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  • Patrizia FrongiaPatrizia Frongia, Phd Psychiatry and Relational Sciences, High-Care Rehabilitation Community, Past President SIRTS, Milan, Italy.

Patrizia Frongia, PhD Psychiatry and Relational Sciences, High-Care Rehabilitation Community, Past President SIRTS, Milan, Italy

What with certainty

lies in nature in beauty

That which has no reason and never will have it

That which has no remedy and never will have it

that which has no measure.

Oh che sarà” by Fiorella Mannoia  


There seems to be not only one, exhaustive definition of desire, nor a more specifical one of sexual desire.

Desire is, by its own nature, subjective and difficult to delimit, nor it can be quantitatively measured. However, some authors have attempted to define the concept of this fleeting and changeable human dimension. My professional interest in the way desire is expressed stems from clinical experience with couples. My curiosity is oriented at discovering what desire is, its history and its relationship with affective aspects.

The root of desire in couples is not obvious: it is not granted that a conflictual couple knows a disappearance of erotic desire, and often it is not true that the couple maintaining a continuous solidarity witnesses an equally continuous erotic desire. In this paper, I will attempt to give a relational interpretation of the phenomenon of desire, starting from some considerations on the history of desire, through the reflections of a few authors, and then proposing a series of questions on desire to be asked to couple in therapy.

Some history

When we talk about “desire” we are not only referring to “sexual desire”. I look at desire as that condition in which a couple maintains the constant yearning for the partner, his attractiveness, and the unquenched hunger for his presence. The most accredited etymology of “desire” comes from the De Bello Gallico: the “Desiderantes” were the soldiers who stood under the stars (De-Sidere), waiting for their comrades who, after fighting during the day, had not yet returned. This is the meaning of desiring: standing under the stars and waiting. "In the Platonic conception –says Mistura (La Terribile Tenerezza, 1991) – the characteristics of Love are defined from the beginning: [...] as the son of Penìa, Poverty, Love is always poor. For that reason, Love is not gentle, nor delicate, nor beautiful, but restless: one might even infer uncouth and unkempt. Love is lacking, he suffers from the absence of something to which he aspires.

As the son of Poros, the Expedient, Love is always on the hunt for what is beautiful and good, he is bold, full of initiative, a skilful hunter... he engages his whole life in philosophizing, to achieve wisdom. Love is desire.” (Id., p. 52 ff.).

 Absence, lack and the hunt for what we need seem to be basic conditions for the processes through which partners attract or repel each other. Desire, in general, is a tension towards the fulfilment of man's essential needs, thus also sexual needs.

According to Levin (1994), desire is a mental tool activated by unsatisfaction, that can have a variable intensity, and is caused by external stimuli (through the sensory organs) or internal stimuli (imagination, memory, associative and cognitive capacities), that induces the feeling of need.

What Levin means is that sexual desire is a higher psychic function. It cannot be explained through a biological/hormonal model, but it must be considered as the expression of the capacity of the human species to give meaning to behaviour and relevance to the relational aspect. Desire comes from biological, psychological, and relational factors.

We should also point out that desire and its corresponding sexual practice takes forms that are historically and culturally determined. Some of the actual forms survive from the past, knowing today an integration with contemporary and transformative cultural contributions. The two most significant are social constructionism and feminist dialectics.

According to Foucault's perspective (The Use of Pleasures, 1984 p. 150), the Greek man in classical society belonged only to himself, while women's tasks and roles were divided according to the will of the men. At the end of the plea against Neera, attributed to Demosthenes, the author formulates an aphorism that has become famous: "He will have the courtesan for pleasure, the concubine for daily care and the bride for legitimate offspring and as a faithful guardian of the hearth".

Such perspective was far from promoting the arts of conjugal pleasure, which, instead, according to Van Gulick (1971), can be found in ancient China, where prescriptions concerning the woman's obedience, her respectful attitude, and her devotion, are closely interwoven with advice on erotic behaviour aimed at increasing as much as possible the partner's pleasure, and with suggestions on the most favourable conditions for obtaining the best offspring. Demosthenes' formulation is extremely far from the culture described by Van Gulick, but it can be found in Christian pastoralism, which prescribes a strictly monogamous situation, in which the man is forbidden from pursuing any form of pleasure other than the one associated with his duty to his lawful wife. But even for this doctrine, the purpose of sexual relations must not be pleasure, but procreation.

Demosthenes' formula is based on a system that, on the one hand, seems to sanction the legitimate wife, and, on the other hand, places pleasure outside of marriage.

In classical culture, mutual expectations are clear: wives are bound by their legal and social status, all their sexual activity must be within the marital relationship and the husband must be their exclusive partner. Husbands also have rules: the husband must have intercourse with his wife (at least three times per month if she is an heiress), but it is not part of his obligations to avoid intercourse with other women, as long as they are not married women, in which case they would belong to other men. Marriage does not bind a man sexually, except in respect of another man.

For the Greeks, there never was a moral obligation to mutual fidelity: it never existed that sort of sexual right that later would be introduced into marriage, carrying moral value, legal effect, and religious significance at the same time. In the marriage relationship, there was no principle of a reciprocal sexual monogamy that would make the two spouses exclusive partners: the wife certainly belonged to the husband, but the husband belonged only to himself. It was expected, however, that a married man would moderate his sexual activity after taking a wife, but the behaviour of married men was only a matter of attention because of its implications for his legitimate offspring, which was only the one born from a wife and within a family institution.

The device regulating the use of sexual pleasures and the conjugal ethics in classical culture has survived, with some vicissitudes, until modern times (remember one date among all: it was 1951, only 61 years ago, when in Italy brothels disappeared by decree of the Merlin Law). It is only in very recent times that women's rights, promoted by the feminist movement, partly integrated with the male-friendly conjugal ethics. Around the same time that Masters and Johnson were organising the treatment of sexual disorders in the functionalist paradigm, through experimental observation of sexual phases in the laboratory, the systemic pioneers claimed that any problem was a relational matter and that symptoms were communicative acts.

In the 1980s, the hierarchical, patriarchal family was harshly attacked by the feminist movement throughout Western culture and women's self-determination regarding their status and bodies led to new laws on divorce, birth control and abortion laws. Gradually the traditional family model changed: from a role-centered family (in which the family institution prevailed, the expectations of partners were clear and defined within their boundaries and the continuity of the family never questioned) to the affection-centred family (in which roles became uncertain, liquid in their boundaries and interchangeable). But if the use of pleasures as it was previously seen presupposed a strong asymmetry in the couple and a domestic subjection of women, today the possibility of a couple based on sexual, sentimental, and emotional equality seems to be emerging. A reorganization in the sphere of intimacy, which becomes free from the constraints of reproduction, from gender stereotypes, based on the autonomy of the person. Giddens defines this type of intimacy as “ductile sexuality”. As an interpersonal bond between equals, intimacy then becomes a true experience of democracy, which also impacts the social system. In the family of affections (in the sense used by Charmet on the basis of Fornari's work on affective codes), however, the crisis of the couple is a foreseen and possible event: if affection ends, the bond also ends, and the roles of the partners are not strong enough to prevent it.

What happens in relationships... Interviews on desire

We are made of relationships. Each of us is unique, and what we are is determined by our relationships with each other (Frongia, 2020).

To explore the sexual desire of several couples in therapy, and to identify what factors hindered or maintained desire, I proposed three questions about the partners’ desire and its history:

1. Do you remember at the beginning of the romance what stimulated your desire?

2. In your experience, were there factors which favoured or hindered your desire?

3. Do you have a precise memory of certain details of your partner, a specific gesture, the way he/she said something?


L.1 ­– I liked her body, her expressions, I like her red hair.

L.2 – My previous experience (use of substances coke and alcohol) hindered the desire.

L.3 – I like it when she gets out of the shower....

B.1 – He has wonderful hands; this triggered my desire.

B.2 – His past hindered the desire. The substances alcohol

B.3 – I can think of one part of him that I like a lot: It’s his collarbone, and also the walk... I like it a lot.


C.1 – The thing that struck me immediately was the waist, very tight.

C.2 – The stress of work hindered our sex life, although the desire was never lacking. Struggling together to overcome the problems bound us more. Sexual desire is never lacking.

C.3 – Her autonomy, vivacity, her feature of being attentive to the needs of others in the family.

