My favorite self-help book of the century so far is Emily Nagoske’s “Come As You Are,” a guide to understanding the female body and the mechanisms of sexuality, I personally think this book should be required reading in every high school across America (although I’m also certain it never will be), as it is by far the best book I have ever read when it comes to helping us understand the complicated relationship between our bodies, our lived experiences, and our desire for intimacy.

One of the central themes in Nagoski’s book, and the one I use most often when working with couples, is that our sex drive has both a “brake” and an “accelerator.” Whereas most of us tend to think of desire for sex as more of a single on or off switch (you’re either in the mood or you’re not), Nagoski makes the compelling case for a two-part system, with both parts requiring attention if igniting a desire for sexual intimacy is the end goal.

Part 1: The Accelerator

When it comes to ramping up our desire for sexual intimacy, most of us have some idea of what gets us going. Whether it’s certain music, specific types of touch, playful text messages, imagery, or even laughter and just being silly, each of us develops a menu, if you will, of what takes us from neutral to ready-to-go. That is our accelerator. And since your list of what revs your engine is unlikely to be the same as your partner’s, it’s important to let them know what kinds of actions or activities get your accelerator going, and to ask your partner what does the same for them.

We also need to understand that each accelerator is uniquely sensitive. Just like with cars, some accelerators need just the slightest touch to get going, whereas others require a more concerted effort. Similarly, some people can go from 0 to 100 in under a minute, whereas other people take a lot longer to get there. This means that even if you and your partner happen to have the same activities on your lists of accelerators, that doesn’t necessarily mean you both rev up in the same amount of time.

I always encourage my couples clients to have an open and honest conversation about their accelerators. Not only can it be an extremely fun conversation to have, but it also can have a positive impact on each partner’s sexual satisfaction within the relationship. Some of the questions to consider discussing with your partner: What kinds of things can they do to get your accelerator going? And vice versa? How much time do you need to get revved up? What else should they know about your unique accelerator? What else should you know about theirs?

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Part 2: The Brake

Some of you, when reading the questions above, might be thinking to yourself, “I can’t answer those because it completely depends on how I’m feeling!” Maybe you are thinking about the times when your partner was doing all the right things to get your accelerator going, but you were having none of it. That is what Nagoski refers to as your brake.

Going back to the car metaphor: you can have the pedal to the metal, but if the brake is on, that car ain’t goin’ nowhere.

As with the accelerator, we each have our own unique set of brake-pushers, and what activates one person’s brake may have no impact whatsoever on another person’s brake – it might even rev their accelerator! Nor is there a “right” or “wrong” when it comes to our brakes (or our accelerators). Our unique histories, temperaments and chemistry all come together to determine how our bodies respond to our environment. That said, some common brake activators include various stressors (work, financial, family, household, etc), sleep deprivation, illness, pain, a messy environment, and hormones. Not surprisingly, if you happen to be upset with your partner for whatever reason, that alone may slam on your brakes.

One common misconception is that people who have a frequent desire for sexual intimacy and a rapid accelerator also have no brakes. That’s because, in comparison to their partner, it may in fact appear that way. Consequently, on the rare occasion when their brake is activated, their partner may take it personally and interpret the brake to mean that their partner is no longer interested in them. But while some people have a very short list of stressors that activate their brake, pretty much all of us have one – the differences are in how many things activate the brake, how long the brake stays engaged once activated, and what it takes to disengage it.

Whatever the cause, when our brake is on, we are unable to access our sexual desire, no matter what else is going on that would typically rev our accelerator. We aren’t interested in that kind of intimacy, even if we still want touch, snuggles or kisses. What this means is that if you are hoping for sexual intimacy with your partner, your first task is to see if their brake is engaged. If the answer is yes, step 2 is to see if there is anything you can do to help alleviate the pressure on it. Is your partner stressed out because they have too much to do? Then see if there is anything you can take on to reduce their load. Is a messy space on their list of brake-pushers? Consider proactively cleaning up around the place before they get home. If it turns out there’s nothing you can do to relieve the pressure on your partner’s brake, your best bet is probably to wait it out, rather than add to their stress by complaining about it or trying to push the issue.

I have seen some amazing conversations take place between couples with regard to their brakes. So consider talking with your partner about what activates your brake, and ask them to think through what activates theirs. Then talk about what each of you would like your partner to do when they notice your brake is on. While this conversation may not be quite as fun as talking about your accelerators, it can go a long way towards building a mutual sense of trust and understanding in the relationship – which, for many people, can be a pretty effective accelerator all on its own.

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Written by: Terri Bly, PsyD, LP, Licensed Clinical Psychologist