LMFT Therapy for Individuals or Couples
The Perfect In-laws
By: Elisheva Liss, LMFT
Dan and Liz were fighting about their families again. Both educated professional thirty-somethings, they do an impressive job juggling work, a thriving social life, and their young brood. They have a lot going for them as a couple; they’re both fun and interesting. They enjoy a broad range of interests, and for the most part, work well as a team. But when it comes to their families, the fights are intense, explosive and unresolved. They describe their dynamic as follows:
Liz: “Sometimes I just don’t get Dan’s parents. The baby is almost a year old and they haven’t invited us, or been over to visit us in almost four months. They just really don’t seem to care about their own grandchildren. My parents are like saints- they would drop everything for us, and are always available for anything we need- babysitting, cooking, errands. They see the kids a few times a week. They’re crazy about them. And my in-laws… I don’t know. It could be that they just don’t like us. I guess maybe they’re self-absorbed, or lazy, or we’re just not important to them.”
Dan: “Liz’s parents have major boundary issues. They come over all the time, unannounced, and uninvited, and always overstay. They buy the kids excessive amounts of candy and gifts; I’m actually embarrassed for people to see all the toys and gadgets we have from them. They’re always pushing their unsolicited advice on us, bringing us random stuff that clutters up the house, and getting in our business, wanting to know everything about our lives. They just don’t respect our privacy. Because they’re so nosy and intrusive, Liz sees my parents as cold and distant, when the truth is, they really just have a life, and don’t feel the need to stalk us. They are normal grandparents- enjoying occasional calls, visits, pictures, and emails, and not tracking on the calendar when they last time they saw us was.”
While this sounds very much like an argument, the reality is that they do seem to agree about what is actually happening. Where they disagree, is with regard to their opinions and feelings about that reality. Liz’s parents want to be very involved in their kids’ lives. They’d like to have a frequent and doting relationship with their grandchildren, and shower them with attention and generosity. In return for, or maybe just in addition to their magnanimity, they assume the privilege of being able to visit on their terms, and give input. Their assumptions and expectations about family togetherness are high and strong.
Dan’s parents seem to have a different model for grandparenting. They seem to feel that they’ve raised their kids to be good people. They now give their grown children the space, trust, and autonomy to build a family life of their own, around their marriage and children. They step back and enjoy their own next stage, filling their days with work, travel, philanthropic work, recreation, social functions, and culture. They surely care about and love their children and grandchildren as well, but their paradigm for a grandparent’s role is more boundaried and peripheral.
Whose way is right? Well, (and I doubt you will be shocked to hear this, but) to a large extent the answer is culturally subjective. In some cultures- world cultures and family cultures, Liz’s parents’ style is the norm. Multi-generational clans often live together under one roof, or if not, there is an understanding of deep reverence for the elders. Even in the US, some ethnic groups still have clannish extended family dynamics, and for many of them it provides a secure sense of belonging, support, love, and connection. It can be very beautiful. It can also be very dysfunctional. It just depends on the players, how they do it, and how they all feel about it.
Among more contemporary, secular communities, Dan’s family attachment style is considered the norm. You raise your children to be mature, educated, law-abiding citizens. You help them acquire life skills so they can be independent and self-sufficient. You then launch them into the big world, where they put down roots with their own families, and see each other on holidays. You don’t criticize or make demands of them, because they are now adults, with their own responsibilities. Many families function quite nicely and respectfully this way. The only reason Liz is disturbed by it, is because it’s so foreign to her and her expectations.
What is interesting to note is that neither set of in-laws is proactively offensive. They do not insult, or berate the couple. They simply interact as family, in the way that comes naturally to them.
