Barbara Calvi, LMFT



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January-February 2021

October 2020 Membership Meeting Write-Up — Douglas Green, LMFT

The Desire Gap: Strategies You Can Use in Your Next Session

Presented by
Barbara Calvi, LMFT

As the lockdown from the coronavirus extends longer than any of us had imagined, certain problems are showing up in our offices (virtual or real). Kids unable to take more online learning and claustrophobic imprisonment. Older people terrified to step outdoors or have any human contact. And couples so overloaded with constant contact that they’re wondering what they ever saw in each other.

But that last one is actually a normal problem in marriages, even without this virus. Desires that once kindled explosive flames of passion, over time can’t seem to even find the pilot light.

SFV-CAMFT member and former president Barbara Calvi, MFT, presented at our October meeting on just this issue, and what we can do about it: The Desire Gap: Strategies You Can Use in Your Next Session. An established couples therapist, Calvi explained that a gap in desire is actually the most common problem couples bring to therapy. And, she offered, the problems can often be so simple that an empathic therapist can resolve them in just a few sessions (though of course sometimes they go far deeper and require more work).

She began with a disclaimer — very little research has been done on desire in Trans or Non-Binary people, so she would be primarily using binary language since more research needs to be done and more understanding developed in this area. 

Calvi asserted that therapists often start with a flawed belief, that we shouldn’t confront the desire issues directly. While at times this can help a repressed person feel comfortable, more often it makes the couple feel that “the therapist isn’t comfortable talking about this.” 

We must remember that, if this dynamic has been going on for a long time (the usual case with issues brought to therapy), both partners are feeling great pain over it. The one with lower-desire has possibly felt pressured, harassed, and/or objectified, that “that’s all my partner cares about anymore;” while the partner with more desire likely feels rejected, abandoned, and/or that their partner is no longer attracted to them, and takes it personally (though usually they’re mistaken). 

Therefore, we should ask, at the first intake, “Is there anything about sex or sexuality that you want to work on in therapy?” If they say no, then all is fine, but at least you’ve opened the space for them to bring this up then or later.

But if they say there is such an issue, then Calvi urges us to ask three questions at once, to avoid any potential harm:

  1. When your partner is interested in a sexual interaction, do you feel willing? (This is to rule out coercion, violence, or consent violations.)
  2. Does any kind of sexuality feel uncomfortable or painful? (If so, we prescribe abstinence from any sexual activity, and reference to an to MD, and possibly a specialist. Lots of women experience sex pain and don’t report it because they feel it’s normal – It’s not.) Continuing any sexual activity that causes pain can cause physiological damage and/or make any emotional/relational/psychological issues worse.
  3. Do you experience body signs of arousal? Flushing, increased heart rate, wetness, hardness? (Again, this may lead to a medical referral. It’s terribly important to rule out Vascular Issues, for example, as Erectile Dysfunction can be an omen of an oncoming heart attack or stroke.)

Sexual Desire, Calvi pointed out, is the wanting or not wanting of sex. This is as opposed to Arousal (the physical manifestation of Desire), or a Drive (a biological mechanism that keeps an organism at a healthy baseline). People confuse these three constantly. Desire, she explains, is a “pull, not a push,” and varies between healthy individuals. 30% of women don’t experience spontaneous desire (i.e. seeing someone sexy on the street and feeling turned on), but are told they should (as men experience it much more often). And sex being called a need or a drive contributes to men’s attitude of entitlement. Meanwhile, Responsive Desire, occurs and develops after sexy things are already happening, and is more common in women.

Desire, Calvi explained, is actually two separate mechanisms operating at once, a “Dual-Control Model,” analogous to an accelerator and a brake. Previously, desire was thought to be one system like a light switch where one is either turned on or turned off. But there are, in fact, two separate mechanisms (the turn-ons/accelerator and the turn-offs/brakes) which function independently. Some people have one more sensitive than the other, or both highly sensitive, or neither. All need to be told that they are normal, and can lead healthy sex lives as such.

Calvi has found that her clients are usually told that low desire stems from hormonal issues (menopause, andropause), or a frustration of monogamy-reducing adventure. But neither is among the most common causes. The vastly more likely reasons are: Pain, Coercion (outward or subtle — such as birthdays and Valentine’s Day), Cultural Messaging, Anxiety, Relationship Dynamics, Family Messaging (sexual shaming or seeing sex hurt parents), the Inability to Say No, or the Inability to Ask for What One Wants.

But what Calvi focused on most is the damage done to couples by our Linear Model of Sex (think “running the bases” when you were in high school), as opposed to a Circular Model, which allows for couples to experience intimacy and eroticism at any time and in any “order.” The Circular Model allows couples to develop an Improvisational Style of Sex — doing what feels good in the moment. “If the call is to be connected, it doesn’t really matter what the activity is.” 

In terms of Interventions for our couples, once medical issues have been ruled out or dealt with, Calvi starts with Psychoeducation (for some couples, a few sessions of which will solve the problem). Discussing just the issues she had told us — Spontaneous versus Responsive Desire, the Circular Model of Sex, etc. And to watch out for the ways a partner might put blame on the other, “You’re responsible for my desire.” Rather, she suggests asking them “What do you do that turns you off, or on?” Maybe eating chocolate is a turn-on; maybe seeing unwashed dishes in the sink a turn-off.

It is then vital to stop any pressure on sexual activity, while these issues get worked on. Calvi explains to her higher-desire clients, “I can’t guarantee that taking the pressure off your partner for the next few months will solve the problem. But I can guarantee that if you don’t, things will only get worse.”

She listed some good questions to ask our clients: What do you like, what’s enjoyable to you, what might you like to try, what does your partner do that turns you on, what turns you off, what shuts down access to your arousal, and how do you fan your own desire.

But in the end, she returned to her main focus, “If we can get people to move to the circular model of sex, the world will get happier!”

And somehow, somewhere, I seem to remember that goal being one of the reasons we all got into this business!


Douglas Green, MA, MFT, has a private practice in Woodland Hills and West Los Angeles, where he specializes in helping children and teens live lives they can be proud of. To find out more, you can contact Doug at 818.624.3637, or DouglasGreenMFT@gmail.com. He's also often at our chapter meetings, serving as the volunteer coordinator. His website is www.DouglasGreenMFT.com.

San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists