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.
Set aside some time by yourself to reacquaint yourself with your body. This should take at least a half hour, maybe an hour. Take time to transition from your day, light a candle or take a shower, put on some slow music, take off your clothes and meet your self in bed. Lay back and relax in to the bed – you are going to take some time. Take some deep breaths and allow yourself to shift your focus to physical sensations. Feel the air in the room on your skin, your breath moving your chest and stomach, feel your body pressing into the bed underneath you. Now use your hands to touch yourself. Rather than going straight for your genitals or trying to feel something specific, start at the top of your forehead – yes, your forehead. Use your hands to explore the skin and terrain of your face. Focus on what you feel in your hands for awhile. Then focus on what you feel in your face. Go slowly. Move down to your neck and shoulders. Just slowly open to the sensations in your hands as they touch your body. Take your time. Then move down to your chest…side of your body…stomach. Keep returning your focus to what your skin and the dips and hills of your body feel under your hands. Let yourself experience your body from a new perspective, the perspective of your hands. This is not about how you look, keep your eyes closed so you can stay focused on sensation. Keep moving down your body, explore your hips….pelvis…. notice how your skin feels over your bones. Be curious about what parts of you are warm and what parts are cool. Keep exploring with your hands. Touch your genitals. Again keep the focus on what your hands feel, textures, heat, movement. Don’t stop exploring there, keep moving down your body…your thighs…knees… shins…. feet. Pay attention to each part of your body.
What was it like to approach your body in this way? How might it change your image of yourself if you focused more what your body is like to touch, rather than to look at? What words came to mind about your body when you explored it this way? Can you imagine bringing this kind of focused attention to masturbation or sex with a partner? Do you want to do this again? Great, your body is yours to explore again and again. Enjoy.
The other day I was sitting at a food stand waiting for my lunch, when a little boy came up to show me his superhero outfit. It was quite nice and so I appreciated it, watched him run up and down a ramp superhero fast. He let me know right away however that he was not a superhero, he was just a boy. Followed by, “I am a boy, not a girl”. His mom seemed a bit embarrassed about this and she said, almost apologetically, that she wasn’t sure why but he had been stating this lately – that he is a boy and not a girl.
As someone who has studied developmental psychology, I knew right away why he has been saying this lately and it is not necessarily that he had been getting any external pressure or flack about gender roles. He was probably about 4 or 5, exactly the age when our minds are rapidly figuring out how to be safe and competent in the world around us. One of the first ways it does this is to categorize. Our minds ability to put things into categories quickly is a critical survival mechanism, and one we share with animals although our categories go much wider. We need to remember quickly how to assess edible/not edible, friend/foe, safe/dangerous. As this little guy showed, we also assess for other categories, adult/child, superhero/regular human, girl/boy. So a focus on binary categories at pre-school age is very common. It is not a sign of future discrimination or rigid thinking. It is a way this little human is trying to protect himself, where do I fit in? What is expected of me? What can and can’t I do?
What is not normal or necessary is to expect ourselves to stay in this categorizing mindset. As we grow and develop we are able to expand containers of categories, add new and more complex options, and even to see and think outside these boxes all together. Even at 5 years old, children are able to grasp diversity within people and things. They can understand that the categories don’t always fit neatly, just as they can understand and are actively learning that the rules are different in different settings. They get exposed to people and things that contradict what they learned before and their definitions and options expand. The human mind is able to contain vast diversity, almost unlimited options – just as humanity does. So why are we so often relying on old containers that we could have outgrown in elementary school? Why are we still talking about people as though there are only two options for gender? Why is our language for the way we represent who we are still limited to “I am a boy, I am not a girl”? Why don’t we use the full limits of our minds more often?
So I appreciate the developmental place this little boy (self identified) was in. I see how we need to think this way for a period of time as we grow. But I also look forward to the time when he is able and encouraged to think outside those boxes. When he realizes he can define himself in any number of ways - maybe he needs to make up a new word to fully represent a gender or other aspects of who he is. I look forward to the time we all can do this. Who knows, maybe he will also figure out soon the ways in which he can be a superhero while also just a boy.
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.
There is a lot of talk in the media about how to attract a partner, how to get a date, how and when to have sex, but when it comes to commiting to one person long-term people often feel like they are figuring it out on their own. In this article for YourTango Experts, I write about some of the foundational aspects of successful monogamy. Read it at ...