They each represent a version of what I think of as a continuum of in-law style:
On one extreme there is what we call “enmeshment”- which means over-involvement to the point of dysfunction, or diminishing returns. On the other extreme there is “estrangement”- a level of distance that could feel like a cut-off. There are varying styles of involvement for extended families. Most families have dynamics that are somewhere along this line. And most young parents crave that perfect, elusive balance: in-laws that love and give, but are appropriately respectful of privacy. The problem is that there is no perfect balance. Everyone’s expectations and preferences are subjective. Interestingly, I find many, many couples who have one set of parents from each side of the spectrum; meaning: one set they wish would be more connected to them, and another they can’t seem to get rid of. I’ve also heard the complaints from both ends: “My in-laws never come by…” and “My in-laws never want to leave…”
So, what’s the solution?
Like with most relationship issues, there isn’t a simple, one size fits all answer. We begin with acknowledging that this is not necessary a question of right or wrong, but one of family cultures, norms, and expectations. We can then express our own preferences, and reflect back to the other, to show that we “get it”. We accept and note that we come from different backgrounds, and that this impacts the way we think. We try to see and appreciate the blessings, and accept the limitations, within each family. Respectful communication between spouses, empathy, and compromise are all useful ingredients to bring to the table. Every couple has its own sensitivities, factors, and extenuating circumstances to consider. For example, one mother-in-law might be a widow, and need more attention and sensitivity than if she had a husband. Another set of in-laws might live overseas, and so quality time with them would need to be prescheduled. And yet another may have medical issues that either require assistance, or preclude visits.
It is my (subjective) belief that it is inappropriate for any adult to make authoritative relationship demands on another adult, and that adults have the right to assert healthy boundaries, while we are not entitled to demand or expect favors or gifts. This means that even if Liz wishes that Dan’s parents would do more for them, then while it’s certainly ok for them to make a request for more (if Dan is comfortable with that), Dan’s parents don’t owe them anything. And that if they make it clear that the schedule and level of involvement they practice is what works for them, it’s the couple’s job to accept that. Likewise, if Liz’s parents would like to spend a lot of time with their grandchildren, they are welcome to request that, but that Dan and Liz have the right to ask them to call before they visit, to check with them before giving a large gift, and to not correct them in front of their kids. These are just examples, and there are usually other sensitivities to consider. For example, some parents may be very prone to emotionality, and a couple decides that it’s not worth creating drama.
Sometimes the conflict is more serious, such as when there is malice or hostility. If you have the kind of parent(s)-in-law who are overtly belligerent, manipulative, or cruel, then boundaries become even more important. Both personal boundaries, and psychological boundaries will help you to not allow yourself to feel wounded by the offenses, and protect your marriage from collateral damage. If the child of the difficult parent(s) is aware of his/her parents problems, and willing to empathize and validate the spouse, this doesn’t have to harm the marriage. If it becomes a repeated point of contention in the marriage, you might want to seek counsel to help you deal with this issue in a productive way. There are sometimes cases of contentious in-laws that when managed wisely, can become benign.
A common comment I hear about innocuous in-law troubles is: “If I knew my in-laws in any other context, I would probably like them very much; as neighbors, an aunt and uncle, coworkers. It’s just because we end up in these awkward family dynamics and politics that it gets so uncomfortable for us.” If your in-laws are basically good people with good intentions, it helps to keep that in mind when their behavior frustrates you, even while you need to address it. If you have children, you may become in-laws yourselves someday, and you’ll want your children’s spouses to be respectful and kind to you.
The important thing for a couple navigating the landscape of this area to remember, is that you are on the same team. You both would ideally like to have a loving but appropriate relationship with your parents and in-laws. Try as much as possible not to let resentments about in-laws affect your own marital harmony. A sense of humor and perspective can help keep disagreements and frustrations from escalating. And try to honor your own, your spouse’s, and the grandparents’ feelings when making decisions. The challenge will be to find a rhythm and a system that can be beneficial to the most players while hurting the fewest as minimally as possible. This is usually a process, but it can evolve nicely with time, healthy communication, flexibility, sensitivity, and tact.
