It happened again. I was in a second session with a young couple who have been struggling with uncomfortable and dissatisfying sex together. They were confused by what was happening in their shared sexuality, as many couples are, and frustrated because they didn’t know how to fix it themselves. Then they told me that their last couple’s therapist had advised them that if they built enough intimacy and emotional closeness their sexual issues would “take care of themselves”. AHHHH!!! Let me explain why this makes my head explode.
First, you should know that many (most?) psychotherapists out there have very limited understanding of the amazing vastness of human sexuality. Also psychotherapists and the field of psychology have been victim and perpetrators of sexual discriminations and basic close-mindedness and puritanical values for years. This is horrible and I am striving to do my part to change this for the field. But the point is, it is not an uncommon stance in psychology to say attachment and intimacy = happy sexual compatibility. As a sex therapist who has helped many people navigate their own complicated sexual desire, I know this is simply not true. As a human being who has had my own journey with love and sex and human closeness, I know this is not true. So why are therapists still saying it?
To claim that intimacy automatically leads to sexual compatibility disregards several key aspects of sex – one, it presumes that everyone is generally turned on by anyone they form a close relationship to; an argument that I think can only be made in a blatantly heteronormative mainframe that disregards what we have learned and should understand about sexual orientation and the limits of our desire. We simply cannot force desire where there isn’t one and attempts to shift desire to an “appropriate” partner are often disastrous. Two, this argument conflates all variations of human closeness into romantic sexual partnership, something that may be entertaining on soap operas but is quite limiting in real life. I am close to many people, in many different ways, and I do not have sexual desire for many of them. In fact with many people I develop a closeness that negates any sexual feelings, when someone begins to feel like family or a sibling for example.
Third, saying that intimacy and emotional closeness leads to sexual satisfaction ignores the variations of desire and how important they can be to our happiness. Most therapists who encourage couples to ignore clear sexual incompatibilities expect their clients to eventually adhere to a basic vanilla sex life – great for some, but deeply dissatisfying for others. This model privileges loving, eye-gazing, comfortable sex over other forms of sexual expression and connection. Loving and trusting your partner doesn’t mean that you both are going to be into restraints or submission play. Loving and trusting your partner also doesn’t mean you can easily give those things up. And being able to deep conversations and feel intimate doesn’t necessarily mean you do a great job talking about the subtleties and emotional vulnerabilities of sex and what you want. Not to mention that the therapist in question may have their own squeamishness and resistances to talking about sexual details and would just like to lump it all into one vanilla blur.
The reason psychotherapists who equate intimacy with sex irritate me so much is that I can see how clients get shamed by this. They feel ashamed that their love is not enough to naturally give them satisfying sex. They feel ashamed because they have desires that their partner can’t fulfill and they are being told that is unimportant in the bigger picture of emotional closeness. They feel ashamed because they are made to doubt their own desires yet again. This is not fair. The bad news is not all people who love each other are going to be great sexual matches. There is still plenty to explore in how to be and stay in relationship within that reality, but you need a support person who will go into those intricacies with you. The good news is your desire for something different than someone else is not something you have to ignore. At least not with me.
Sex with another person can be a gift both given and received. It can nourish us and refill us in multiple ways. At its best partnered sex can be a dance of give and take, pleasure experienced and shared, so that the giving and receiving becomes blurred. Sometimes we stop noting the many ways we give and receive when we are sexual together. As we near the fall solstice when our days and nights are balanced, it is an appropriate time to ask ourselves – how am I doing with balancing giving and receiving for myself?
There is a graciousness in giving that many of us have been taught; we show love by giving. But we can also show love by receiving and there is a graciousness in receiving that may feel less familiar. How do you open yourself to receiving from another person freely? Each of us has our own relationships with these states, and our own limits. Sex is a great window for seeing into our abilities to give and receive and the ways we stop ourselves from doing so.
Everyone of us has probably had times when we gave but were actually being more controlling than generous. And times when we appeared to be receiving but didn’t feel nourished or open at all. In sex we can perform either of these states without taking in the benefits of them. Some of us have guilt about laying back and being pleasured. We may have been told it is degrading to focus on pleasuring your partner without getting something for yourself. We have shared myths about gender and how men are supposed to perform or how women are supposed to perform that get in the way of letting ourselves freely take in or give back. You get to do both, sometimes at the same time.
