Conscious Sexual Self

Connection Requires Consciousness

Creating What We Expect

 

I recently heard about a great study. Researcher psychologist Bob Rosenthal took a group of average rats and put signs on their cages saying that some of the rats were very smart and some of the rats were dumb. He then assigned people to work with the rats, getting the rats to run a timed maze. So… some of the people believed that they had special smart rats and some believed that their rats were dumb. The effects were intense – the rats assigned to people who believed them to be smart ran the maze nearly twice as fast as the rats who had been labeled dumb.

 

Rosenthal’s speculation is that the people assigned to the rats touched them differently, more gently if they were proud of their smart little rat, and that affected the rats’ performance. So, if subtleties of our touch can affect rats this drastically – a species with little incentive to care what we think about them -imagine what it might do for our human partners.

 

What messages are you sending to your partner as you touch them in bed? What expectations can be transmitted through your skin? What patterns have you come to expect, so much so that your body unconsciously reacts in anticipation of them?  

 

As a sex therapist I work with people as they make changes to the way they interact sexually, changing patterns and expectations. Often we have to address the subtle, even unconscious, ways we are reacting to one another. While it is freeing to imagine that anything can happen, that we don’t know what to expect, with longer term partners we rarely have that mindset. And so we co-create a dance, feeling each other’s lead through our bodies and responding, feeling and responding, expecting and responding.  People who do partner-dancing know that if the person following begins to anticipate the lead’s move too early, it will throw off the rhythm. Moving together means responding in the moment, not forecasting the moments ahead.

 

So how can you drop expectation and truly see what you and your partner can co-create sexually? Approach touch and sexual play from a blank slate perspective. Imagine that you can ask for anything. Try not to brace for a YES or a NO. Expect fun and connection and pleasure and see what happens.

 

And, we know from our maze-running rat friends, that touch which broadcasts loving support, excitement, pride in your partner (what a smart rat, you are!) may bring out the best in them. Touch mindfully.

 

What Emotions Are OK in Sex?

 

Some of the couples I work with have been having sex that is more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional connection. There is a lot of strategizing, observing, fantasizing, worrying, critiquing, hoping. But there is not a lot of expressing. So sometimes, I invite them to experiment with sexual play that is consciously about showing their partner how they feel in the moment. They focus on using touch and body movements to communicate what they are feeling, not so their partner gets it necessarily, but so that they feel more connected to their own experience. Approaching sex from this new perspective opens up a lot of potential and can allow a broader range of sexual moods and therefore, ways of interacting. Things get less boring and more dynamic.

 

Most of us can easily imagine sex expressing love, lust, joy, curiosity, contentment. Combining sex with the sacred may lead us to imagine sex that expresses reverence or peace. These positive states are often the emotions that couples start with when they begin to explore sex as a vehicle for expressing emotion. But you may have also enjoyed thoughts about sex that stemmed from pride, power, vulnerability, need, fear, even anger. Are those ok for you to express with your partner? Why or why not? And how about more subtle emotional states, like doubt, loneliness, apathy, regret, irritation? Can you imagine touching sexually in a way that expressed and contained sadness?

 

Does imagining some of these emotions being included in sex make you uncomfortable? Thinking and talking about what emotions are welcome in sex for you can be a great practice. It introduces questions about our motivations to have sex, how we want our partners to feel about us when they engage with us sexually, and what emotions are comfortable for us, or not, in general. It also explicitly opens up new room to explore sexually, to be emotional selves, to have moods and variations, to let the energy of feelings blend with the energy of sensations to create something possible new and unique each time you come together.

 

Commiting to Monogamy - What does it Take?

 

 

This is an old-y but a goody. Originally published by YourTango.com

 

Committing to Monogamy : What does it take?

