NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Relationships: How You Feel About Yourself Can Affect Whether of Not You're Attracted to Your Partner

In my prior article, Relationships: What is Attraction?, I discussed the conscious and unconscious aspects of attraction as it relates to relationships.

In the current article, I'm focusing on how a partner's intolerable feelings of inadequacy can result in the unconscious projection of negative feelings onto the other partner (see my article: Are You Projecting Your Negative Feelings About Yourself Onto Your Partner?).

Projections often don't occur until after the early stage of a relationship when the relationship becomes more emotionally intimate and the partner, who uses projection, feels more emotionally vulnerable (see my article: Romantic Attractions: What Are the 3 Stages of Limerence?).

Clinical Vignette
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many cases with all identifying information removed, illustrates how an inability to tolerate negative feelings about oneself can lead to the use of projection:

Jack and Carla:
When Jack and Carla first met in college, they were immediately drawn to one another physically, romantically, emotionally and sexually, and they each felt they had never experienced so much love for anyone else.

Projection and Loss of Sexual Attraction in Relationships

They got married a year later with both of them still feeling so in love and lucky to have found each other.  But their problems began a few months after they got married and moved in together.

Although they had a great sex life before they got married, after they got married Jack gradually lost interest in sex and Carla yearned for their former passionate sex life (see my article: What is Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Relationships?).

After six months of no sex, Jack blamed Carla for his lack of sexual desire.  He told her that he no longer felt attracted to her because she wore sweatpants in their apartment, and he thought this made her look unattractive.

At first, Carla thought Jack was joking, but she quickly realized he was serious and she was in a state of disbelief.

She knew she didn't look different from how she looked before they got married, but she acquiesced to his wishes and stopped wearing sweatpants. Instead, she made sure she was dressed in a nice top and slacks when she was at home and she wore sexy lingerie at night to be more attractive to him.  

But Jack told her that he still didn't feel attracted to her and he blamed the cellulite on the back of her legs for making her look unattractive.  

Carla felt deeply hurt. She told him that he had never complained about the cellulite before, but Jack brushed off her comment by saying, "I can't help it. That's how I feel."

After a year of no sex, Carla suggested they see a sex therapist to work out their problems.  Initially Jack didn't want to attend sex therapy, but he eventually agreed to go.  He hoped the sex therapist would see things his way. 

After the initial consultation where she met with Carla and Jack together, the sex therapist met with each of them separately to get their individual family, relationship and sexual histories.

Carla's family history revealed that she came from an intact stable family. She was the middle child of three children.  Her parents had a loving relationship, and Carla felt loved by her parents and siblings. The only notable trauma in the family was when Carla's father's business failed and the family suffered from a financial downturn for several months until the father took a job as a chief financial officer in a large corporation.  

Prior to her relationship with Jack, Carla had one other serious relationship while she was in college with her classmate, Bill.  They were together for two years and they mutually agreed to end their relationship in an amicable manner.

With regard to Carla's sexual history, she had a few casual sexual encounters while she was in college and she had no history of sexual trauma.

Jack's family history was tumultuous. He was an only child, and his parents had separated and gotten back together several times during Jack's childhood due to the father's infidelity.  Both parents were highly critical of Jack and he grew up with a lot of shame. In addition, their financial situation tended to be precarious.  

With regard to his relationships prior to Carla, Jack had been in two short term relationships which started out sexually passionate and fizzled out after a few months.  He told the therapist that he tended to get bored with his girlfriends and lose interest.

During his last year of high school and until he began seeing Carla in college, Jack had many brief casual sexual encounters.  He denied any sexual trauma.

During their sex therapy sessions, Jack spoke about how his attraction for Carla waned soon after they got married.  He believed that if it was possible for her to have a medical procedure to remove the cellulite, he would feel attracted to her again.

Objectively, the sex therapist could see that both Jack and Carla were attractive people and she didn't believe cellulite had anything to do with Jack's lack of sexual interest in Carla.  

The sex therapist suspected that Jack was unconsciously projecting his own feelings of low self worth, which originated in childhood, onto Carla. She was also aware that Jack had no awareness of this because he was doing it unconsciously.

As they discussed sexual attraction, the therapist provided Jack and Carla with psychoeducation about the different types of attraction.

She also had individual sessions with Jack and Carla.  During the individual sessions with Jack, she broached the topic of projection as a defense mechanism.  But Jack was adamant that projection had nothing to do with how he felt toward Carla.

During the next several months Jack threatened to stop attending sex therapy whenever the therapist tried to help him to make a connection between how he was treated as a child and how he was treating Carla.  He refused to see the connection.

Gradually, after a couple of years, Jack developed a more trusting therapeutic relationship with the sex therapist so he could open up more to explore his inner world of longstanding disavowed shame.  

Over time, he was able to look at Carla more objectively and see that she was actually a very attractive and desirable woman and that he was, in fact, projecting his own feelings of inadequacy onto Carla.  

That's when Jack sought help in individual therapy to work on his unresolved trauma and shame. Over time, he learned to contain and work through his feelings without projecting them onto Carla. 

Carla remained patient, and she also sought help in her own individual therapy to deal with Jack's hurtful criticism about her body.  At one point, she talked to her individual therapist about the possibility of ending the marriage, but when she saw Jack making progress, she decided to stay.

Once Jack acknowledged he was projecting his own feelings of inadequacy onto Carla, this allowed the sex therapist to focus on helping the couple to revive their sex life.

Sex Therapy Can Help Couples to Revive Their Sex Life Together

Their sex therapist gave them homework assignments to help them develop greater emotional land sexual intimacy.  

Projection is an unconscious defense mechanism that people who have unresolved childhood trauma often use with their partners.  

The fact that it is unconscious makes it difficult for people to see and acknowledge what they're doing. 

In addition, they often have difficulty trusting the therapist when she points out how they use projection with their partner.

Projection is used as a way of pushing unwanted and disavowed trauma-related feelings onto a partner.

When projections are used, they are often used after the initial limerence phase of the relationship when the couple's emotional and sexual intimacy increases and the partner, who uses projection, feels too emotionally vulnerable in the relationship.

Since vulnerability is essential to developing greater emotional and sexual intimacy in a relationship, the partner who uses projection needs to be willing to develop self awareness, stop using projection, and find other ways to cope and overcome disavowed feelings in order for the relationship to improve (see my article: Emotional Vulnerability as a Pathway to Emotional and Sexual Intimacy).

Getting Help in Sex Therapy
Couples stop having sex for varied and complex reasons.

Sex therapy, which is a form of talk therapy, can help (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

Getting Help in Sex Therapy

Individual adults and couples attend sex therapy for a variety of reasons (see my article: What Are Common Issues Discussed in Sex Therapy?).

There is no nudity, physical exams or sex during sex therapy sessions (see my article: What Are Common Misconceptions About Sex Therapy?).

If you have unresolved sexual problems, you could benefit from getting help in sex therapy to have a more fulfilling sex life.

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.