LMFT Therapy for Individuals or Couples
In working with couples on their sexual relationships, an issue that arises frequently is the challenge of sex and timing. Sometimes the difficulty is making time to be intimate amid busy life schedules. Other times, the problem lies in miscommunications or confusion about who was or wasn’t initiating or resisting a sexual overture. In most marriages, there is one party who is more interested in sex than the other, in frequency, length, or style. Therefore, there is an issue of trying to balance the needs of two people. In these and other cases, I often bring up the idea of scheduling specific nights of the week for sexual activity. People tend to have strong reactions to this idea- both positive and negative. I’d like to go through some of the pros and cons of this exercise, to help readers evaluate whether it may be a technique that could be helpful in their marriages. [While both men and women can and do feel more desire than a spouse, for simplicity’s sake, I will use the man as the stronger libido partner, since that is what I tend to see more frequently in my practice]:
The immediate and number one objection people have to set “sex nights” is that it eliminates the element of spontaneity, and doesn’t feel “natural”. Many people like to know that sex is a possibility at any time. Another concern is that it could create extra pressure and performance anxiety on the scheduled night for both parties. Additionally, spouses may feel resistance to the idea that they may need to “say no” to themselves on a night when they are in the mood, but sex is not on the schedule. They might worry about whether one may neglect the other on a night that is definitely off limits for sex. They also inevitably question what happens if there is something comes up on that night that needs to delay the sex, (such as a medical emergency, a late wedding or dinner), or if someone really wants to “break the rule”. Clearly, the idea of premeditated, prescribed sex rubs some people the wrong way.
For the less enthused partner, clarity about what is “expected” takes a lot of the pressure off the table for the other nights. She then feels free to enjoy chatting, cuddling, and bonding without wondering “where this is leading” or if he’s “only doing this to get to sex”. For the partner who has stronger desire, this guarantees at least a specific amount of weekly sexual activity, ensuring that he will not be open-endedly deprived, or limited to the whims and moods of his spouse. Another benefit is that it helps avoid confusion and ambiguity. So often, a couple builds mutual resentment or even anger, based on mixed messages. “I thought it was a given that we were going to have sex tonight, and then she got on the phone with her sister for two hours!” or: “I thought it was obvious from how late we went to bed last night, that I would be too tired tonight!” There is also usually discomfort to discuss sexual hopes and intentions, on any given day or in general. One may begin to flirt or fondle with the simple intent to play, while the other interprets it as a green light to go full speed ahead. Depending on which direction it takes, someone usually ends up feeling unhappy. If they ended up having sex when she didn’t really want to, she may feel used and resentful. If they ended up not, he may feel deprived and frustrated. And a marriage is only as strong as the less happy spouse. Other times, one spouse may have felt he requested a sexual date, while the other completely misheard, and then went to sleep right away, leaving her partner feeling rejected. A scheduled sex night provides the opportunity for preparation. They can groom themselves, mentally and physically during the day, plan the evening, accordingly to clear time and create favorable and relaxing ambience to maximize the experience. One more important advantage is that when couples know and anticipate a sexual rendezvous, it gives them an easier opportunity to communicate in advance about any feedback or requests they may have to improve their sexual play, rather than just “playing it by” ear and guessing, which is more common, and less effective.
For these reasons, I am generally in favor of discussing and exploring this exercise as a possibility. Some couples ask how strict the rule needs to be. I say that depends on the couple. If someone really needs to feel “safe” from being solicited on certain nights for a while, I would say they should try to stick with the program. On the other hand, if it’s more about making sure not too much time lapses between sexual encounters, but no one has a strong aversion, then laxity won’t do much harm. For the most part, I look at this idea as experimental for each couple, and as a temporary arrangement. Once the couple feels that the sexual relationship has reached a stability and equilibrium that’s comfortable for both, they can always move back to sex on a more organic, “as wanted” basis. On the other hand, if it’s advantageous for them, they know that if they run into the problem in the future, they can always go back to this tool to tune things up again.
