A book review by Michele O’Mara, PhD
Cervenka, Kathleen A. (2003). In The Mood Again: A Couple’s Guide to Reawakening Sexual Desire. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
In 1964 the Righteous Brothers wrote a song titled, You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling. Ultimately it climbed to the number one hit single in the United States, ranking 34 of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time by Rolling Stone magazine. This, I am sure, is no surprise to Dr. Cervenka who has built her career, and this book, around helping couples find that lovin’ feeling again.
According to Cervenka, the contents of this book represent “the exact process” that she takes clients through in couples therapy (5). The basic assumption is that almost all couples at some point in their relationship are affected by a diminished libido in one or both partners. In order to establish a foundation on which to build her treatment protocol, Cervenka starts with a review of the Tri-Phasic Model developed to describe the human sexual response cycle created by Helen Singer Kaplan in 1974. Briefly, the three stages are: desire, arousal (excitement), and orgasm.
In order to accurately assess issues of desire, it is important to identify the phase in which the dysfunction occurs. Cervenka is clear to state that her treatment process is designed only for issues of desire, and that in order for successful treatment to occur, the problem must first be accurately identified. Educating her clients on the function of desire is central to her initial treatment protocol. Relying on Kaplan’s research, she reviews with clients the notion that our desire starts in a small area of our brain called the hypothalamus which contains tiny sexual drive centers. She then explores with couples the common motivators for sexual desire. Cervanka reviews our five senses and how to interpret sensations as erotic, going into detail about various erotic pleasures associated with touch, smell, sight, sound and taste. After encouraging an increased awareness of what variety of sensations will activate your own sex centers, Cervanka asserts very clearly that there is only one person in control of your sex center, and it isn’t your partner! It is you.
Anyone who has ever fallen in love knows the feeling of what Cervanka calls euphoric lust. Readers may benefit from a more thorough explanation of this phase of attraction which can be found in the book, Why We Love: Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, by Helen Fischer. Cervenka does not expand on the biological explanation for the often obsessive, usually passionate, intensely pleasurable and naturally intoxicating stage of attraction. However, she does acknowledge the limited time in which most couples are able to enjoy this phase, which helps couples normalize the natural decline in this intense state of desire.
She also explains that when the inevitable happens and euphoric lust fades, we are faced with a decision to commit to enduring love, or seek a new partner with whom we can activate a new round of euphoric lust. For couples choosing enduring love, she empowers each partner to take ownership of his own power to turn on and off his sex centers.
After an adequate education is provided on the topic of desire and personal power and control over desire, Cervenka turns her attention to the couple’s relationship, and more specifically to what she terms the couple boundary. She explains that “A couple boundary is an invisible circle that surrounds the two of you” (39). This boundary is an essential safe-guard for couples who may otherwise be negatively penetrated by well-meaning parental intrusions which often involve advice giving, demands on the couple’s time, and the insistence on maintaining and participating in family tradition.
Cervenka encourages couples to set clear and firm boundaries with their families of origin, which will naturally lead to a tighter connection, and enhanced functioning as a team. In therapy, I suspect Dr. Cervenka has the ability to offer additional support and skills in learning exactly how to communicate these changes, and deal with the emotional ramifications that accompany the metaphorical cord cutting ceremonies by these couples. It is less clear, however, how the reader who is not in counseling secures these skills, or deals with the emotional fallout that will likely occur when the cord cutting begins.
Another observation about this chapter is that boundaries are a very broad topic that extend well beyond the demands of family and friends. Work, hobbies, drugs, volunteering, cleaning, exercising, gambling, video games, shopping, and more are other examples of drains on the couple relationship. This chapter could offer readers a broader understanding of how to protect their relationship and create a more accurate inventory of where their energy – sexual and otherwise – is going. The emphasis on family is certainly relevant, but it does not seem comprehensive.
Rounding out the chapter on boundaries is a brief summary of three different types of couples with various boundary issues, and the related impact on sexuality. The disengaged couples are leading parallel lives without much desire, and consequently a lacking sex life. The enmeshed couple occurs when both partners are more concerned about who they think the other wants them to be than they are concerned about who they actually are and how they actually feel. This is another killjoy for sex and leads to a sibling-like relationship. Luckily, there is also the healthy couple. This partnership involves two independent people who are able to maintain their own identity while maintaining concern and care for the other.
Now it is time for the fire extinguisher. Cervanka explains that “A fire extinguisher is an interrelationship obstacle that has the potential of turning off your sex centers.” Also of importance to note is her insistence that “a lack of sexual desire is not simply an individual problem, it’s a relational one.” This chapter involves an exploration of various fire extinguishers, including flirtatious behavior, computer sex, infidelity, having a libido discrepancy, inability to engage in sexual fantasy, good old stress, a poor body image, boring sexual techniques, and lastly, but certainly not least important are unpleasant sexual techniques.
Many of these seem to be fairly obvious contributors to the slamming of doors in the sex centers, however, I find myself in slight disagreement about the vehemence with which Cervenka speaks about flirting. She states that “Individuals who flirt might as well wear a neon sign around their neck that reads, ‘I am insecure; please pay attention to me.” While I agree that flirting can be taken to extremes and ultimately lead to dangerous outcomes for couples, it seems to me that flirtation can also be an innocent expression of non-sexual affection and playfulness. Cervenka, however, describes flirting as having “only one motive: to solicit and receive sexual attention” (53). This inclines me to think we simply disagree on the definition of flirting, as I would agree that any behavior that is designed to solicit and receive sexual attention is not user-friendly behavior for monogamously committed couples, unless of course they are flirting with one another.
