As a sex therapist, something I most often find is that, despite whatever problem has caused the client or the couple to seek my help, their sincere desire is to remain in the relationship.
While the relationship likely began as powerful bonding through sexual and emotional intimacy, over time something has been working beneath the surface to erode that bond. Distance has set in. In order to save the relationship, then, we must uncover the source of that erosion, and deal with it honestly and courageously.
Honesty, however, is not an easy thing to achieve. Many things conspire to divert us from confronting the truth about ourselves. How many times have we heard that we must avoid talking openly about politics, religion, and especially sex if we hope to maintain relationships with our families, our church community, or even our sexual partners? How often have men, in particular, been discouraged from speaking openly about their feelings, about their emotions around sex, or their secret fantasies?
Even the suggestion that we be honest about our desires brings up fear of rejection. If we step outside the accepted boundaries of our religion, we can be excommunicated. If we dare to speak openly about how we feel personally confined by certain gender stereotypes, fear of being shamed by friends or family can shut us down. Conditioned as we are, for instance, by cultural expectations that a man should be ready to engage in sex at any invitation, men can feel humiliated having to admit that access to their sexuality may depend on the situation. The avoidance of admitting and letting one’s intimate partners see this can create many avenues that inhibit male sexual arousal.
We are constantly put in the untenable position of being told that honesty and integrity are important values, and yet our institutions expect us to buckle under to their expectations and demands for “normalcy.” Consciously or unconsciously we have internalized these values. However, as the popular sex therapist and author, Dr. Chris Donaghue, has so eloquently put it in his book, Sex Outside the Lines, normal is not the goal.
Seldom have we been taught how to honestly confront our fears by honoring and negotiating each other’s differences, especially when it comes to sex. This, then, is the essential work—to build a foundation of confidence within ourselves to stand for who we are, to become authentic about our needs and desires, to learn how to speak about and to hear one another’s truths while remaining present, forgoing judgment, and even being grateful for their honesty.
It seems nearly incomprehensible to me that couples rarely have talked about their implicit assumptions around monogamy, or where the line in the sand is concerning each other’s behavior, or what one or the other may want to explore sexually. Someone may have found the courage to suggest something he’d like to try, but when it is rejected, there is no agreement as to when he might again bring up the subject. Instead, he never again approaches the subject, and may find himself in the awkward position of seeking another outlet for the desire, whether through porn or even infidelity. When, in couple’s therapy, he finally comes out and admits he still wants this, he may be met with, “Well, why didn’t you ask me again?” The rejection of the possibility of ever engaging in the hoped-for experience with the partner can have the unfortunate effect of adding fuel to the burning desire. Not being able to handle even the thought of wanting to know what one’s partner longs for creates a dynamic that can further erode the relationship. Dishonesty and fear of rejection truly are counterproductive, and must be dealt with if the relationship is to thrive.
Learning how to navigate these difficult differences, then, is key if couples want to stay in relationship. The first step is to build curiosity and conversation skills around what sexual health is. We must find ways around an individual’s or couple’s reticence to begin to address such emotionally charged issues, and establish a foundation for personal authenticity and honesty. Doing so fosters intimacy and understanding, and ultimately makes the relationship stronger.
Beginning the process of becoming authentic in our relationships is challenging and sometimes even frightening, but if we are willing to develop such skills, deeper and more rewarding intimacy is the reward.