“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones” -- John Lennon
Honesty is not insensitivity or insisting on having things your way. Honesty is letting someone else see who you really are. So when I read this quote by Lennon, I think it tells a truth that is deeper than it seems. He is not talking about there being “right” and “wrong” people out there, but about how we find the right people to love us. And coming from a man who was "loved" by millions and projected on by nearly all of them, I feel he might have known something about being loved for who you seem to be versus who you are.
Sometimes when we are dating or meeting new people, our approach is to try and be as likable as possible. This is nice, to an extent. We can learn new things about ourselves and find genuine new interests and passions that we may never have discovered on our own. But what happens when we try so hard to be likable that we appear to be someone we are not? One possibility is that we may end up never feeling truly loved. Or believe we have to perform to be loved. Finding the right match for you, whether a partner or a friend, will require you to show them who you are, to be honest about what you like, what you find funny, what your limits are, what you believe in, where you want to go. Then if they like you it is real. You can assume they will still like you when you are too tired or stressed or over putting up a front.
Dating, and early stages of any voluntary relationship, is the time to be honest. It may, as Lennon said, lead to some people stepping away as your mismatches become clear. But ultimately it may led you to the people who will recognize the colorful mosaic of who you have become, people who will hear what you have to say even when it is hard to hear, people who will be great partners in building the life that is truly right for you. I say it is worth the risk. Be honest and trust that the right people will find you fascinating.
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.
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.
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 ...
If it interests you, visit my new article for YourTango.com on Open Relationships : Broaching the Forbidden Topic
You sit with friends at a café, everyone joking about sex and their partners, and you think, “there is no way I am telling them how I really feel”. You are lying next to your partner, relaxed after a slow morning in bed together, when you have a memory from a past sexual experience but decide not to share it. You are around a dinner table with your family and your mom makes an assumption about your sex life that is not true, but you don’t feel safe correcting her. You are passionately petting with a new partner, who gasps, “we don’t need to use protection, don’t worry”. Nagging thoughts about the risky sexual behaviors in your past stay with you, but you keep quiet.
Our sexual stories often contain both secrets and privacy and the need to make decisions about both. What is the difference between something you want to keep private and a secret you are keeping? How do you decide when to keep information to yourself and what is important to share? Is it ok to keep sexual information to yourself? How much do you need to share with partners?
Secrets often feel bad. We usually keep secrets about information that we are ashamed of or feel could still hurt us in some way. Secrets sometimes have the quality of withholding information that may be relevant to another person, and so they can feel hard to keep and dangerous. Secrets feel like a burden; they hold us back and weigh us down.
Privacy, on the other hand, can feel empowering . It can apply to information about yourself that is new or vulnerable and that you are still learning about, so it is not ready to be shared. Privacy feels like a choice. Things that you choose to keep private may cause you to smile to yourself. Privacy relates to things that you may feel you could share, but is just no one’s business but your own. Privacy is space you give yourself.
So how do you decide if this information is something you should share? Decide if it is currently relevant to the person you might share it with – will it impact the decisions they may make? Will not knowing this put them at risk in any way? Then decide how it is impacting your ability to feel intimate with this person. By not telling, do you feel like you are hiding a significant part of yourself, do you feel you are constantly holding yourself back? Are you thinking about it a lot, distracted by it? If no, then maybe this is something that you choose to keep private. It is not bad to have memories, fantasies, curiosities, that are just for you. Maybe someday you will share but if for now you feel happy holding this inside, let it feed the way you are with your partner and in the world, privately.
In my practice, I talk to many people who are considering asking their partner about changing their relationship agreements from monogamy to an open relationship. This can be a fragile, vulnerable, exciting, insightful time for people and there is much to explore. I will be writing a series of articles about what to ask yourself, how to approach a partner, and things to consider before opening a relationship to multiple partners. This article, posted on YourTango.com, outlines some questions to ask yourself before you even begin a conversation with your current partner.