 

 

 

I admit to being shocked that TV series The Bachelor, and its sister show, The Bachelorette, are still going with season 19! But it speaks to how focused we are on the dating portion of romance – the getting the partner to choose us and, so the story goes, commit. As a culture we have turned the search for love into a competition, a game, entertainment, something we can critique and, maybe sometimes, even learn from at a distance. But what we need are stories and examples of what happens after you have found each other. We need to watch people who can show us what it takes to be in love for the long term, how they wrap their mind around commitment, and how they are able to grow and thrive within successful monogamy way beyond the ring or the rose. I know some people who are doing that and here are a few foundational pieces they have in place.

 The ability to see monogamy as a choice you make : You can’t do monogamy for your parents, or your friends, or you partner. You have to decide that this is what you want, for you. Identify your own reasons for wanting to be monogamous long-term. Maybe for you it is a religious or spiritual choice, maybe you value loyalty, maybe you see commitment as a path to personal growth, maybe you want to see what can happen if you focus your romantic energy on one person. Whatever your reasons, to be successful at long-term monogamy it is crucial to take responsibility for your choice and to let go of any resentments about other people “making” you do it. Monogamy is not the only choice. If you chose it, do it because you can own it.

A partner who rocks your world : This may seem obvious, but I see people again and again who say that they want to be in a committed relationship now and the person that they are with feels an ok match, so…This is a hard setup for long term monogamy. If you want to feel inspired to stay committed, you need to find a person who inspires you, a person who shares your sense of humor and adventure, a person who turns your body, mind and heart on in a variety of ways, the person who you want to leave the party with again and again. If you start out comparing your partner to others and wishing your partner could be different in this way or that, you may eventually find yourself just wishing for a different partner.

Understanding and familiarity with your own sexual desire : We live in a world of attractive people and no matter how appealing your partner is, you will still notice the other people out there. The romantic saying, “I only have eyes for you” is not realistic. Our culture makes sure you see and encourages you to be seen. Committing to monogamy requires you to be honest with yourself about this and to be prepared to shift the desire stirred up in the world back to your partner. You must learn how to respond to your own desires in ways that feel in integrity to you and this can only be learned by acknowledging that desire and attraction for others will not go away even when you find the one person you want to commit to.

Confidence to be yourself and to ask for what you want : Long-term commitment will be difficult at best if you go into it by trying to shape yourself into the person you think your partner wants. A fun part of early dating can be trying out new things, being introduced to your partner’s new world. But it is one thing to go to MMA fights a few times and another to pretend that you will be happy doing this every weekend for the next 5 years. If you feel that you are subtly dismissing the things you want and slowly letting your life or yourself be reshaped into your partner’s idea of the ideal, be cautious. You want to be sure your partner is committing to you - the self you want to be, not the self you can be if you have to. And you want to be sure you are committing to a life you can happily embrace, not one with creeping resentment.

We may not have a lot of TV shows about it, but long term relationships are hardly boring. They ask a lot of the people involved. So whether you are searching for a partner or have found someone but are wondering how to keep it going into the future, I invite you to think about these traits. You can develop them and they will help to have a strong foundation for the evolving adventure that is love between two people.

 

Get the Most Out of Couple's Therapy

 

I know what an investment couple’s therapy can be and the vulnerability that goes with it. It helps to know what to expect. Here are some things to bear in mind as you consider therapy as a next step.

 

Know you will have to change – A relationship is a system, self sustaining much of the time. If you want something to change, you had better be ready to change yourself. It can be a comforting fantasy to imagine your partner doing all the changing, after all you have all kinds of good ideas about how they should be different, right? But it really does take two to do whatever it is that you have been doing. So when you get ready to go to couple’s therapy, know that you will be asked to get really interested in your part and what you can and cannot be responsible for.

 

Prepare to be surprised – Therapy opens up rooms in your life and heart and mind that may have been closed. Your partner will say things that surprise you. This is actually a gift, as we come to remember that our partners are slightly mysterious individuals with a lot going on inside of them that we are not automatically privy to. This can be scary, but also invigorating for a relationship. You will also surprise yourself in therapy with revelations about things you may have casually overlooked for years. Intimacy builds, I believe, through these moments of uncovering and risk, sometimes painful, sometimes incredibly comforting, but more genuine than normal talk around the dinner table.