And that’s the thing, only you will know what giving or receiving looks like or feels like for you. One person may be strictly dominant, only enjoying the active role, not desiring their partner to touch them at all. And that person may still be very much receiving, while also giving to their partner. She may receive empowerment, vicarious joy, her partner’s trust, love, intense sexual excitement and satisfaction…and more. The acts of giving and receiving are not about what sexual behaviors you are participating in or whose mouth is on whom. It is an awareness of the gifts of both states. So check in with yourself. Are you allowing yourself to give in ways that feel good and satisfying to you? Are you allowing yourself to receive in ways that refresh and fulfill you?
I love you SOOOO much.
Our first attachments are to our caregivers. This is a unique form of love, with need and safety and deep power differentials, that will impact us our entire life. It is also one of the first relationships were we begin to “practice” with a child’s mind the idea of romance, and its connection to love. Children learn by playing, enacting scenarios and seeing how it feels. This can be empowering even though the play is “not real” as the child imagines that they could handle themselves in that scenario.
It is very common for children around age 4 to 6 to develop crushes on adults in their life, more commonly a parent. This can be an icky and awkward phase for the parent who is the focus of their attention since it feels very inappropriate. Children in this stage may profess their love, get jealous of the parent’s partner, ask for extra attention, and even try to kiss the parent the way they saw in cartoons. For the child’s development though it is entirely appropriate to imagine and pretend and to get information from adult’s responses. It makes sense for a child to try these new possibilities out with someone they love, look up to and feel safe with, so they are actually making a good choice in play partner. It is helpful if adults are calm and kind about this phase (remember it will pass soon enough). Gently saying something like, “I love you too, so much. You are my beautiful little boy. But romantic love, when people get married or kiss passionately or XYZ, happens between two people who are close in age. So I will be with an adult, like me. And you will eventually find someone your age to be with. And you and I get to love each other as mommy and son and that is a really special love”.
What can happen, in large part because most adults have a healthy internal taboo against sex with children, is that adults overreact to a child’s natural style of learning – experimentation and play practice. Children may get shamed or unintentionally scared by an adult’s negative reaction. It is important to set firm boundaries as the adult about how you do and don’t want to be touched and also about the limits of your relationship (as true with children as with other adults, right?). There is no need to scold or punish a child for having their version of a crush, in fact this could cause them to feel uncomfortable or to doubt those feelings when they arise later in life. There is also no need to encourage the feelings and adults should be careful that they are not using the child’s affection to manipulate the child’s behavior or to create triangles or alliances in the family. Just remember that the child is trying on adult roles, not having adult feelings.
This is the same age that many kids will play house, acting out family dynamics, patterns, and habits in ways that can be dismaying or adorable to those being mimicked. Adults are role models, even when we are not aware of it, and children look to us for guidance on how to do this thing called life. They are taught early on, in fairytales and stories, TV shows, and magazine covers in the checkout line, that romantic love is something to be desired. One of the crucial things they seek to learn from us is how to love and be loved. Let’s strive to show them love can be kind, understanding, and unconditional but also with clear boundaries. Not a bad thing to remind ourselves of too.
I remember, back in the day, when Martha Stewart was really reaching the peak of popularity. I started hearing people saying, “Damn that Martha Stewart, now we are expected to –fill in the domestic artistry of your choice-“. I was confused by this, since I was pretty happy that Ms Stewart had opened the options up and I liked being invited to be creative. But that is the key, right? How quickly we can turn an invitation into an expectation. And, in so doing, ruin most of the fun and make something into a burden.
So speaking of ruining our fun, how was your Valentine’s Day? Did you somehow find yourself turning what could be a perfectly fine night for a date into something fraught with emotional baggage? If you did, you are not alone. Romance struck down again by the great expectations of needing to live up to every possibility presented out there in the world. And I think it is getting worse for us, now not only do we compare ourselves to magazine articles and romantic movies and Hallmark cards, but now we get to compare ourselves to “normal people”, our friends and family on social media everyday. And the expectations grow.
And we can get to the point where we are not enjoying because we are wondering how this experience we are having holds up to other people’s experiences. We do this with date nights, we do this with sex. Until for some of us, a perfectly satisfying sexual experience becomes turned into something like this, “Oh that was nice...But was it exciting enough? Are we too boring, should we be having more oral sex? I never wear lingerie, is that bad? I didn’t fantasize about anything, is that OK? That only took 20 minutes, should there be more? What are we doing wrong?”