Help! My Wife Won’t Go Back to Work…
By: Elisheva Liss, LMFT
Anna was a 28 year old CPA, well respected in her company, and on track for eventual promotions. She married Josh, a 29 year old rising attorney, working in the city. They enjoyed exchanging anecdotes and ideas from their respective professions, meeting for coffee at the trendy midtown shops, and took pride in each other’s accomplishments. Two years later, Zack is born. He has big blue eyes and strong set of overactive lungs. Anna and Josh are both besotted and exhausted. After extending her maternity leave to the maximum option for the company, Anna tells Josh that she still doesn’t feel ready to return to work, and is considering a leave of absence. Josh sees how demanding Zack is, and the toll it’s taken on Anna, and tells her: “Do what you need to do; I make enough money for us, for now.”
Zack is now almost 18 months old, and Josh is wondering if Anna will ever return to work. Whenever he brings it up, they end up in a fight. Josh and Anna are both getting resentful, and it’s starting to affect their relationship.
Working mom vs stay home mom is a subject that occupies a huge share of blog posts, articles, research, and opinion. There are scholarly articles, comics, jokes, tirades all asserting the merits and pitfalls of both options. Strong feelings abound in both camps. But another issue that seems to get less attention is the matter of a husband’s feelings and expectations once the first baby comes along.
There are a number of reasons why a woman might feel inclined to move away from her career to focus on a baby, or children, and a number of reasons why a husband may have concerns about this. I would like to explore both sides of the discussion, and perhaps shed some light on the issue, as it presents itself so often in my office, for couples like Anna and Josh:
Why a mom might want to stay home:
Why a father/husband might prefer his wife to go back to work:
The first point to consider when trying to hash out this issue, is that most of the time, this is not a clear-cut question of “right or wrong” as much as a question of: what is going to work best for us. There are many couples who have a beautiful, functional lifestyle with two working parents, and many who achieve this with a full time parent. There is not a universal formula that fits every family. By the time the couple gets to counseling to discuss this, tensions often run high, and there are strong feelings in both directions. Each spouse is often convinced that s/he is correct, and that the other is being stubborn, closed-minded, irresponsible, selfish, or insensitive.
A wife may feel something like: “I had no idea how becoming a mother would change me. I can’t imagine spending my days at the office while a stranger cares for my child. I didn’t realize I would develop such a strong maternal instinct. Doesn’t he see the importance of parenthood?”
Or: “I know I planned to go back to work after six weeks, but my body is only just beginning to heal, I leak milk, and I’m not sleeping more than two hours in a row- I have no energy to compete, and I’m afraid to show up to the office and try to work in such a fragile state. I don’t think my husband understands how consuming motherhood is…”
While a husband might feel things like: “What happened to the confident, ambitious woman I fell in love with? One of the things I enjoyed most about her when we were dating was her focus, her motivation, her drive. Now I feel like she’s going soft, and I have the entire burden of earning- just as we have another mouth to feed, and our expenses are going up, and that was never the plan. I feel misled, and resentful, especially when she wants to spend money, or complains about caring for the baby. “
It’s important to realize that all of these feelings have merit. It’s completely understandable that a baby brings major change. A couple that had (hopefully) developed a comfortable rhythm and routine now has a whole new person with constant and demanding needs, to accommodate. In the majority of cases, this is not a natural, smooth adjustment. Even when both spouses are on the same page with regards to parenting and career plans, there are factors and challenges to be navigated, such as how to establish parenting roles and responsibilities, how involved grandparents will be, and how to make time to nurture the marriage.