 

Plan to make more time for your relationship – It is hard to stay close and interested in each other when you do not spend any focused time together. One therapy session a week will build some new intimacy but if it doesn’t continue at home we are wasting our time. One of the most important things couples can do to make their gains in therapy matter is to be ready to make changes to their schedules. I mean to literally sit down together with their calendars and carve out time to be a couple in relationship, time for talking, time to have fun, time to have sex, and time to relax together. If you are like most couples now, your time has gotten filled up with all kinds of activities of varying importance. To reinvest in your relationship, you are going to have to give some of those other obligations or habits up.

 

Find a skilled Therapist – If therapy feels like an extra hour a week that you have the same old arguments and leave feeling angry and wounded, then it is time to find a different therapist. Your therapist should be interacting with you, sometimes interrupting you or calling foul, shaking things up, and giving you a new experience or perspective on what has been going on in your relationship. Now, the therapist cannot do that without your help; you have to be willing to do something different. And the best therapist in the world will not be able to make couple’s therapy always fun and heartwarming. But therapy should never feel like more of the same or like a free for all to attack each other. Find a therapist who makes you both feel supported and challenged in balance.

 

 

Have an exit plan (and a backslide plan) – Some of the things I talk about with couple’s in therapy are quick fixes; things that can be repaired with some specific changes and then will flow smoothly. But often issues in couples’ therapy will continue to have some residue of hurt for some time. Rebuilding trust takes time. Changing ingrained patterns will take time and have some moments of backsliding. Before you close your couple’s therapy have a conversation about the realities of relationships, giving each other the benefit of the doubt when things are rocky, and what you will each commit to do if or when things start to feel difficult again. Returning to therapy is not a failure, it is a sign that you have the tools in place to be successful long term.

 

Is your relationship ready for some renewal? Consider a Couple’s Intensive with Melissa Fritchle, LMFT and Sex Therapist. Spend a few days in beautiful Santa Cruz with beach walks at dusk, private therapy sessions during the day, and heart-opening playful “homework” in the evening. You deserve to make your relationship as strong and intimate as it can be!

 

"Kill Your Darlings"

  Are you risking what you need to?

 

I came upon this piece of advice for writers, originally from William Faulkner, and it has stuck with me throughout the month. Its emotional resonance can be quite scary. It sounds like the kind of advice you don’t want to take. And, indeed, it asks a lot of you. But I think it represents a vulnerable truth that applies to intimate relationships.

 

For writers, this applies on one level to the idea that to create emotional truth and tension, you need to be willing for any character, even the most beloved, to die. It also means you should not rely on tricks or themes that have worked for you before. Don’t write what you want to write, don’t let ego lead; write what is true, what organically needs to happen in the story.

 

This is just as relevant in sustaining intimate relationships. No, I am not advocating violence against your lovers. Nor am I suggesting that you abandon the people of things you love. But I think to sustain true intimate connection, we have to be willing to let things die or transform. We cannot rely on the old way of doing things. We cannot take anything for granted. The way you had amazing sex 2 years ago may not be working now. The person you got to know 5 years ago is different today.

 

Sometimes we can hold on and protect something we love so tightly, that we stop taking the risks we need to take to keep it alive. Oh, it might be going through the motions. There can be a kind of deadness or numbness that comes from desperately loving something so much we don’t want to rock the boat. But to be fully vibrantly alive we need to take risks. We need to have the difficult conversations, take the fearful step of hearing a new truth from an old love. We want to have faith in our long term connections and often faith is warranted. But we shouldn’t let that make us lazy or fool ourselves into thinking that all the questions are answered and doubt or confusion or change will never visit again.

 

 

Just as writers must stay true to their story, we must stay true to our relationships by being aware that everything can end, that everyone has lights and shadows, that change is inevitable. It is committing to aliveness to stop overreliance on past gifts and to risk whatever needs to be given and received now. It is scary. I have a lot of empathy for the couples I see in therapy who are in that frightening and disorienting stage of needing to kill their darlings, their story of their partner and the way things were going to go, to access something new. But that something new is almost always more alive, more honest, more intimate. Maybe for therapy the quote should be – Kill your darlings, so that you can stay alive to what it here for you now.