A narrative is a story. Each of our lives could be viewed as a very long story. The narrative approach focuses on this model, and the idea that the more we realize that we are the authors of our life stories, the more power we have to affect the plot, the characters, the settings, and the mood, to create the life stories we want to have.
Almost all of our thoughts and relationships are comprised of words. Most of us think and speak similarly to the way we perform other instinctual functions- mostly automatically. We inhale and exhale because that is what our respiratory systems are programmed to do. We smile when we're happy (or friendly) and we cry when we're sad or touched. And we tend to generally think and say the words that pop into our heads in given situations and conversations.
Sometimes this instinctive narrating works perfectly well. We kind of rely on our ability to think and speak on autopilot, or "flow", because if we didn't, we would be constantly analyzing and obsessing about our thoughts and words. We are homo sapiens- which means we think a lot. But sometimes thinking, like speaking, is productive, and at other times it can get us into trouble. This is where the narrative approach comes in.
Whether we're working on our own internal dialogue, or communication within a relationship, even preschoolers know that often "it's not only what you say, but how you say it." By learning to attend to the words in our minds and interpersonal connections, we open up endless possibility to edit those words to our advantage.
Narrative therapy is the process by which we use words as tools to effect meaningful change. There are many fascinating and powerful ways that narrative therapists use language to enhance quality of life and relationships, and I hope to explore them in subsequent articles.
Here is a simple example; a tool I call "inverting the but statement":
Sharon gets very down on herself because she feels she is not a good homemaker. This is rough, because at the moment, she is a full time mother of young children. She tells me: "I love my kids so much, we have a great time time together- reading, playing, baking. But then I put them to bed, and I look around the house, and I think: I am such a slob- my house looks like a disaster zone. I would be mortified for someone to see it like this- even my own husband!"
There is a lot of negativity in Sharon's example of self-talk, and much we could do to edit it. But we choose the main idea for now, and we paraphrase:
"So, you feel that you're a loving and creative mom, but the house is messy and unpresentable."
We then invert the sentence:
"The house is often messy and unpresentable, but the kids are having a wonderful childhood."
The only real difference between the two compound sentences is the order of the segments around the word "but". This seemingly subtle syntactic shift alters the feeling of the sentence. Instead of minimizing the great job Sharon is doing as a mom, and focusing on the sorry state of the house, we moved to mentioning the messy house as a passing detail, but focusing on her quality parenting. Sharon has a tendency to be hard on herself in this way, discounting her strengths and successes, and dwelling on her insecurities and flaws. So we discussed trying to be aware, and noting when she finds herself thinking or speaking this way, and then consciously editing. She decided to try journaling other examples where she would practice reversing the "but" in her thoughts and self-expression.
Here is another example she shared the following week:
"I was watching my husband sleep, and thinking that I wished we'd made more time to talk that night. I found myself thinking: 'We really care so deeply for one another, but often we let days go by without any substantial sharing.' It made me sad, and I started to feel guilty about not investing enough in my marriage. But I caught myself, and changed it to: 'Life can be so full and busy, that sometimes days go by without us having a chance to really sit down and talk, and yet, we both know with all our hearts how deeply we care for one another.'"
Sharon was able to move her focus away from deficiency and toward the more favorable feature of their reality. She found that when she did this mindfully, she was able to feel the difference in the way the new sentence made her feel.
We did discuss a legitimate question she had which was:
"But what if I want to work on keeping the house cleaner, or making an effort to spend more time talking with my husband? I don't know if I want to just dismiss or gloss over problems. Isn't it worthwhile to try and improve these things?"
I agreed with her; it's not helpful to ignore deficiencies. But we noticed that in the past, when she would think in this critical way about them, it didn't move her to improve; it moved her to wallow. By acknowledging deficiencies as minor, external glitches in the framework of a generally favorable context, she could then move towards addressing the problems for a more empowered, solution-oriented perspective, such as the following:
"I'd like to invest some time and effort into learning how to run my home more efficiently, but while I do, at least I know my children are enjoying a rich childhood full of love and play."