Expectations can vary from one extreme to the other, and a whole spectrum in between. There are fathers who (still) believe their only mandatory job is to bring home a paycheck, and barely even hold the baby, while their wives tend the children and home. There are “stay at home dads” who become primary caregivers, while their wives are the breadwinners. There are modern couples who both work full time and then try to split domestic and childcare jobs 50/50. And of course, there are parents who work part-time. Most families do not have a pure formula like the examples above, but some combination thereof. And while compromise, mutual supportiveness, flexibility, and sharing are important values, the lack of clarity can generate conflict. Some useful questions to ask, when trying to navigate this decision are:
It’s relevant to note that until the last century, almost all mothers were “stay at home moms”; women didn’t really join the work force en masse, until about the time of WWI. Gender roles were more rigid, but also more clearly defined. Marriage was more of a utilitarian contract. Women needed men for provision and protection, and men needed women for childbearing and homemaking. Now that women make money too, thank you very much, and men have rolled up their sleeves in the kitchen and nursery, we all get a bit of everything, which, of course, is enlightened, but also nebulous. And so we need to leave room for different expectations, evolving roles, and fluctuating balance. There is not a cut and dry system that will work for all couples at this point in history, so each family needs to find its own equilibrium.
Mutual empathy, compassion, respectful communication, and open-mindedness will go a long way in these dialogues. Really listening, trying to understand in an accepting way how our spouse is feeling, and think in terms of solutions without bias, will help resolve this question. When all else fails, counseling: career, financial, or marriage counseling, are resources to access for help in developing a plan.
10 Simple Tips to Try Before Anti-Depressants
By: Elisheva Liss, LMFT
“Do you think I need to be on medication?” I get this question often. A client comes in feeling down, sad, weepy, scared, stressed, angry, or discouraged. We discuss history, circumstances, causes, thoughts, feelings, and possible solutions. Depression and anxiety take many forms and manifestations, in a variety of gradations of intensity and duration. There are some individuals for whom medication is clearly and strongly recommended, and others for whom it would be largely unnecessary. But many clients fall somewhere in the middle ground. These people are functioning reasonably well in their daily lives and responsibilities, but they are suffering emotionally, and might benefit from psychotropic medication in conjunction with psychotherapy. Yet for a variety of reasons, they feel resistant or hesitant to go that route. Or they just might want to know what else they could try first. If you are someone who falls along this continuum and you’ve been considering medication, but are wondering if there is anything else you could try first, please, read on. The following may sound obvious and unoriginal, but may still be worth considering. This is a list of tried and true, intuitive and natural lifestyle suggestions that can make a meaningful difference to someone suffering from mild depressive symptoms, in no particular order:
These ideas are mostly things you already know as being factors in a wholesome lifestyle, but as a “to do list” for fighting depression and anxiety they can take on a lot more strength and motivation. In the end, you and your doctor might decide that medication is the route for you, and that can be a wonderfully life-changing choice, too. And this way, you can always look back and know you made all the right efforts, and picked up some healthy habits along the way.
Not feeling “in the mood”? You’re not the only one. So many women feel confused, frustrated, guilt-ridden, annoyed, or discouraged- because they just can’t seem to get themselves “in the mood”. Some women are frustrated because they used to feel the magic, and now it’s all but gone, while others have always wondered what all the hype is about. Here is a brief and simplified summary of some of the most common reasons we find for this phenomenon:
Circumstantial: Women tend to be “experientially integrated”. This means that women often live holistically, and bring their feelings from one frame to the next. Kids, work, family, friends, social obligations, communal commitments, personal stuff- for most of us, our brains are pretty cluttered. When a woman is preoccupied with responsibilities or circumstances, stressed, overwhelmed or very focused on something else, she may bring these thoughts into the bedroom with her, and have a hard time relaxing her mind and body enough to connect sexually. Finding ways to consciously decompress, talk it out, check your baggage at the bedroom door, meditate, or unwind, may help.
Physical, Physiological, or Hormonal: Whether you have a headache, cramps, a bad back, or the flu, if you’re in physical pain or discomfort, it can be hard to relax and find pleasure, or even motivate yourself to try. This is particularly true if the pain is in the sexual areas of the body, such as an STD, urinary tract infection, endometriosis or vulvadynia, or if you suffer from a more serious condition or illness. Hormonal changes and imbalances can also affect the sex drive. So can some common medications like birth control pills, antidepressants, and allergy meds. Menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause are other potential culprits. Please consult with your doctor if you have any sort of chronic or intense physical pain, or if you suspect medical, systemic, or hormonal causes. There are often alternative choices, therapies, supplements, or replacements that can make a meaningful difference. [Generally keeping your body in good shape through exercise and nourishing food will benefit you in the bedroom too.]
Historical: Is sexual activity psychologically loaded for you? Were you ever unwantedly touched, sexually or otherwise? Did you ever share your body with someone only to be betrayed, abandoned, or have your heart broken? Were you taught as a child that sex is bad or dirty? Did you see behaviors in your parents’ marriage as a child that disturbed you? Were you deprived of or bombarded with affection? If you have negative associations with touch or intimacy, your heart may be using your body as a boundary, to clue you in on some history that needs to be addressed. ASAP.
Emotional: Sexual pleasure is a type of joy. When we feel down, scared, depressed, worried, annoyed, or angry, it may be challenging to get in the mood for connection. Check in with your feelings to see what your general mood is like, then try your regular mood lifting activities. If you struggle with excessive or unmanageable negative emotions, it might help to speak with a therapist. If you or your partner has any psychological concerns, such as a trauma, addiction, or mood disorder, this will often come into play too, so ditto there, on professional help.
Interpersonal: Are you having a rough time in the relationship? Are you holding back on issues that are bothering you, or bickering a lot? Feeling overly criticized or critical? Resentful or resented? Neglected or guilty? Relationship problems- visible or beneath the surface, will easily kill the passion. Invest some time trying to really communicate, and heal from conflict, and schedule date nights and loving activities to keep the romance alive. Again, if conflict is an ongoing problem that you can’t seem to solve together, counseling can help.
Technical: Are you sure you’ve been doing things correctly? Do you know how to foreplay, fantasize, and what arouses you? If you find you’ve never been in the mood, it’s possible you could do with some more information about how to warm yourself up, what turns you on, and suggestions of what does the trick for many other women out there. Self-help books, videos, and sex educators abound for your enlightenment.
Attraction: Sometimes you may just not be feeling attracted or attractive. If something about your partner is turning you off in some way, or just not turning you on, and you become aware of it, there are lots of ways to recapture the magic. Likewise, if you’re not feeling attractive yourself- physically or otherwise, you may feel self-conscious or uptight. Turn the spotlight on what’s beautiful about you both- accentuate the positive- in mind and body, use all your senses to trigger that dopamine in your brain.
Most healthy adults are capable of getting in the mood and experiencing sexual pleasure with someone special to them, even if it requires a little outside intervention. Sexual problems – big and small, are far more common than most people realize; they have their own category of real diagnoses, with fancy names like dyspareunia and anorgasmia, and there are effective treatments out there. Whether the obstacle is physiological or technical, relationship based or emotional, or a combination thereof, there is a smorgasbord of ways to (re)ignite your libido. So don’t despair; search your body, mind, and soul for the cause, then get to work. Whatever you do, don’t brush the problem under the rug; it’s too important and will end up causing more problems. Whether you talk it out, read up, or go for help, you and your loved one will definitely be glad you did!
Are you one of those people who don’t like to be touched? Do you get a little queasy when someone moves in for a hug? Does the idea of exchanging body fluids with another human sound anything but romantic? Then you, my friend, are probably among the “sexually squeamish”. While joking about “close talkers” and “annoying, huggy types” could have some comedic value, when you’re trying to have an intimate relationship, this kind of brain wiring can be pretty unfunny.
The problem with being touch-awkward in a relationship with someone who isn’t, is that regardless of what happens, someone feels uncomfortable. If you’re forcing yourself to be physical for the sake of your partner and the relationship, you may feel unhappy. If you avoid and delay physical intimacy, your partner will feel rejected, and you may feel guilty or defensive. So either way, someone will end up feeling yucky, and the relationship is likely to suffer.
