Recently I was out with a new friend and I felt like I might be getting the vibe that this person was interested in me sexually. Since I am not available for a new sex partner at the moment, I wanted to address this clearly and quickly so there was no confusion, so I said something along the lines of, “just so you know I am only available to be non-sexual friends”. Now here’s where it got interesting. My friend became really flustered and started apologizing for offending me. Now I am fairly certain I did not appear offended, I wasn’t even blushing. Because I didn’t think anything bad had happened here.
But that is their reason I am writing about this – our culture has engrained in us beliefs that 1) sexual desire is bad and makes the recipient of it feel bad or dirty 2) unreturned sexual desire is offensive and embarrassing 3) the only reason to reject a sexual invitations is because the person doesn’t desire us and 4) if we can’t avoid feeling sexual desire we should at least pretend we don’t feel sexual desire for other people. But at the same time, we are somehow expected to find a partner out there in the world. It is just unclear how we are supposed to assess each other’s interest since we are certainly not supposed to talk about it directly. This is especially true between men and women where we have been shamed into an illusion that women are the unwilling victims of men’s sexual desire, incapable of speaking up or being proactive about what they do and do not want. So we play these games and we are all confused and feel unsafe and unsure.
It is important that we have a way to talk to each other directly about our yeses and nos. These conversations do not need to be embarrassing or demeaning – we have made them that way by pretending that sexual desire is not a part of normal life. We have made it that way by telling women that to assume someone is sexually attracted to you makes you egotistical and prideful which sets her up to wait quietly until a line is crossed so that she can then address it. And then we have made it so that men are made to feel that if they receive a “No thanks” they have already crossed a line and should feel bad and apologize while set them up with the burden that their desire has to be the firestarter; they have to take the lead. This is unfair to all of us.
So what if we had a belief that sexual desire and attraction are natural? What if it was not offensive for someone to express desire for you, what if it was a sweet thing, a compliment, a reflection of you in another’s eyes? What if we admitted, even celebrated, that we live in a world of attractive vibrant people and we will be drawn to many of them , some of whom we will engage with and many of whom we will not? What if we saw sex drives and attractions as an expression of vitality and life force rather than something dirty and demeaning? What if we could say Yes or No without any apologies necessary? I would like that better. In the meantime, good luck out there navigating the seas of sexual desire.
Ahhhh, that new love or lust feeling. The euphoria, the tingles, the butterflies, the nights you can stay up talking and making love, no need to sleep. The sense that you have met the One, that nothing else matters, that this is what you have been looking for.
Researcher Helen Fisher studied people in early stages of love and she found that the incredible rush of new love is reflected or created, depending on your philosophy, by shifts in our brain chemistry. That’s right we are actually experiencing changes in brain chemistry – increased dopamine and norephinephrine in particular. New relationships light up the pleasure centers of the brain, including what are known as the addiction-like drives in the brain meaning the drive to get MORE of that as soon as possible. These parts of our brains give us more energy, they can cause us to maintain focused attention and an intense yearning for the recent source of our pleasure. During this early phase of attraction people find that they need less sleep, have strong emotions, may experience intrusive thinking about the person they are drawn to, find it hard to focus on normal daily tasks, and have a heightened sex drive.
All of this allows us, and indeed encourages us, to form stronger attachments. It helps us to fall in love deeply and to place our attention and energy on nurturing a new relationship. However, this brain state also can cause us to see our new partner in a slightly imbalanced light. You know that feeling, when you adore everything about them, even their faults are quirky and adorable. You may also recognize the feeling that can come later when you wonder how you ever thought that habit was cute and the character traits that once charmed you now get on your last nerve. Also tricky, in new relationship energy we are so drawn to attach to this new partner that problems and conflicts may only serve to heighten our drive to be with them. Romeo and Juliet never got past new relationship energy.
So maybe new relationship energy is not in the best mind space for decision-making or long term planning. It is not crazy however. This phase of relationship is a gift, one that opens us up to another person in a way that is non-rational. But love and attachment are not at their foundation about reason. Still, reason and clear judgment are good for creating a life we can enjoy and feel good about. Helen Fisher’s research also found that at some point our brain activity changes again and we are better able to process our emotions and consider other important elements in our life again. We also lose that supernatural ability to go without sleep, have sex anywhere at any time, and to see our partner as perfection embodied. Oh well.
Don’t be afraid of new relationship energy, just be aware of it. Ride this wave and know you will eventually be back on shore, hopefully with a solid attachment to your new partner and also the ability to see the big picture.
Referenced : Fisher, Helen (2004) Why We Love : the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love
Compersion is a term used in the polyamory community meaning to be happy seeing or thinking about your partner getting sexual pleasure with someone else. This is a challenging concept for a lot of people and you may find you had an immediate – What?*%?? No Way! kind of response. That’s ok. Just stick with me for a moment to visit this idea.
We have accepted a cultural model that tells us that jealousy, especially sexual jealousy, is natural. Certainly for many of us jealousy has felt unavoidable and we see representations of it featured heavily in entertainment, music, reality TV. So it may be surprising to a lot of people to find that anthropologists have found many cultures, throughout history, where sexual jealousy was not common. In fact, in some communities people would consider a gesture of jealousy to be intrusive, unwelcome and disrespectful, rather than an act of love or passion as it is represented in our culture. Often these different mindsets seemed based around beliefs that sex is natural, love, affection, and sex are abundant and freely given, and that people are not in competition for limited resources or limited love.
So what if sexual jealousy is a learned mindset not a condition of being of human? What does that mean for you today? Well, maybe nothing.
Or maybe it means you get a bit curious about your own jealousy and where it comes from. Maybe you decide to explore the edges of jealousy and see if there are any shifts in how you feel. Maybe on the edges of your old jealousy there is room to be happy when your partner gets a lift from being flirted with at the coffee counter. Maybe there is room for looking forward to the nights your partner goes out dancing with friends and comes home filled up with sexy, playful energy from the full pulsing dancefloor. Maybe it becomes less scary to talk about your crushes or people you are attracted to or less painful to hear about past sexual relationships. Maybe you get more comfortable with your unexpected fantasies of seeing your partner play with someone else. And maybe the boundaries of your jealousy do not change at all, but maybe you have just explored them consciously a little more. Maybe you have more clarity about why your edges are there.
I believe it is good to know we have options. Compersion is an option. Knowing that other people experience compersion allows you to see that changing your relationship to jealousy is an option.
Ryan, C & Jetha, C. (2010) Sex at Dawn : How we mate, why we stray, and what it means for modern relationships. New York :Harper Perennial.
Think back to your first memory of seeing two people in love and expressing that love. This couple may have been your parents or grandparents, or maybe your next door neighbors or an older sibling and their date, or a friend's parents. Write down the story of what you remember from watching them. How did they show their affection? What did you witness? How did you feel about seeing this? Were there other people there - what did they do when seeing this affection? Was it approved of or not approved of? Were you witnessing a private moment or a public display of affection?
After writing the story of what you remember, ask yourself how this moment shaped your beliefs about love at that time. Did you decide something about how people express love? Was there judgement about what you saw? Did you want that for yourself? What were you feeling as you watched them?
Let yourself think forward to other interactions or stories about these two lovers you witnessed. How did their story unfold; do you know? Did their story cause you to develop beliefs about love? Did it impact how you feel about displaying affection now?
And now ask yourself, is there anything about this memory that you want to let go of now? Any childhood beliefs, formed from this memory, that you want to question now? How do you want to show love and affection? What, if anything, is holding you back?