"My husband and I have a special connection, but we have busy schedules, so I'd like to be more proactive about scheduling time to sit down together and catch up regularly."
Notice that in these cases:
1. She transformed even the negative thought into a constructive goal.
2. Since both thoughts are productive, the order of the sentences wouldn't matter so much.
This is the narrative approach: We are the author of our lives. The words that our minds select to narrate our impressions, our expressions, our observations, assessments, goals - those words will influence the way we feel, the way we speak, the way we act. They will generate a sense of helplessness or empowerment, despair or hope, stuntedness or creativity. While we can't control everything that happens outside our minds and hearts, we can assume ownership of our thoughts, our words, our choices. And we can do this one word at a time. So that our life story becomes a purposeful one of transcendence, insight, and personal growth.
Debbie slumped in her chair in a cloud of defeat. “I really do love my husband, and I think he’s handsome, too, but I’m just not a sexual person. I never have been. I’ve always been more comfortable dressed than exposed. I’ve never particularly craved physical touch. And I was never terribly interested in romantic stories or movies. I’m just not that kind of woman, and I’m not sure if that will ever change.”
There are many different variations of Debbie’s self-assessment. The implied assumption is that, somehow, we are all either “sexual” or “not.”
I would suggest that a person’s sexuality* is not “fixed” naturally; it’s something that can be cultivated over time and with effort. Carol Douek wrote a wonderful book called Mindset, in which she describes the difference between believing that desirable traits such as intelligence are set and predetermined vs believing that they have elasticity. She quotes compelling research supporting the idea that people who believe in growth are most likely to make meaningful efforts and achieve more.
Some people have the good fortune to be naturally gifted in a particular area, in a way that’s obvious:
“Sarah was practically born with ballet slippers on her feet…”
“The minute Michael discovered a football, he knew he’d found his calling..”
“Amy sat mesmerized through her first physics class, then devoured the textbook saying: ‘where have you been all my life?!’”
“He’s been singing since he was in diapers…”
Talents, hobbies, abilities are a phenomenon we almost take for granted. That there are areas of interest towards which some of us gravitate more than others is clear. There are some activities that are meant for those who have keen interest and ability, and others which all or most of us must gain some ability in order to function as adults. For example, not everyone needs to be a graceful dancer, but most of us would like to have social skills. Some examples of optional skills are: painting and baking, while some examples of more universally important skills are: reading and writing.
There is also an important difference between “talent” and “skill”, similar to the difference between “nature” and “nurture”. Talent is general seen as a natural inclination, a gift in a particular area. Skill is usually viewed as ability, acquired through training, education, and practice. Often those who possess innate talent develop are praised, enjoy their success, find pleasure, and develop an interest in their area of talent, and so they go on to train and become skilled as well.
Sometimes we hear of child prodigies who were “clearly born for this life”. Other time we hear of world renowned pros and experts who failed through school and early careers, who were told they would never amount to anything in their chosen fields. Sometimes success is foreshadowed, and other times it’s surprisingly or painstakingly acquired later on. Sometimes it’s natural and effortless, and other times it requires blood, sweat and tears.
It is my belief that sexual technique, confidence, pleasure, proficiency, and intimacy are abilities that can be cultivated, rather than fixed talents. And I have witnessed the transformation in couples who thought there was no hope. Yes, there are many individuals who are innately sexually inclined, and others who by nature are more inhibited. But sexual connection is the type of skill that is worth investing in; it can be a powerful tool to express and create intimacy in a loving relationship. Sex therapy and couples counseling are ways to obtain professional help in this area, but there is also much that can be achieved by just the couple, through communication, reading, and experimentation.
When a couple begins to openly discuss their sexual experience, there is vulnerability, and closeness, which itself can lead to improved physical intimacy. When they feel more in tune with each other’s thoughts, feelings, preferences, they feel safer, and more able to relax and try to new things, and to give each other loving feedback for further improvement. When a person who feels sexually inept begins to take an active role in educating herself, in owning her body, in exploring pleasure, in taking chances, she develops a curiosity and an excitement that fuels further growth.
