Conscious Sexual Self

Connection Requires Consciousness

Intimacy Does Not Equal Great Sex

 

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.

 

Remind Me Who I Am

There is a poem full of longing by Stanley Kunitz that ends with “Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.” The poem expresses a moment of exile from the self, those times in our lives when we have changed or are changing in ways uncomfortable and seeded with grief. And then it ends with this hope, the potential of love and touch and sexuality to bring us back to some foundations of who we are and the willingness to let someone else see a side of us that feels elusive.

 

One of my hobbies is photography and lately I have been inspired by nudes. This has invited me to ask myself, what is it that I am trying to capture with nudes that is different than photos of clothed models? I think some of the answer is in what this poem expresses. When we can shed clothes, we shed expectations of identity, those external cues about who we are supposed to be or cannot be anymore or have become. We become more vulnerable, sure. But there is also a freedom. When I am gifted with the opportunity to work with models who will be nude, I feel like I get to work with a Human Being, rather than with a fixed identity or a part of who they are. Clothes cover but they also limit. Being naked, the person is more of a mystery and I am drawn to pay attention to each gesture, each expression, each interaction to let them show their self to me.

 

So one of the potentials that lies in sexuality with a partner, long term or not, is the chance to shed external rules and roles and to show up naked. How might you allow yourself to have sex in a way that reminded you of who you are at the core? Touch can pull us back into the simplest, and yet profound, information source about our self that we have – our body. With someone who has known and loved you, touch can convey a memory or contain a history of you that is still there for you to draw on. And how could you approach sexual engagement with a partner with the intention to remind them of their incredible humanness? How could you honor their nakedness with you by freeing them from being a certain way or a certain person?

 

This poem reminds me of the availability of the present moment, of joining with someone else to be human in the midst of all kinds of noise encouraging us to be something more limited.  As we face loss and transitions and endings of all kinds, sexuality can be a place to return to our self. Sex itself will change too, sometimes feeling unrecognizable. But if we let our self open to touch maybe we can find relief from our private disappointments and insecurities and doubts for a time. How can we let sex remind us to let go of all the things we don’t have to use to define ourselves? What distractions to our Self can we shed as we shed our clothes? What if sex is a place to celebrate our mystery and also our simplicity?

 

Do you seek your self when you are having sex? What if you did?

 

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.

 

Handcuffs, and Strap-ons and Butt Plugs – Oh My!

There is a lot available to you at your local sex toy store nowadays. Lots of items that will enhance your self pleasuring time and lots that can be added to play with partners. People imagine that these fun little items will increase physical pleasure, up the naughtiness factor, add a fun fantasy component. But what they don’t often think is that these toys can increase the intimacy factor, but they can do that too.

 

People who take the risk to add some accessories to their sex play build intimacy with each other because of the newness. Couple’s who take a trip to Pure Pleasure together are suddenly talking about sex more explicitly. They are negotiating, “no way that is way too intimidating!...but this looks fun”. When they bring an item home, they know this is new so they don’t have to be experts about it. Now they may have sexual interaction that includes giggling and needing to stop and re-adjust positions and maybe someone saying, “This isn’t really working for me”. The fact that toys can open up that dialogue is great. The fact that they can be beginner’s again is great.

 

So I see part of the gift of sex toys to be the gift of awkwardness. I think getting comfortable with awkwardness is great, since learning something new is often awkward. Couples who try to avoid feeling uncomfortable at all costs, often end up feeling bored instead. Intimacy builds from experiences of sharing a moment, however flawed or blissful or vulnerable, not from performing without a hitch. So maybe sex toys aren’t your thing. Can you invite a sense of trying something new to your sex play? Can you embrace a little awkwardness as a sign that things are fresh and growing? What will you use as inspiration?

 

Are we forgetting how to really know another person - on virtual relationships

 

I am sure there is a lot unknown and unclear about the Manti Te’o virtual girlfriend situation. If you haven’t read about this already, a synopsis is; football player Manti Te’o was hoaxed by a friend, who had unrequited romantic feeling for Manti Te’o, into having an online and phone relationship with a fictional woman. This relationship apparently went on for 3 years. After this time, the friend had the fake girlfriend die of leukemia. Manti Te’o went public with his grief and the hoax was revealed.

Now I feel sad for the suffering of everyone in this story and am unwilling to speculate about how this all unfolded. As a couple’s therapist however, it does bring up some fascinating questions about our current cultural models of relationship and intimacy and how social media and technology are re-shaping what it means to be connected. I have seen priorities change and more of more of the meat of communication happening through text or online sites. And while I recognize the convenience of being virtually connected, I worry about some of the deeper impacts on our relationships. I think it is important to ask ourselves some questions as we navigate these cultural changes.

Do we now think it is reasonable to have a significant relationship with someone that we cannot make time to see in person in over 3 years? Have we developed a cultural model in which we are all so busy that actually being physically together is negotiable? A 3 year romantic relationship is an extreme example, no doubt, but I encourage you to think about your friendships and how often you now prioritize updating posts so that people are “caught up with your life” versus making plans to see someone live and in person. How much time do you spend with romantic partners that doesn’t involve looking into screens? How many relationships are you willing to spend energy on when the thought of actually doing something with that person is unappealing?

Do we believe that people’s words are the core of who they are and the primary way to get to know them? As a therapist, I see every day the difference between what people say and what they feel, in fact this is much of what couples therapy is meant to reveal – the truth functioning underneath all the words. Now that most everyone has an online profile (or two), are we relying on that manufactured information to get to know someone? I recently read that people no longer know what to talk about on first dates because they have already read a basic bio of the person, which leads me to wonder – have we forgotten how to talk about our lives, the things we like, the dreams we have? Are we losing the gift of reading subtle cues from people, body language, eye contact, even the way we respond to the world around us? I remember when I was dating we learned a lot from observing how a person treated the waitstaff. Is this kind of social interaction irrelevant now? Is how someone literally moves through the world - how they drive, how much patience they show in doing tasks, if they move out of the way for other people in a crowded space- no longer considered part of who they are? Do we know the difference between persona and personality? Do we care?

And, of course, I do not know what kind of sexuality was or was not being expressed in Manti Te’o’s virtual relationship, but I worry for us all about the beautiful, awkward, sweaty, intimate, vulnerable, bonding experience of human sexuality being squeezed out by a reliance on the ease of words and pictures, fictional stories and our own minds. Virtual sex can be a fun addition but I hope we never lose sight of our desire for the astounding, risky experience of being physical with another person, and what it asks of us.

I have my own “connections” to celebrities, writers, artists, even politicians, that I will never meet in person. And I will grieve for them when they are gone and no longer playing an active part in my world. I believe it is good for us to learn from strangers, to allow ourselves to feel love for people far apart from us, to even develop stories about what they are like in person. But I hope I never lose sight of the fact that I do not know these people – that, in fact, they are a mystery to me, no matter how much written material I read about them. I hope I never forget to value the subtlety and fragility in the ongoing process of really getting to know someone.