but there are ways to explore this in sex therapy if both partners are willing.

Differences in sexual arousal can and do get worked out in sex therapy, and many couples are relieved to know that their sex life together isn't doomed due to these differences in sexual arousal.

Next Article
The next article will explore how you can determine your own and your partner's sexual arousal type.

Getting Help in Sex Therapy

Discrepant sexual arousal is one of the most common issues that bring couples into sex therapy (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

Getting Help in Sex Therapy

Sex therapy is a form of talk therapy which focuses on sexual issues.  There is no physical exam, nudity or touching between clients and the sex therapist during a sex therapy session (see my article: What Are the Most Common Misconceptions About Sex Therapy?).

A skilled sex therapist can help you and your partner discover what type of sexual arousal each of you experience and what you can do to have a more satisfying sex life (see my article: What Are Common Issues Discussed in Sex Therapy?).

So, rather than allowing your sex life to stagnate, seek help in sex therapy.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I am a sex positive therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.