Sexless Marriage: Boston Sex Therapist Discusses How to Break Out of the Panda Syndrome
Posted on July 18, 2014 by Aline Zoldbrod
Adapted from Dr. Aline Zoldbrod and Lauren Dockett’s book Sex Talk (New Harbinger Publications, 2002)
One of the more gratifying aspects of being a sex therapist in Boston is helping a loving couple break out of their habitually sexless marriage.
Picture a male and female Panda. They are cuddly, adorable, and peaceful. You can picture them cavorting happily about, and eating bamboo. But it is almost impossible to get them to mate! Well, it is not uncommon to find some very wonderful but sex-less couples these days that secretly have the “Panda Syndrome.” Their friends have no idea that they are not sexual partners. They seem so perfect together. They are friendly, loving, respectful and affectionate, and they work and play with enthusiasm and cooperation. But they have no sexual relationship.
Many experts define a sexless marriage as one in which there are ten or fewer episodes of sexual intimacy in a year. There are all kinds of reasons for sexless marriages, including marriages where there is general hostility, a history of child sexual abuse for one or both people, parents who are overworked and overstressed, and people who are workaholics. What I call “the Panda Syndrome” is one type of a sexless marriage. It is marked by a lack of conflict and a physical closeness and real emotional intimacy in the non-sexual relationship.
It’s not always clear how the pattern of avoiding genital contact started, but once the pattern of being loving and affectionate but nonsexual starts, it is difficult to stop. Let me try to give you some tips of how to escape the Panda Syndrome. Let’s see if this is something the two of you can do on your own. If not, let’s see about getting a sex therapist involved, so that you have a neutral and wise person to help you sort through where you’ve been and where you would like to go. If you are looking for a Boston sex therapy practitioner, please give me a call.
Here are some first steps to take to break out of your sexless marriage:
l. First, agree together that you want to begin to become sexual partners again. It must be a joint decision. If you can’t agree, there is sure trouble ahead. In that case, do seek professional help from a certified sex therapist immediately (Look for one at American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists)
2. Get a medical evaluation of each of you to make sure that the pattern is not a result of a medical issue you are avoiding which can be treated, for instance a pain disorder, or erectile problems. One good resource to find a physician who is an expert in assessing sexual problems for women are ISSWSH. This is the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health. To explore this for men, ask your internist or general practitioner to refer you to a urologist who is interested in male sexual health.
3. The next step is to look at your behavior together and talk about the kinds of touching you have been doing that you each now evaluate as “normal” and “non-sexual”. For some couples with the Panda Syndrome, kissing, and even genital touching, has become “non-sexual,” because you have evolved into a pattern where it is understood by each of you that these touches will not progress to sexual excitement and full genital contact. At this point, it is almost impossible for either of you to signal to the other that you want to resume being fully sexual with each other.
4. Talk about each of your thoughts about how and why you each drifted into the Panda syndrome. Share your thoughts and ideas about your sexual history together, and discuss the ways in which not being sexual have become normalized.
I would say that in at least half of my patients who are in sexless marriages, the problem began with some way in which one of them hurt or criticized or disappointed the other sexually. People tend to take sexual rejection and disappointments very personally, and rather than unravel the pain and the misunderstanding, there is a retreat from sexuality together.
Does this sound like you? If so, see if you can work through these hurts on your own. If not, please do see a sex therapist, because it is likely that you can solve these old hurts and reach resolution with a trained therapist/mediator.
5. If there actually was no hurt or disappointment on either part, you may want to do some self-exploration and see if some messages you got in your family of origin helped to inhibit your sexual activity. If so, my book SexSmart would be helpful.
6. Be honest with yourselves, each of you. Are you masturbating? If so, there clearly is some sexual energy inside you. There is a reason you are not bringing it to your partner. Be brave and think about what you actually might want or enjoy sexually, if you were to try to be sexual toward each other again.
7. Next, begin to incorporate some new behaviors and signals into your behavior together, signs to you both that you want to create sexual excitement. One place that you may want to begin is with some special eye-gaze exercises.
Margo Anand, in her book The Art of Sexual Ecstasy: The Path of Sacred Sexuality For Western Lovers (New York, Jeremy Tarcher, l989) has some excellent practices. A second and complementary route to sexual reawakening can be found in Michael Reed Gach’s Acupressure for Lovers (http://acupressure.com/lovers/book.htm)
A wonderful third resource is watching some instructional videos on how to be better lovers. Check out the excellent videos at Pleasure mechanics to get some new techniques. (http://www.pleasuremechanics.com/index/)
8. Set up a defined time twice a week when you will be trying out new behavior. Using the exercises you learn from these books and videos, begin building up feelings that you both define as erotic, electric, and arousing. Agree that any touch you undertake after these new activities is going to lead to sexual pleasure and sexual activity. Have fun!
Aline Zoldbrod Ph.D. is a Boston based sex therapist and psychologist and the author of the award winning book SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It (1998). You can find out more at http://www.SexSmart.com.