Clashing Libidos from a Sensory Integration Framework
Clashing Libidos from a Sensory Integration Framework
Explaining CL from a sensory integration framework…long….LONG!!
Reading and studying about sensory integration (I’m taking a graduate class on methods of teaching children with autism) it suddenly dawned on me that this perspective could be extremely useful (if not invaluable) in explaining CL issues. This perspective is based on neuroscientific principles. Footnotes and references can be made available upon request.
Everyone has certain innate tolerances for various forms of sensory input. Some like it cold, some like it hot. Some like their music loud, others like it soft. With physical intimacy, the somatosensory (touch-related) input seems to be part of the package. In studying children with autism, they seem to have very extreme or very narrow sensory thresholds. Actual experiments have been done (i.e. Lovaas) where a starter gun would be fired behind their heads and there would be absolutely no reaction. Then they may ring a bell of a certain pitch or play a recording of a certain animal noise and the child would instantaneously meltdown (cry, throw himself on the ground and might be inconsolable for several minutes, hours or the rest of the day). All people exhibit some sensory preferences whether we are neurotypical or not, based on the Central Nervous System’s (CNS) need for homeostasis or consistency and balance. While the need for CNS homeostasis is something everyone needs, the pathway to that is a very individual thing. When the balance is disrupted, the CNS must activate and adjust in some way. Some of the reactions are unconscious or involuntary in nature and involve the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
The CNS is basically the various parts of the brain and the spinal cord while the ANS regulates breathing, blood flow, heart rate and other automatic bodily functions. All people fall somewhere on a spectrum between high threshold and low threshold as far as how the body responds to sensory input, and it may vary between the senses and also across time and based on prior learning and experience. It’s also worth noting that ALL people need some sort of sensory input.
A person with a high threshold will require more sensory input in order to activate the CNS. It’s useful to think of a person who has a high pain threshold holding their hand over a candle for a long period of time. On the extreme end, a person with too high of a threshold may be able to hold their hand above the candle until it gets cooked! A person with a very low threshold may not even get close to the candle before jerking it away. It’s easy to see how there could be psychological and experiential factors involved here, but I’m going to focus exclusively on the neurological factors and implications. That’s not to say these are not important, as well as past history, chemical imbalances, nutrition, hormones and general health. But my hypothesis is that clashing libidos is largely a function of the CNS’s need for homeostasis.
Being of high libido (HL) I can relate to having a very high somatosensory threshold. I like to be touched, rubbed, caressed and generally felt up and down all over! I like a lot of it, and I like it often. Everyone needs sensory input, and my need for this is quite high. The implications for not having this need met are dire. It affects my general health, my appetite, my immune system, my energy level not to mention my mood. I’m in a pretty regular state of needing and seeking out this sort of sensory input and stimulation. It’s generally not good form to go around hugging, squeezing and feeling and touching women on the street or even lots of different women I know well, so I chose the socially acceptable solution of finding a mate who could touch, rub, caress and feel me up on a regular basis. I got married. My LL wife has a low threshold. When we go to bed, she is as far away from me as possible. If I try to snuggle she accuses me of trying to push her off the bed. If I touch her, it cannot be for too long and only in a few places, mainly her shoulders, back and feet. Anywhere else, and it feels uncomfortable or it tickles or it feels funny. What she’s trying to tell me is that her somatosensory threshold is low. Maintaining homeostasis is a challenge for her when I’m touching her and the point at which it becomes too much for her is waaay sooner than for me. Exceeding the threshold has similar consequences as not meeting my homeostasis level has for me. It impacts her general health and attitude in a similar way.
There are consequences to this, as you might expect. In the first place, most of us expect and assume our partners to react just like us to similar experiences, when the opposite is true. Physical intimacy energizes me because my CNS is enjoying homeostasis and is satiated. My wife, OTOH, is exhausted. However enjoyable any encounter might have been, it probably exceeded her point of satiation and her sensory threshold. Too much of a good thing comes much sooner for her than for me. And this is a second point: The higher the threshold, the more constant the need. Quantity IS quality, whereas, someone with a lower sensory threshold will make the best of one situation, but will be satiated for a long time. A long time. A very long time. Did I mention that they might be satiated for a very, very long time?
We tried date nights. For me, I looked forward and anticipated date night. She DREADED date night and actively got out of date night 9 out of 10 consecutive planned encounters, much of the time by being too sick or too tired. Just the thought of having her sensory threshold being exceeded affected her autonomic nervous system and all that entailed.
If the sensory model holds up, many suggestions usually offered are simply not going to work. Compromise sounds good, but with extreme variations in sensory needs and thresholds it will only cause misery for both people. Getting more rest and having better general health may raise the threshold somewhat, but not enough if the differences are too great. De-sensitization can help increase sensory thresholds, but it’s very difficult (if not impossible or unethical) to do with an unwilling adult. With young autistic children, we can generally control the environment and their exposure to stimuli. Much harder when they are older and bigger! One poster said that they (LL) don’t want to get turned on, and that would hold true for an individual with a very low sensory threshold.
Too much arousal is at least very uncomfortable or worse, painful. It’s like turning the music too loud – it doesn’t matter how much you like the music, there is a threshold!
And for those of us, many of us, who have said we are cashing in and going to NOT have a libido. Sorry, but short of taking medications, we will always be seeking and longing for that ever-elusive homeostasis. Our nervous system (brains) demand sensory input. We can suppress and redirect, but the body knows what it wants and what it needs. We can satiate, at least partially, in other behaviors that meet the same function, but it’s very difficult to find a substitute for the one thing, the only thing, that seems to satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst. It’s an uphill battle.
Porn involves totally different sensory pathways, so it is possible to be into porn, but also not particularly interested in physical intimacy. Depression seems to be endemic to both LL and HL populations, and I think it has much to do with our own lack of well-being as well as knowing that our partners also suffer.
And they do suffer. That’s my last point. According to the sensory model, the person with a low threshold suffers as much as the other person. They suffer emotionally, but also physically as the constant pressure from us HL folks invoke anxiety, escape, avoidance and even hostile behaviors. They give in to our demands as these other pressures become more painful than the exceeding of the sensory threshold they are trying to escape from.
We are forever trying to passionately charge the environment and they are constantly trying to tone it down, both of us trying to do what is in the best interest of our own survival!
The other variables, such as hormones, attitude, nutrition and general health are all factors that are very real, and very functional in explaining and dealing with libido issues. I just thought I'd throw a new one in the mix!