There are a number of reasons why people become “don’t like touch” adults. Maybe they grew up in a home without much affection or physical signs of love. On the other hand, sometimes they were smothered by too much of it. Sometimes there was trauma that resulted in an overprotectiveness of body, boundaries, and self. Often, people don’t feel comfortable in or about their bodies and/or their sexuality, and become shameful, shy or self-conscious about sharing them. There could be a neurological, medical, kinesthetic, psychological, or sensory integration issue at work. And sometimes, there is no discernable reason. If you’re ready tackle this, it may be worth asking yourself why and how you are this way? Spend a little time thinking or writing, to see if you can pinpoint a source. For example, one woman remembers as a child, not trusting her own “touch instincts”, worrying that she might impulsively touch someone in an inappropriate way, and so she learned to over-inhibit and keep a safe distance. Another had a very needy sister, who always took a little more than she wanted to give, emotionally and in the way of affection, so she became guarded with sharing herself with others. Some men were mocked for being demonstrative as boys, and so they too, “re-train to restrain”.
Whatever the original cause, the result can become a source of relationship problems, and end up with both parties feeling dissatisfied and frustrated. The exercises below are designed for someone who is uncomfortable with any or certain types of touch, and would like to begin to develop a taste for it. If you find that the idea of even trying to enjoy sexual touch upsets you, then you may not be ready to do this work. If you would like to begin to address your distaste in that case, you could begin by exploring it verbally, with your partner and/or a therapist. Often people who are so opposed to touch that they can’t even think about trying to work on it, may even have a problem with verbal vulnerability and openness, so working on the emotional part would be a smaller, easier first step.
Like Kids in a Pool
An analogy I like to use in describing differences in adjustment to becoming sexually active, is children in a swimming pool. There are some children who see the pool, get excited, do a running jump, and cannonball right in. Their heads pop up and they yell “woo! That’s cold!” and then swim around having a great time. Still others may walk in, one step at a time, letting their bodies adjust to the water every few inches, and then they too, are soon swimming and laughing. Another type dips her toe in, then pulls out saying “it’s too cold”. She may keep dipping, more and more, slowly, slowly, giggling nervously, until finally she too in acclimated. There are still others who just sit with their legs dangling, never venturing in, and others who prefer to just sun, and finally, some that won’t even put on a bathing suit. In becoming sexually active, there are some who take to sensual touch “like a fish to water”. “Where has this been all my life?!” is how they feel. Others take incremental steps, slowly “rounding the bases” with anticipation, and then enjoy. There are still more who giggle and fret, as they dabble gingerly, even awkwardly, into the world of adult intimacy. And finally, there are the fearful ones. Ones who feel no interest, or paralyzing fear. (Those are the ones who often end up in my office.)
This tendency often partners with a profound anxiety, with thoughts like: “what’s wrong with me? Why does everyone else seem to love this, and I can’t stand it, or would be happy without it?” These thoughts give way to others like: “Maybe I’m just not attracted? Am I broken? Will my partner leave me? Am I crazy?” These “catastrophizing thoughts” then make the problem worse, because- who can relax and enjoy when they think they’re crazy?
There is hope. Many touch-compromised adults have learned to acquire a taste for affection and sensuality. The exercises suggested here are not a substitute for competent therapy, for those who need it, but they are good supplements.
