Good sex can make us feel as though the world has stopped and touch and movement and contact is all that exists in the moment. Intertwining physically, we can also feel intertwined as humans, connected like instruments in song, responding to each other’s rhythms, rising and falling together, sharing something without the effort of talking or explaining. It can feel as though veils of appropriate public behavior are lifted and there is an honesty that comes out in privacy. You can feel joined. Witnessing and being witnessed in the trance of pleasure can create a closeness that is unlike any other. It can make you feel connected and seen, basking in what you just created together.
And then we need to disentangle and go about our lives. We pull apart, literally and otherwise. It’s necessary, we cannot sustain immediate sensual connection at all times. We humans have the capacity to feel merged and connected, but also the need to function as individual beings. We cannot live on strawberries seductively inserted between our lips by an ardent partner. Nope, we have to have a cup of coffee and a bowl of cereal and get on with our day eventually.
There is an ongoing discussion out there about how to create this focused erotic trance-like connection with a sexual partner. As a sex therapist, I have plenty to say on that subject and know lots of people are yearning for those moments of intensity. But we don’t often talk about the de-escalation that comes after good sex, the necessary separation. And yet, many people struggle with these true after-the-after-glow moments. How do we experience disconnecting?
Some people feel a mild sadness or an unexplained sense of disappointment. Some people feel distrustful of their own intensity and feelings. Some may feel lonely or displaced somehow. Some people feel checked out. And, since we don’t often talk about the separation after the connection, many people may have no idea what they are feeling or why.
The ability to come together in sensual intensity requires the ability to be experience being apart. We can be apart but still allied and we can sustain ourselves through difficult times of distance by remembering the deep and earnest closeness that sex can bring. Couples who believe in the potency of that contact, even when separate, have a secret source of desire and intimacy. Remember how open and naked you can let yourself be, even as you dress yourself for your day out in the world, miles apart from those moments of skin to skin contact. Let yourself flush as you think about coming together again. How beautiful it is to be separate so that we can discover each other again and again.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.