The benefit of living in a world with readily available information is that – if you want new ideas, they are there for you. There is a vast source of creative, diverse and sometimes helpful options at all times. Your life is yours to shape. The problems come when we forget that it is our life to shape and not a to-do list of how to live the best life/have the best relationship/keep sex hot. The relentless call to self improvement can grab us and pull us away from the life we have now, a life that probably has some pretty sweet moments – even if they don’t warrant a single LIKE. We are never absented from deciding what we want for ourselves so enjoy what is fun/romantic/sexually satisfying/inspiring/etc for you. Enjoy it fully and don’t turn the all the invitations out there into expectations.
So here is a Valentine’s Day Re-Do Challenge for you – Consider that no one else will ever know what you chose to do together. Take a day that is yours alone, a secret day with no witnesses or input from others, and decide how you want to spend it. What makes you feel close to each other? What is fun for you? Then enjoy it deeply with no distractions.
While holding a pose in yoga class, time stretching out, muscles quivering, I heard my yoga teacher say, “It takes a lot of courage to be still”. Now, she was talking about physical stillness and staying at the limit of your stretch and the strength it can require to not move out of the sensation, to not run away or say, “I’ve had enough”. But of course I thought about the clients and the people I know who sometimes succumb to the self doubt that comes with those moments in life of being still.
Much of our life is structured around the next steps. We go from grade to grade, we go from promotion to promotion. We are expected to go from dating to going steady, to engaged to married, parenthood...We learn to take comfort in knowing the next step, the thing we are supposed to be working toward. So what happens when there is no next step, when instead there is satisfaction? Rather than a happy sigh of relief, many people feel a gnawing sense of disquiet. How can it be ok to relate to friends, “not much has changed, thanks for asking”? Status quo happiness can make us very uncomfortable.
During this post holiday time when your life and schedule return to normal, it can be great to challenge yourself to notice how you respond to stillness in your life. If you focused a little less on changing or progressing would there be more time for enjoying? Does stillness gets labeled as boredom or laziness? What do you do when the project becomes maintaining what is working? Do you ever feel like you have to have something to fix or that you are yearning for the excitement that comes from disrupting the stable? How do you register growth without external milestones?
In long term relationships there will be times of relative stillness. Times when there is little to report, no status updates to be made. In some ways, happy relationships are fairly private because there seems like there is not much to say. “We are great, happy”. It might be interesting to develop new ways to talk about being deeply satisfied. Maybe let a slow and genuine smile communicate for you. Life will be full of change again, no doubt. There will be times when you will have to strive for change, where there are clear mile-markers to hit as you go. If for the moment you are still and content, have the courage to be still and see what subtle lessons are there for you.
I imagine we all have those moments when we feel unloved. They are not fun. In this time of year, when we are meant to be showing our love for the people in our lives, it is especially painful to feel like you are missing something. There are quite a lot of internal tantrums this time of year, things along the lines of, “why can’t you love me the way I want you to? Why can’t you see what I want?” It’s painful when love doesn’t come to you in the way you imagined.
But that is often how the real world works. Love comes to you in its own unique and mysterious ways from unique and idiosyncratic people. Sure, we can ask ourselves, am I getting the love I want? But perhaps what is important to ask yourself is, are you recognizing the love that is coming to you – in the forms it comes in? Are you open to the weird, subtle, silly, and clumsy ways that people are showing that they love you?
Think about gift giving. Instead of thinking of the list of things you want this year, things you are wishing other people give you, think hard about what people ARE giving you. Did your partner pick up your favorite snack from the store? Did they send your mom a birthday card from both of you? Did they make sure the front porch light was working so that you came home to light? Did they send you a funny video or share a song with you? Did they come home early so that you could go out? Did they run their hand along your arm as they walked past? Heck, did they leave the seat down so you don’t have to put it down? These things are not the stuff of romantic moments, I know. But they are bits of love that many of us forget to harvest. We forget to take in and store up the little signs of love. We ignore the many ways that people in our lives are thinking about us, making our lives easier, bringing sweetness.
So don’t miss that harvest this year. Take time to notice the people that are loving you. Make a gift to them of your graciousness about the awkward and personal ways that they show love. Love is going to come in a different package than the diamond commercials will lead you to believe. Are you ready to receive it?
It is not uncommon for couples to come in to therapy with me and act ashamed when they report that they sleep in separate beds. Usually this is due to snoring or restless sleep, but it is presented as though it is a sign of lack of passion or intimacy. I encourage people to not discount the need for sleep as a paramount need. An exhausted body will not put focus on sexual desire. An exhausted partner will not make the best communication choices. An exhausted self will find everything in life just a little more annoying and overwhelming. You know how you feel when you are not rested. It is not pretty.
