LMFT Therapy for Individuals or Couples
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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