T.1 – My desire was stimulated by the fact that he was elusive, he sought me out and at the same time eluded me, being a bit mysterious.

T.2 – The fact that he had an unplanned child, blocked the desire.

T.3 – His look, his eyes. It always struck me the way he touches me.


V.1 – The beautiful gaze, the smile, the light that came from her, the tenderness, the smile...

V.2 – What stands in the way is a lack of self-care, pyjamas are worn backward, routine. When the other does not listen... it kills desire.

V.3 – I remember her hand, the softness of her hand

P.1 – The smell, then he had these big lips... very sexy, it's an animal thing for me, he smelled so strong.

P.2 – It gets in the way when we fight or there's the stress of everyday life, it's a contraceptive practically, it takes away the desire... the time off leaves you with desire.

P.3 – Sexually..., the lips... the hands, the smell... everything, it's as if I had his taste, that's what stayed in my head.

Schnarch (2000) recognises desire as a key function of the couple's relationship, considering it the defining characteristic of being together.

According to the author, among all living beings sexual desire is the most complex form of sexual motivation: motivation is the basis of desire.

According to Schnarch, desire may arise from a sense of emptiness (a lack as in the Platonic conception), and in this case, it is aimed at avoiding loneliness or frustration. It is a passive desire, of a compensatory nature. On the other hand, the desire may also arise from a sense of fullness, and in this case, it does not arise from a need to be recognised, but from a desire to express oneself, to show oneself for what one is. This type of sexuality, born from a sense of fullness, depends on the sexual maturity acquired, as Clement believes. In fact, we can encounter this type of desire in an adult, highly differentiated human beings. This means that adults’ sexuality has a profound meaning and is related much more to personal maturation than physiological reflexes.

Thanks to the development of the neocortex, human species has self-awareness and a concept of Self, as well as the ability to give meaning to things. The neocortex influences sexuality and consequently desire, allowing the modulation of impulses. In this view, the lack of sexual desire is seen as 'normal', as a phase in the evolution of a couple.

If we analyse our clients’ answers, we can see how desire can be considered as the expression of an individual's personality trait, and for this reason always present in the person: "C.2 – The stress of work, hindered sexual life, although desire was never lacking. Struggling together to overcome problems, bound us together more. The sexual desire, it never lacks. In other cases, it can be assumed that desire is in relation to context and situations that somehow characterise it: "P.2 – It hinders when we fight or there is the stress of everyday life, it is a contraceptive practically, it takes away the desire... while free time leaves you with desire..." What emerges from the answers is that sexual desire has many faces, and what we see depends on the relational context in which sex takes place. In many cases despite conflicts, stressful moments, and routine, desire persists and appears in the desired details of the Other, who remains the object of attraction.

The case: Agnese and Luca

Agnese pursued Luca a great deal in the years before their marriage. She graduated in Medicine, earned a master’s degree in London, and works as a doctor in a prestigious British hospital. Their relationship was always divided between London and a city in Northern Italy where Luca was pursuing a career as an electronics engineer, until the wedding –desired by Luca– and the birth of their son –equally desired by Luca– arrived. Agnese left her job and friends in London and moved to a village in the lower Po Valley. Shortly after the birth of their son, Agnese discovered that Luca was having a sexual relationship with a colleague. She became furious and accused him of insisting strongly on putting her in the position of wife and mother, causing her to give up a promising career abroad. She questioned Luca's motives and accused him of following the expectations of his parents who wanted him to be married and a father. On the other hand, Luca recounted this sex affair as a space of freedom, a transgressive gesture toward Agnese and his own family. After a few sessions of couple’s therapy, the relationship between the partners returned to being peaceful and united around their young son, but the desire between the two disappeared.

What is going on?

Why is it that Agnese and Luca, in the face of a better relationship, express an absence of desire?

Should the absence of desire be read, as Kernberg (1996) suggests, as an excess of aggressiveness in the relationship? "Aggressiveness also enters into the sexual experience itself. The act of penetrating and being penetrated incorporates aggression in the service of love (...) this normal capacity to transform pain into erotic arousal is lost when massive aggression dominates the relationship” (p. 25).

