The Cycle of Sex

Dr. Laurie Watson talks about sex and law enforcement and how the career impacts sexual and emotional connection.


Maybe this will sound familiar to you. You haven’t seen each other for a while because you are working shifts and missing each other due to schedules, stress with family, work, and kids. You finally get a small amount of time together and one of you wants to make the most of this time to have sex, but as soon as you start trying to make the moves, the other one of you starts to push back saying, how can I have sex when we haven’t connected? The other one of you says, but I feel connected when we have sex. Maybe this has happened so much that you feel stuck on how you move the pattern forward. Dr. Laurie Watson is a certified sex therapist, the author of Wanting Sex Again: How to Rediscover Desire and Heal Sexual Marriages, and the co-host of the Foreplay Radio podcast and is going to talk to us about how to unstick the pattern and make sex our ordinary holiday.

Pursue withdrawal cycle

As couples, we get stuck into patterns leading to a lack of connection and sexual interaction.  The Pursue/Withdrawal trap is the most common of these traps.  In many relationships, one person will be the person that wants to initiate some type of connection, the pursuer, while the other partner distances, the withdrawer.  The more the pursuer pursues, the more the withdrawer withdraws.  It can feel exhausting and frustrating. Emotionally, we want to chase closeness in connection, but it can force our partner in some way to back away from us. The pursuer then tends to get a little more critical and angrier, and the withdrawal tends to make the pursuer shut down altogether. This happens emotionally and sexually.

In heterosexual relationships, the woman is most typically the emotional pursuer.

“I want more time with you.”

“I want to share feelings.”

“I want closeness.”

The man tends to be more of the sexual pursuer and needs sex to feel close. This can be very difficult for women, particularly in first responder relationships where there has not been an opportunity to connect due to scheduling conflicts and the hypervigilance cycle.  Their partner still wants to have a sexual connection while the female is needing an emotional connection to lead to the sexual connection.  The desire for sexual connection may not make sense to the female, so she pulls back, and the withdrawal, in turn, dysregulates the male half emotionally. He then has a harder time giving her what she needs emotionally to feel sexual, and it forms a nice big knot in the pursuit/withdrawal cycle. The cycle continues, and the dysregulation impacts the ability to connect.

The culture of law enforcement reinforces withdrawal behaviors

In law enforcement relationships, there are needs on both sides that build up from the absence that occurs due to scheduling conflicts. When officers come off shift, emotional connection can be difficult due to the downside of the hypervigilance cycle or wanting to emotionally disconnect from what has been experienced or seen.  Officers commonly try to protect their spouses by not sharing events from the day.  They want to come home to family, be normal, and away from the difficulties and toxicity that can exist at work. The culture of the career says “don’t share for family protection” and reinforces the withdrawal behavior because it’s the “right thing to do.” This isn’t because an officer doesn’t have the capacity to share, but because that’s the best thing for your family.

When you’re the person waiting at home, wanting an emotional connection and your partner doesn’t open up, it can feel like rejection.  As a result, a wall gets put up. Women need communication because it creates a bond of trust and an atmosphere of emotional connection. Without communication, a sexual connection can be difficult.

Crisscross cycles

The key to understanding the crisscross cycle is to understand that desires for men and women are different.  This cycle is one where one partner has a need for emotional connection but instead experiences what feels like rejection. The other partner has a desire for sexual connection and what they get back is a lack of sexual engagement.

Consider if one partner tends to put sex on their to-do list.  This is common in women as they think through aspects of roles and tasks they may want to accomplish or believe they must accomplish.  The task list person may view sex as something solely to relieve stress or fulfill the other person’s needs.  They may be able to accomplish this without feeling connected. It is just a box that gets crossed off a to do list. Consider that the other partner needs the sexual connection in due to it resulting in feeling connected to their spouse.  This partner then assumes that their spouse has the same connection to them. This can create confusion in partners.  It also creates crisscross cycles.

