In my work with couples, I often find that sex between the partners has stopped, or become radically unsatisfactory, and neither partner really knows why. It usually isn’t because there’s a problem elsewhere in the relationship, as if that were so, talking therapy could identify and resolve it.

The couple – unsurprisingly – expect to just sit there, and someone like me will sprinkle fairy dust on them, and suddenly, everything is as good as new. This tends not to work.

From my perspective, the problem is twofold. Firstly, the couple tend to have a clear idea of what sex should be like. I call it The Hollywood Model. In this model of sex, each is urgently passionate for the other, to the extent they tear each other’s clothes off with scant regard for fabric longevity, have some very perfunctory foreplay then get down to business, and in no time at all simultaneously and noisily orgasm. Whilst having sex, they are very engaged with each other.

That’s the first problem: there’s an ideal of what sex should be like, and you’re disappointed and frustrated if it isn’t like that for you.

The second is the focus on orgasm. Couples tend to speak about this in terms of what “works”. If it promotes orgasm, it’s good, if it doesn’t, not so much. But over time, the sex gradually narrows, until, quite soon, you get to the point where it’s just perfunctory.

And then it vanishes entirely.

How can we think of sex in a different way?

Donald Mosher, an American researcher, came up with the idea that we have three different sexual modes. What I’ve called The Hollywood Model is his second mode, Partner Engagement, but there’s two others: Trance and Play. Discovering these is one way to get out of the Couples Trap.

Trance is where you’re very caught up in your own experience. Your partner might be doing something delicious to you, and you are having an exquisite time, but it’s very internal. It’s as if you are having a wonderful meal. You don’t want to tell the waiter every five minutes what a great time you’re having, because that detracts from the experience. However, because The Hollywood Model is what we think sex is, we often feel guilty and selfish when we’re in this mode, and feel that we’re taking up too much time. And we feel we have to reassure our partner, even though that takes away from our experience.

When I work with a couple, they are so focused on how things should be that they often become, with each other, disembodied. In that case, it’s helpful for me to work with them separately, in the Trance mode, to reembody them, before getting to work on communication and variety.

The other state is Play. BDSM – particularly power games – are the classic exemplars, but it really includes all behaviour where the couple are playing a role.

In my remedial work with couples, I focus on these two other states, so they can broaden out the Couples’ idea about sex, which was largely and culturally restricted to Partner Engagement in the first place, and fatally constricted further by an unbalanced focus on orgasm.

Of course, for other couples, the primary issue is communication, or boredom through repetition, and I will write about this more in future posts.