 

Not Sleeping Together, Having Sex Together

 

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.

 

 

Tuesday is Blue Underwear Day

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.

 

Wake up with screen-free week

The last week of April (April 29 – May 5 this year) we are being encouraged to honor National Screen-Free Week by turning off the TV and other screens at home or outside of work hours. This is being announced as a healthy choice for children, but the truth is going screen free for even one week may be the healthiest choice you can make for your relationship and your sex life. If nothing else, it will wake you up again to each other and to what it takes to spend time with an actual, alive, in the flesh other person.

It is just too easy to entertain ourselves with immediate constantly available screen content. Playing words with friends, or window shopping on Pinterest, checking online sports stats or stock changes, even posting to Facebook all require less from us in the moment than many other options for filling our time. At the end of a long day, we have learned to crave the anonymity and low stakes of turning to our computers, cell phones, and TVs. But that time spent staring into a screen is unlikely to feature in your end of life memory review. You are probably not going to reminisce with your long-term partner or friends about, “remember the hours we spent together, you beating your high score while I planned imaginary vacations…” Ah those were the days”.

For most of us, it is not that we actually enjoy our online time more than time doing other things. It is that we forget how to spend time more creatively as mindlessly turning to screen-time becomes more and more of a habit. Give yourself one week away from that easy distraction and you will need to engage yourself with the life around your differently. What might you do with several hours together in the evening, instead of the 15 minute you seem to have after catching up on 3 hours of TV? Maybe doing the same things you have been doing sexually and then finding you still have an hour before bedtime may be just the thing you need to try something new. Maybe you will let yourself be interrupted while cooking dinner by kisses or feel inspired to do a spontaneous slow dance after breakfast. Maybe you will just sit in the backyard and realize the tree next door is blooming and let yourself get just a bit bored so that you dig deeper to talk about things you haven’t shared in a long time. Maybe you will go out and strike up a conversation with someone new.

As a couples therapist, the thing most likely to make me feel a couple has little chance of improving their relationship is when they come back each week and tell me they didn’t make any time to be together without distrations.  Our minds need time to slow down without outside stimulation to see who we are today. Our hearts need it too. Take next week to go screen-free. Turn your face towards each other, or to your self, rather than towards a screen and see what is there.

 

Yin of Love

 

I have been taking Yin Yoga classes which focus on holding the poses for a long time so you learn to surrender into the stretch. The teacher was talking about how usually when we start to feel the discomfort of a stretch, we meet that with struggle, trying to push against it. In struggling, our nervous system sends fear signals to our mind and our body tenses against the stretch. In Yin Yoga, we learn to relax into the stretch, to not effort, to teach our body and nervous system to calm down so that we can stretch more deeply.

This made me think of the couple’s therapy work that I do and how people meet discomfort in relationships -whether it’s a difficult conversation, a relationship that is changing, finding out something about your partner or yourself that is painful. So often when challenged in a relationship we immediately tense and go into fear. And we try to push through it by having conversations when we are too emotional or trying to make a big decision without having time to think. An important part of couple’s therapy is helping people to learn how to calm themselves down enough to face a challenge. There are ways to direct the nervous system and our minds to slow down, rather than to react with fear. And from that place, we do a lot better job of addressing relationship conflicts or changes.

So the next time you feel challenged by a surprise or even a long-standing irritation in relationship, take time to notice  - how are you tensing against this thing that is stretching you? Can you slow this down, not reacting immediately but waiting until you can take a deep breath and let your body unwind a bit? Rather than trying to solve this or turn it into an effort, is there a way you can first surrender to this experience of discomfort? Can you be aware of it without fighting it, just for a few minutes? Can you find your own solid ground, your own capacity to tolerate being stretched, before approaching your partner? Just start by taking a deep breath. You may be surprised how different things look when you ease off of the mental struggle against it.