In addition to relational behaviors such as those discussed above, Cervenka also points out the possibility that desire can be affected by psychological, pharmacological, hormonal or medical issues as well. A brief review of some of these includes: alcohol and substance abuse, depression, abnormal hormonal levels, poor physical health, and simply aging and all that accompanies getting older.
Chapter seven is my favorite chapter. Here Cervanka introduces the concept of power in relationships, and how power works as an aphrodisiac. Cervanka did a great job teasing the reader with this golden nugget earlier in the book, and I have to agree that this concept offers the most important message of the book. In this chapter we learn about the concept of genuine power, and that essentially this power stems from “possessing a quality that most people find influential, impressive, convincing, and sexy” (78). She cautions that power can be toxic too, and this occurs when “those with toxic power use their voice, opinions, influence, persuasion, sexuality, and authority to manipulate, dominate, and control others” (79). This, she explains is one-sided and unequal, moreover, it is not reciprocal. When our sense of personal power is strong, our need for toxic power disappears. Thus it would seem that like attracts like, toxic low self-esteem attracts toxic misuse of power. Healthy high-self-esteem attracts a healthy expression of personal power.
In relationships it is necessary to tend to the intersection of each partner’s personal power. Cervanka introduces the phrase, “power reciprocity,” and describes this as “using your own individual power to empower your partner, while your partner will use his or her own individual power to empower you” (81). Power reciprocity requires that you understand your own feelings, listen carefully to what your partner says, and connect to your partner on an emotional level. Without a sense of personal power, and a sense that your partner has reciprocal power, you can not turn on your brain’s sex centers. Cervanka is confident about the role of power, stating boldly that “Power is the best mental aphrodisiac known to mankind” (87).
Like Cervanka, I too find this concept very helpful in understanding the core of sexual shutdowns in otherwise functional relationships. If we perceive (a keyword that Cervanka emphasizes here) that we are powerless, voiceless, unimportant, devalued, or otherwise insignificant to our partner, why would we want to have sex with him or her, or vice-versa? This just makes sense.
In a list of characteristics needed to develop individual power, Cervanka lists the following: integrity, humor, empathy, assertiveness, emotional awareness, autonomy, decisiveness, financial balance, and self-observation. She also offers an exercise which allows couples to take an inventory of where they stand with each character trait, and how they see themselves and one another.
Expanding on the concept of reciprocity, Cervanka states that in a nutshell, “reciprocity is that you give to get” (124). She also details the importance of several behaviors that each partner can engage in to improve the power exchange which all seem to all hinge on a more conscious awareness of oneself in relationship to partner. She states that “you must be conscious of how your partner is seeing and hearing you when you are engaged in connected conversations” (127). Among her list of strategies are basic concepts such as: know your partner, intend to connect meaningfully, maintain powerful body language, check your facial expressions to avoid unwanted responses, use a powerful (not whiney) voice, and become persuasive. She also suggest that the reader be sensitive to one another’s style of processing, noting that some people process quickly and others slowly, as well as to recognize that there are differences in how men and women express themselves. Lastly she encourages that partners’ acknowledge one another’s strengths.
Also, a chapter is dedicated to that trusty old four letter word that ends in “k.” Talk. Cervanka calls this “verbal intercourse” and compares the benefits of verbal intercourse with sexual intercourse. She states, “In order to totally restore your sexual desire to the highest level possible, you must possess individual power and exchange that power within a connected conversation” (148). Here she offers another list of characteristics that expands on what connected communication includes: self-disclosure, courage, trust, understanding, validation, interest, being present, affection, empathy, and authenticity. Three pitfalls to avoid are: criticism (voice complaints about behaviors, not attacks about character), withdrawal or a total shutdown, and mind reading.
Bringing the book to a close, and her therapy process to an end, Cervanka suggests a final exercise that involves both couples learning more information (which is provided by Cervanka in the book) about the specifics of each of the three phases of the sexual response cycle. After information is provided for each phase, she then offers a series of questions that both partners are to answer. With questions such as “What are your favorite sexual fantasies?” and “Do you masturbate?” couples are encouraged to open to one another through intimate conversation, and learn more about what one another desires. This is repeated with additional information and questions for the next two phases, arousal and orgasm, as well.
This exercise is my favorite of the many offered in the book. Because of the guided nature of this exercise, couples are given permission, and in fact encouraged to talk about topics from which they may otherwise shy away. In some ways this may be more effective than doing so in counseling, depending on the level of comfort one or both partners have with talking about their personal fantasies in front of a third party. This also stands to strengthen trust and intimacy simply by talking about their fantasies, likes and dislikes.
In summary, Cervanka has a created an easy-to-follow, no-nonsense road map guiding couples back to a place of desire. The assumption, of course, is that couples were once in a place of desire. It is unlikely that this book will be effective for the couple who never had a strong desire in the beginning. An exercise to determine the strongest level of desire achieved (a baseline of sorts) may be helpful at the start of the book in order to create a realistic picture of what is possible. For example, if I went through this program with a random person to whom I never had a strong attraction; it is quite unlikely I would find myself passionately glued to them by the end of this book. Some couples who are married or partnered grew their relationships from friendship and never experienced strong desire from the start. Think thirty-five year old woman meets willing man to marry and she wants a baby but doesn’t feel intensely drawn to him. Or imagine the gay man who marries a heterosexual woman to avoid dealing with his sexuality. Perhaps some desire issues predate the commitment, and unearthing this seems equally important.
This is a helpful resource for the struggling couple who is working on issues at home, and it is also a great resource for the therapist seeking guidance on how to help couples who present with issues of desire. The information is helpful, specific, and rooted in the basics of the human sexual response cycle. Couples who are not struggling with desire may also find this book a helpful resource to keep that lovin’ feeling alive!