A recent study from Toronto on couple’s sleep patterns found that a surprising 30-40% of couples sleep apart. They also found that couples who sleep in the same bed missed the deeper sleep stages. Couples I have talked to who sleep apart say that the most difficult thing about it is the perceived stigma and embarrassment about it. So we have the opposite situation from the 1950s when we only saw couples presented as sleeping chastely in separate beds (remember Ricky and Lucy?). Now we only see couples cuddled lovingly around each other as they drift off to sleep. Knowing that 30-40% of couples are drifting off to peaceful sleep with a bed to themselves may help ease the sense that this is a sign of a bad relationship.
In fact, the idea that where we sleep and where we have sex have to be the same is limiting to our relationships. Also the fantasy that just by proximity of bodies in bed we roll in to each other and have more sex can make us lazy about actually planning time for sex. If you feel the need for separate space for sleeping, just be conscious of also making space for sexuality. You can have fun inviting each other into your beds, and/or eliminate beds from your sex life altogether and find new private places to come together for pleasure. If you are less tired maybe you will find an hour opens up at night for being sexual together. Make long sensual kisses a good night routine and appreciate the times you do take to lay close to one another. Just don’t let other’s ideas of what a good relationship looks like diminish the things you do to make your relationship work. A good night’s sleep may be your key to a happy, sexy love life.
Here is a not at all uncommon couple’s therapy moment : I am discussing with a couple agreements that they want to have in their relationship, something that they want to do differently. They have just hit on something they are excited about, and they look at me and say, “We can do that?” It is a fun moment for me as a therapist to be able to give people permission to define their relationship for themselves. Do your relationship the way you two want to? Yes, you can do that.
What I mean by this is, your relationship is between the two of you so you set the rules. If something works for you, it doesn’t matter if it works for your friends, parents, neighbors or your therapist. Each relationship is unique and trying to live by the rules established by other couples will not serve you. You can get ideas from Phil and Claire each week, but please don’t feel that every couple is doing thing their way. When it comes to being a couple, there really is no “norm”.
So if you and your partner decide you want to define watching porn as cheating, then that is your rule. If you want to open your relationship to other sexual partners, then that is your agreement. If you want to never go to sleep angry or always take a night to cool down before deciding, either is fine. You can always text several times a day from work or not be in contact during the work day. You can agree that Tuesdays are wear blue underwear day. You can shape your relationship any way – so long as both of you agree and find it to be a good fit. Making sure your agreements or rules are explicit and you both know what to expect is key.
Be honest about what you want and about what you can agree to, re-evaluate if it ends up not feeling good for either one of you, and keep communicating. And you will have a relationship that is the unique fit for you.
Here is the link to an article I wrote recently for YourTango.com offering 6 tips for repairing a relationship after a betrayal or crisis. These are things that I have witnessed from the strong couples in my practice. Hope you will give it a read :
“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones” -- John Lennon
Honesty is not insensitivity or insisting on having things your way. Honesty is letting someone else see who you really are. So when I read this quote by Lennon, I think it tells a truth that is deeper than it seems. He is not talking about there being “right” and “wrong” people out there, but about how we find the right people to love us. And coming from a man who was "loved" by millions and projected on by nearly all of them, I feel he might have known something about being loved for who you seem to be versus who you are.
Sometimes when we are dating or meeting new people, our approach is to try and be as likable as possible. This is nice, to an extent. We can learn new things about ourselves and find genuine new interests and passions that we may never have discovered on our own. But what happens when we try so hard to be likable that we appear to be someone we are not? One possibility is that we may end up never feeling truly loved. Or believe we have to perform to be loved. Finding the right match for you, whether a partner or a friend, will require you to show them who you are, to be honest about what you like, what you find funny, what your limits are, what you believe in, where you want to go. Then if they like you it is real. You can assume they will still like you when you are too tired or stressed or over putting up a front.
Dating, and early stages of any voluntary relationship, is the time to be honest. It may, as Lennon said, lead to some people stepping away as your mismatches become clear. But ultimately it may led you to the people who will recognize the colorful mosaic of who you have become, people who will hear what you have to say even when it is hard to hear, people who will be great partners in building the life that is truly right for you. I say it is worth the risk. Be honest and trust that the right people will find you fascinating.