Exercise #1: Claim and Own Your Body
Many women don’t realize how much time and mental energy we spending internally criticizing, rejecting, or even hating our own bodies. From a young age, we hear older women talking about proportions, weight, flab, diets, clothing, exercise, in ways that denigrate their status quo. Women who feel they need distance from touch are often particularly protective and/or self-conscious about their bodies. Even the rare women who do naturally meet society’s unrealistic standard for women’s bodies sometimes feel awkward- because of all the attention this attracts. This exercise is a way to reprogram our body-self relationship away from shame and towards acceptance. This can be done while dressed, or in the nude. Some folks like to do it in the shower, under your blanket, or in front of a mirror, but you will probably want privacy either way. You may feel a little strange or self-conscious when trying this exercise. But if you stick with it, you might be glad you did. Close your eyes, and take a moment to just focus on the feeling of being inside your skin. Gently rub your hands over each other and think, or whisper: “These are my hands”. Pause another moment, and think your own positive thought about your hands. It can be a “thank you” for all that your hands enable you to do. It can be “I like my hands, my fingers, my palms.” Any positive focus to pay tribute to your hands will do. Stay away from any critical or judging thoughts. If you find them intruding, gently guide your mind toward calm, open, accepting thoughts. [For example, if a thought occurs such as: “my fingers are short and stubby” or “my nails are chipped”, then just correct it, and say: “no, I’m not here to criticize right now. I’m here to be kind to my body. These are my healthy hands. They do a lot for me, and now I’m just going to feel and accept them.”] Then move your hands up your arms, then shoulders, and do the same. If you have the time and patience, and this feels good, then please take a moment to linger over each part of your body as you gently caress or massage it. Feel your hand on your skin, and then your skin on your hand, so that you’re almost interacting with yourself. Try to keep your mind and thoughts focused on what you’re doing, not to let them wander away from this moment and sensation. Acknowledge the comfort of knowing that each part of you is yours, that it serves you and protects you. That it has beauty and value, regardless of its size or texture. Run your fingers through your hair, over your scalp. Feel the softness. Let your hands circle your neck, your chin, and ears. Caress your own cheeks, the way you would a small child’s. Make circular motions around your temples and forehead, noting the billions of neurons working faithfully below that allow you to think, speak, feel, move. Touch your eyelids, eyebrows, and dwell for a moment on the miracle of sight. The capacity to take in beauty, to look into someone else’s eyes. All the while softly chanting words like: this is my soft, wavy, hair. Thank you for the gift of hearing- music, laughter, voices. Touch your lips, think about the gift of speech, the delicious tastes of food and drink, a soft kiss. Keep moving down your body, feeling, focusing, enjoying, and whispering affirming words to all your parts. Don’t rush, stay in the moment, and allow whatever feelings come to wash over you. This can be a powerful exercise in claiming, appreciating, and getting in touch with our bodies. The harder it is for you to relax and stay focused, the more likely it is that this is something that would benefit you!
Exercise # 2: Be a Preschooler
We all process sensory experience in our own ways. That means we have our own feelings and ways of relating to stimulation through the five senses. Some love avocado, and others won’t touch it. Salmon and tomatoes are other foods that have strong sensory triggers. Cashmere is a luxury fabric for some, and intolerably “itchy” for others. How do you feel about sitting in bubble bath? Making snowballs? The hot sun on your face? Loud music? Getting a manicure? Abstract art? The smell of leather? Or Pine? The world is full of thousands of sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and textures. Some people love biting into a popsicle and others get the chills just reading this sentence. If you are uncomfortable with touch, it may be time to pay a little more attention to your sensory experience. Occupational therapists do this with young kids who need help feeling comfortable in their skin. Explore the world consciously through your senses. Keep a sensory journal of different things you discover that feel, smell, taste, look, or sound nice to you. Try a new food, or a new type of music, sniff some perfume samples, model clay, scroll through paintings, photos, home interiors, and find your taste in art- as you do all this, realize that you are opening up your mind and body to much pleasure that the world has to offer. When you are with your partner, play with all these types of stimulation, and incorporate different types of touch.
Exercise #3: Three Lists
The next assignment is more relationship oriented. Sit down, and make a list of what types of closeness and connection feel good to you. It doesn’t have to include only physical expressions, and they certainly don’t need to be sexual. But thinking about and listing modes of connection that are meaningful, comfortable, or pleasurable for you, is a good way to warm up the intimacy muscles. Do you enjoy talking on the phone? Cooking or eating together? Watching TV? Shopping? Exercise? Games? Museums? Are there any forms of touch at all that elicit a happy response from you- a massage? The chills? A high five? A stroke on the cheek? A playful slap? How about a dry kiss- is that pushing it too far?
