An older couple is trying to recover from an infidelity. Newlyweds fight over their expectations of each other at home. A woman feels emotionally dropped by her female partner. It can be hard to see root commonalities in these couples when their concerns, circumstances, and life stories appear to be so varied.
What emerges as a root problem in a great many couples is a woman’s inability to feel, know, and articulate her own desires. This is an essential relational ability which women in particular have been discouraged from developing in a variety of complex ways from birth onward (see “What Is The SCAM?”). To a greater or lesser degree, many women come to their romantic relationships with limited access to their deepest desires, wants, and yearnings.
So what happens when a woman can’t know, feel, identify and express her desires in a marriage? A phenomenon I’ve come to call Desire Bypass. Desire Bypass is a woman’s compensatory way of avoiding the experience of her own desire. It occurs at the fringes of a woman's awareness so she is typically not conscious of it happening. Have you ever injured yourself and changed the way you sit or walk to minimize the discomfort? For many women, desire is that place of injury. Through a lifetime of accumulated micro-aggessions that directed at a woman's expressed desires, she learns that to feel desire is risky, dangerous, wrong, and unacceptable. She comes to associate desire itself as the painful experience she must intuitively, self-protectively learn to avoid it whenever possible. Women quickly learn and often repeatedly relearn that directly feeling and expressing desire is shameful, wrong, self-defeating, bad and possibly also dangerous. For women, it’s an experience that can be loaded with layers of fear, shame and grief, with old, buried traumas, personal, intergenerational, and historical.
Many women transition from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood, by becoming more and more skilled at Desire Bypass. It’s part of a woman’s socialization process, part of how she learns to forge an identity in the world. Desire Bypass can, albeit temporarily, help a woman feel in control and safe. It can help reduce the internal threat of a woman’s own emotional discomfort and minimize a variety of external threats, real or imagined.
So how does it impact a marriage when a woman resorts to Desire Bypass? Imagine you injure your foot and ignore the pain. You might deal with it by walking a little differently, on the arch of your foot - or more on the ball of your foot than on the heel. You might put a little more weight on the uninjured foot to reduce the discomfort. It may even appear to others that you’re walking normally and comfortably. You still do all the things you did before. Nothing appears to have changed. Over time, however, avoiding the injury will affect other parts of your body. You might hyperextend your torso or certain muscles in your legs and grow rigid or inflexible in other parts of your body. Your muscles, bones, ligaments and joints will all be impacted over time as they strive to compensate for and adapt to the unequal distribution of physical pressures and stresses. If the injury in your foot fails to heal or worsens, and you continue to compensate through avoiding treating the root problem with your foot by adjusting your stance or posture, other physical issues will arise. Your avoidance of the inital problem will result in new aches and pains in other parts of your body: in your knees, shoulders, spine or hips. You might develop chronic neck pain or migraines. Physical therapists know this phenomenon well. Avoidance of an issue in one part of the body can lead to another issue in a completely different, seemingly unrelated body part.
It’s the same thing in a marriage. Desire Bypass can contribute to any number of relational issues that create suffering between a couple. Many of the problems couples struggle with are just the most visible aspect of other, submerged dynamics between them and within them individually: the “tip of the iceberg” of what needs to be explored and addressed to bring about a positive change in their connection to one another. Whether it’s infidelity, frustrated role expectations, a deadening of sexual attraction, or a sense of emotional isolation, couples need to be willing to look beyond the obvious issues in their relationship at what’s hidden. If there's a pain in one part of the relationship, couples need to consider underlying root causes within themselves that may have contributed to creating this issue over time. For women, Desire Bypass is one of those root causes that can be addressed and explored to bring about radical positive change in a relationship. The first and most important step is recognizing the problem. Women need to be willing to take responsibility for their own relationship to - or lack of relationship to - their own deepest desires.