In a heterosexual couple, men have massive amounts of testosterone compared to women. Testosterone in both sexes actually does determine physiological desire, but desire for women is very complicated. It is much more in their minds and fantasies than it is in their bodies. Many women engage in sex not necessarily feeling desire until they get aroused. Men on the other hand have a physiological component that drives desire. Matching the different types of desire is something that gets confusing and crisscrossed.

 Desire, Sexual Connection, and Emotional Armoring

 “Desire doesn’t fade. We kill it.” Stephen Mitchell

Desire is killed when we do not learn to recognize and take off our emotional armor. There is a realization that no matter how much we love and are vulnerable with our spouse, there is a chance they could stop loving us. They could love another person, or they could die, so we protect our hearts and don’t let desire emerge.

 In the law enforcement community, the brain is conditioned to put on emotional armor to combat the impact of the career. As a spouse, you watch your officer walk out the door and do not know if they will come home.  You have your own version of emotional armor.  Instead of feeling desire, there becomes a need to protect yourself from it with the thought of “maybe it won’t hurt so much if I lose you.” It doesn’t allow us to connect and can kill our desire and need for sexual connection.

“Armoring protects us, but it also separates us, and the reassurance of a sexual encounter is one of the most life-giving ecstatic experiences in our body that says, I’m alive, you’re alive.” (Laurie Watson)

Reversing the cycle

If you are experiencing a cycle like described above, here are four ways that you can work individually and as a couple to reverse the cycle.

Be vulnerable.

In relationships, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations and become vulnerable. This means we have to admit to and share what we are feeling and thinking. It can be difficult and vulnerable to ask your partner to meet a need, to let them know that you want to be touched in a certain way, or need to stop and activity. We risk rejection and/or hurting our partner. However, it is better to be honest and vulnerable rather than “go with the flow” and have resentment later. Tell your partner what is going on, and what you need from them.

Change the push!

If you’re a pursuer, you’re a pusher. You want connection.  If your partner isn’t giving you what you need, you push harder. Change the push into something direct and vulnerable. You must get in touch with what triggers you and pay attention to your body’s reaction. Then, approach your partner with vulnerability. Instead of asking “What is bothering you?” over and over again, try, “Hey, tomorrow could we just go to coffee? I want to talk to you about something I’ve noticed between us. I don’t want to talk about it now, but, and I just want you to know, I care about us” Create a connection by changing how you pursue and push!

Take off the emotional armor!

Talk to your spouse about how you feel when the crisscross cycle is happening. Describe the cycle to your partner in a neutral, non-blaming, vulnerable way. Let them know that the lack of connection is derailing your sexual connection. Tell them you love them and are sexually attracted to them. If you are the partner looking for a sexual connection, tell your spouse that you feel like sex is just a box to be checked off. Both sides need to offer a lot of attachment reassurance and pull back the covers on this negative cycle.

Breaking the cycle is hard

Understand that breaking the crisscross cycle is difficult and may not go well in the beginning. As a couple, both sides have good intentions, but the negative cycle creates a disconnect both sexually and emotionally. You must remember to go to war against the negative cycle instead of warring against each other.

We all have cycles and traps we fall into! It is human and something to be expected in relationships. You’re not unique or abnormal. Recognize that crisscross patterns exist, and cause needs to go unmet. Look at your emotional armor, and how it works in your relationship and learn to take it off! Lastly, vulnerability is a must in order to have good sex, good sexual relationships, and deeper emotional connection.

Podcast: Foreplay Radio- Couples and Sex Therapy 

Wanting Sex Again: How to Rediscover Desire and Heal Sexual Marriages 

10 % discount for first responders in North Carolina

Dr. Watson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She’s a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and a Certified Sex Therapist and Sex Therapist Supervisor. She’s also the Owner and Director of Awakenings Counseling for couples in sexuality and she has her own podcast called Foreplay Radio Podcast. Dr. Watson is the author of the book Wanting Sex Again, How to Rediscover Desire and Heal Sexual Marriages. She writes for Psychology Today and WebMd, as well as Glamour Magazine and on the Today Show.


The Cycle of Sex

Dr. Laurie Watson talks about sex and law enforcement and how the career impacts sexual and emotional connection.