The next step is to make a list of forms of intimacy that are not necessarily pleasant for you, but tolerable. For example, some people say they don’t need hugs, but they don’t mind them either. Ditto on activities and conversation topics. This is your “stretch zone”. You can experiment by doing something from your first list, then immediately adding something from your second list, either simultaneously or alternating. The idea is to train your brain to associate the neutral act with the pleasant one, in order to expand your repertoire of enjoyable intimate activities. For example: Let’s say you enjoy having your partner rub your shoulders, and you don’t care either way if he gently kisses your cheek. You could have him rub your shoulders while occasionally kissing your cheek, so that the kissing becomes incorporated into the relaxed, happy feeling of the shoulder rub. Eventually, the kissing may start to feel good on its own.
Your third list is the acts that generate some form of discomfort. Realize that these lists are very subjective. Some people love to be tickled, others can’t stand it. Licking is another sexual act which some find arousing and others find disgusting. But your partner won’t know your preferences unless you know and communicate them. Realize, as well, that most of us are not entirely consistent in our tastes either. An act that might feel wonderful in the moment one day may feel wrong another time, so communication is really critical in letting your spouse know how you’re feeling, and guiding him toward your pleasure points. If he really cares for you, he will want to know. But if there are some types of interaction- verbal or physical that you always dislike, they should go on this list, and your spouse will know this is your “no go zone”. Once you know that he knows that this stuff is off limits, and that he will respect those boundaries, you should begin to feel safer and more relaxed when he is in your personal space. If you find it comforting, you could even ask him to ask you before he tries something new, or takes the touch deeper, so that you can agree, adjust, or redirect him. Even that idea is subjective; some women like narration during touch; others find it distracting or off-putting. You won’t know until you try. Some people like to discuss, prepare, even schedule times of intimate play. They find it comforting to be able to anticipate it. If you are one of those people, let your partner know that you don’t want to be taken by surprise, that spontaneity doesn’t work for you at this point in time. He may appreciate knowing that he can “ask you out” on a sensual date in advance, know where you’re at, and give you both time to look forward to it. Alternatively, some would find this anxiety inducing- they don’t want to commit in advance and then feel obligated. Neither way is right or wrong, it’s a matter of taste. So discuss, experiment, and then reassess from time to time to see what’s working for you.
Exercise #4: Involve Your Brain
An interesting thing about humans is that we’re not always the best predictors at what we’re going to like. So often, we look forward to an event, only to be disappointed in the reality. Or we dread an experience, only to find ourselves pleasantly surprised by how it all turns out. Particularly because sensual and sexual pleasurehave little or no basis in anything logical, often the only way to know how we’re going to feel is trial and error. And there’s nothing wrong with that. BUT- we have another gauge that can help navigate this, and it’s called: imagination. Many people develop their own inner world of fantasy and excitement by reading, watching, or adapting thoughts and scenes from other people’s minds. While excessive and inappropriate use of pornographic or violent materials is generally discouraged, judicious exploration of romantic fantasy and erotica is often just what the doctor ordered to get the hormones moving. Often, by reading or watching the (fictitious) exploits of the sexually uninhibited, you can find our own libido, and get ideas for what could turn you on- either just by thinking about it, or through imitation and role play. Humans are impressionable and social creatures; advertising is so lucrative because we know- through research and common sense, that what we see, we tend to want and emulate. Much like fine wine, sexual pleasure can be an acquired taste. So exposing ourselves to the sort of pleasure we want to learn to enjoy is a potent avenue to getting there. The power of suggestion can’t be underrated.
The first step in transitioning from someone who is sexually squeamish into someone who embraces sexuality is knowing that it can be done, and deciding to try. Having a partner who is patient and understanding makes it a lot easier, and working with a professional can also make a significant difference. Take a shot at these exercises, and you may be surprised at what you learn about yourself. Enjoy the journey!
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