March 14th has been declared Steak and Blowjob Day, according to a group of men who are obviously comfortable asking for what they want. This holiday is being presented as a counterbalance to Valentine's Day being traditionally more focused on women's ideas how someone should show their love. I personally find the idea of creating a holiday that really addresses your wishes charming and invite all of you to think more creatively about how the world, and your partners, could best show their love and appreciation for you.
So before any of you turn this in to a gender battle of what men want versus what women want or think "oh how dare they!", imagine this - what if it was totally okay to ask for elaborate celebrations of you? What if everyone got to design a day full of things that make them happy? What if there was enough affection to go around and so we could all say what we want without feeling guilty? What if we felt a sense of freedom and generosity about doing things for our partners and inviting them to do things for us? What if asking for sexual pleasure was embraced as part of building joy in our lives? And once you have pondered that ask yourself, why isn' t it like that?
So in honor of Steak and Blowjob Day (aside from the more obvious ways to celebrate, if those appeal) I suggest this - design a holiday for yourself. Be extravagant. What is it that would really make a day feel like it was all about you? If you have a partner or partners share it with them. Maybe you can pick a date for National ______________ day. If you feel at a loss or too shy to have a day all to yourself, may I suggest Ask For What You Want Day. That should get you started.
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?
Here is a link to a video I did for YourTango's Experts. In it, I talk about who is responsible for getting a partner to orgasm and how sharing the responsibility will make for a happier sexual relationship.
I hope you enjoy the video and share it with online friends !
“I will be arriving in Paris tomorrow evening. Don’t wash” – reportedly written by Napoleon to his lover, Josephine.
Scientists are beginning to believe that humans have sensory receptors in our noses, long recognized in other mammals, that allow us to get information about other people from odors we can’t consciously smell. This ability may affect our sexual choices through the detection of pheromones and other smells associated with health, virility, and more. Fascinating stuff!
We know that scent plays a strong role in influencing our brain. We are born with a strong survival mechanism that causes us to automatically be repelled by unpleasant odors. But our olfactory system sends all kinds of messages to our brain, connecting in large part to the limbic system – primitive structures in our brain that regulate arousal, pleasure and reward, and also long-term memory. If you have ever wondered how you can recognize the smell of your first crush’s laundry detergent on someone years later; this is why - the part of our brain that processes smells is combined with our long term memory storage.
Here’s another interesting aspect of scent’s influence on us, neuroscientists tell us that the sensory experiences of smell skip the thinking and reasoning part of the brain and go straight to the amygdala, which governs our physical responses to excitement and fear. So being exposed to a smell (or for some, just the recalled memory of a smell) can cause a physical response. So it’s true, you can become aroused just by smelling a smell related to a past sexual experience.
Studies focusing on pheromones in human and our sense of smell have found that women near ovulation are drawn to men’s scents who are genetically more compatible with them. Studies by researcher Karl Grammer have found that women find different men’s smells more or less appealing depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle and that men’s testosterone levels increased just by smelling women’s odors during ovulation. Again, remember these are odors that our conscious mind finds nearly undetectable!
For many people, the smell of their partner during sex and on their skin later is a wonderful part of sexual excitement. Maybe for you this is a turn on, maybe not, but it seems clear that your nose is influencing your sexual arousal in ways we are only beginning to understand. Let yourself be interested in what smells appeal to you and which do not. Take notice of smell during your next sexual experience and see if there are any ways you would like smell to be added to your sexual ambiance.
References from Rodgers, Joanne Ellison (2001) Sex : A natural history. Henry Holt and Co, LLC : New York, New York.
This year for Valentine’s Day – whether you are currently coupled or not – take time to think about what you have learned about love and how you learned it. Use your journaling time to remember your exes. Yes, love lost is a part of the bigger picture of romance and has a lot to do with the love you have to offer now.
Your Valentine’s challenge (should you choose to accept it) is to write a letter to each of your significant exes – not to send, just to write for yourself. How you define a significant relationship is up to you. It could be the person you were married to for 8 years or the unrequited crush you had all through 8th grade. Who do you think has shaped your story of love? – the first people who come to mind are the ones you should write to.
Structure the letter around these 3 prompts:
Thanks you so much for the role you played in my life. Because of you I learned …
I wish that at the time I had been better at….and I am sorry that…
The things I loved about who I was when I was around you were…
Write as sincerely as you can. Remember you are not going to share this with the person, so no power struggles. This is for you, so that you can be the person you want to be in relationship, so that you can recapture some of your early romantic inspiration, so that you can be open to love that is available for you now. Love takes more than cards, jewelry and flowers; It takes awareness and personal growth. It is worth the effort. Happy Valentine’s Day.