Or is it, as Clement (2010) suggests, the fact that sex is a signifier of other relational meanings, such as dissatisfaction with the roles within the couple that have been constructed and that prevent one or the other of the partners from accepting his or her position within the relationship?

Or is it the usual cliché that “women interrupt sexual relationships with men that no longer love and establish a radical discontinuity between an old love relationship and a new one, while men are able to maintain a sexual relationship with a woman even if their emotional commitment is elsewhere”? (Alberoni, in Kernberg, p. 96).

What we can say is that in each couple, sexual desire relates to the couple's bond following a unique logic. Sexual desire and couple bonding are two qualitatively distinct processes, where only partners can find their own way to harmonise their sexual desire and bonding. In this case, the improvement and serenity that applies to the couple relationship, does not apply to sexual desire, which has a past individual biography. For Luca and Agnese, a relationship of compromise emerges, in which both accept restrictions to their sex life because they consider their bond as the most important part of their relationship.


Desire remains a mystery even for the owners of the Discourse on Desire, as Foucault would say, and paraphrasing him we might say that Psychology cannot make any discourse on Desire because it is Desire that organises the discourse on Psychology. 

To sum up, we can sample some characteristics of desire in the couple and formulate some hypotheses:

- desire does not seem to be correlated with a relational continuity of the couple

- it seems –paradoxically– that desire has to do with the risk of losing the partner or, at least, with a partner’s presence that cannot be taken for granted

- desire seems to be mediated by the partner's image of the other

- the economy of mutual expectations appears to influence desires positively or negatively

Two schools of thought concerning desire could be distinguished, one that we could call integrationist and the other segregationist.

The first holds that sexual desire is possible when it is integrated with elements of attachment. Surprisingly, it is Kernberg himself who represents the integrationist hypothesis: “The Mexican poet Octavio Paz rendered this aspect of love with impressive conciseness: love is the point of intersection between desire and reality. Love, he says, reveals the reality of desire and creates the transition between erotic object and beloved. A revelation that is almost always painful, because the beloved person is presented as a body to be penetrated and an impenetrable consciousness. Love is the revelation of the other's freedom” (p. 50).

The second school of thought, the segregationist school, holds that desire and attachment do not necessarily follow the same path: Clement (2010) argues that "Sexual Desire has its own entirely different dynamic. Not only is it fickle, unreliable, short-lived, and ambiguous, but it is also ambivalent, thrives on both centrifugal and centripetal tendencies, and oscillates between desires for fusion that minimise differences and accentuation of differences under fascination with what is foreign. In essence, it is extremely paradoxical”. Fonagy says: “Attachment and sexuality are linked by a paradox. Attachment can inherently preclude the experience of sexual arousal. Some authors (...) have asserted that sexual arousal necessarily implies the cancellation of the genuine mental image of the partner. On the contrary, attachment revolves around the possibility of achieving self-understanding through interaction with the other."

The author who takes an original position on the differentiation of self-development within a couple relationship is Schnarch.

According to the author, differentiation has to do with the ability to maintain a sense of self in relationships with significant others. In the text “Passion in Marriage. Sex and intimacy in love relationships” the author states:

"Well-differentiated people can agree without feeling as if they are 'losing themselves' and they can disagree without feeling alienated and bitter. They can be united with people who disagree with them, and still 'know who they are'. They do not have to abandon the situation to maintain their sense of self."

This development towards maturity is a lifelong process, beginning in adolescence, but it may not evolve further and remain stuck. If parents themselves are poorly differentiated, they may create overly fused or distant relationships with their children, not helping them to develop their abilities to think, to feel, to act for themselves.

The sexual past we have today is the result of a great variety of choices. It is the recounting of memories of events conditioned by certain past experiences. Sexual desire is learned, and it becomes the product of our past acquisitions. Thus, sexual desire is inscribed in the broader model of the person's development, so that we should consider the lack of sexual desire not only as a symptom, but the focus of the couple's relationship, measuring the degree of intimacy that the couple can experience.

Beyond any theory, we can think that, perhaps, the real magic of desire lies in the experience, that sometimes happens, of meeting someone who welcomes and in turn desires all the aspects of our Self, even those rejected, unspoken, banned from the horizon of awareness. In this gratitude, Desire becomes Love.


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