When a couple moves from a place of sexual stagnation, avoidance, or frustration, to one of openness, curiosity, and exploration, they feel deeply gratified and bonded. So if you are someone who has been wondering whether you’ll ever enjoy your sexuality, please don’t give up. Call a professional, doctor, or counselor, or start reading and doing your own research, to find out more about the different ways that others like you have been able to achieve sexual joy.
Some people call it a “bucket list”- Something you keep meaning to do. I’ve always had a lot of thoughts- plans, ideas, even narratives. I like to share them; I’ve been teaching and writing consistently since college. And I keep meaning to organize my work- a column, a book, a blog, a video series- something…
A client recently told me that she shared her intent to begin blogging, with her sisters and mother, and was crushed at how dismissive and unsupportive they were. As we discussed their reactions, and hers, we discovered that perhaps it wasn’t that they didn’t think she could, as much as it was them questioning whether she should.
I like to write, and I’ve been writing for years. Ditto on public speaking. And somehow, I’ve managed to avoid, resist, dismiss, or delay being published or recorded. It’s not that I’m shy- at all. I’m pretty sure I know why- my ambivalence is whether it’s right.
I was raised to value discretion. My family, my community, my culture, my religious ideology, all view privacy as a priority. In a predominant culture that’s all about openness, self-disclosure, sharing, “putting yourself out there”, social media, and reality TV, my people have been swimming against the tide, and trying to retain our collective personal dignity and anonymity. My brain always agreed; we don’t need to put all our junk out there for the world to know, judge, consume, interpret, distort, apply, or repeat. I completely agree with that. It was my personality that presented the problem. While I’ve always sincerely admired- even envied, those naturally modest souls who “hate being the center of attention”, the patient, soft-spoken, understated folks, with their quiet dignity and grace, I honestly can’t relate. As a teen, I even occasionally tried to adopt the persona, so much did I covet this elusive gentility- but alas, I don’t have an understated cell in my body. How does one train herself to “hate being the center of attention” when her fantasies always involved the lead role in the play?
Particularly as a woman, I worried about being too aggressive, self-centered, loud, presumptuous, narcissistic, obnoxious, and worst of all: (gasp) wrong. I’m sure I have undoubtedly been all of those things at various times, and lived to tell the tale.
While I love and enjoy self-expression, and have channeled this penchant professionally, I’m reasonably comfortable with it in the moment, but memorializing myself for posterity- that gives even a big-mouth like me, pause. When I have occasion to reflect on words I’ve written or spoken with passion and conviction five, ten, fifteen years ago, I’m often struck by how differently I feel now. Other times, I’m moved by my own consistency over decades. Sometimes I even feel ashamed of how immature, dogmatic, underdeveloped, or misinformed I was. This fear of looking foolish- in my own future eyes, as much as the rest of the world’s, has been holding me back.
Another (unoriginal) obstacle I will have to overcome in order to blog, is perfectionistic procrastination. You know that feeling of not wanting to publish, or even to press send on an email, because “I just need to proofread it one more time” or “to sleep on it” or “to run it past a colleague”- Heaven forbid there’s a typo, a misspelled homophone (those actually do bother me), or an unpopular opinion.
But then, I grew up. I realized I kept waiting to be sure, to be confident, to be an adult. And one day I realized- I am a professional. My thoughts, opinions, and feelings are not more valid than they were when I was 20, nor less than they’ll be when I’m 60, and “if not now, then when”? "One who is ashamed won't learn." (Ethics of the Fathers) I realized it’s ok to share my thoughts as a process, rather than a product, a question rather than an answer, a journey rather than a destination, and collaboratively, rather than pedagogically. This paradigm shift has become a theme in both my professional work and personal weltanschauung.
[I feel inspired by people in my life who've chosen to put themselves out there and share their creativity. Some contemporary writers I have to thank for my newfound courage are: Brene Brown, Liz Gilbert, and Carol Dweck. (I hope to review their books individually in future posts.)]
So, thank you for joining me on my journey.
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