Is there a pattern here?
“When was the last time you two had sex and was it satisfying?” Couples coming to me for the first time will be asked this question. I usually tell them that some therapists say that “if you fix the sex, the rest will follow,” and others say: “if you fix the (fill in the blank…communication, conflict resolution, intimacy, etc.) the sex will follow.” I say it doesn’t matter whether you start with sex or communication, the patterns that hinder connection play out in all of the areas of the relationship: how we talk, how we listen, how we fight, how we make-up, how we play together, how we navigate conflicts, how we manage money, and yes, how we experience pleasure, particularly sexually. It seems to me that the pattern is most easily identified in the sexual realm. Everyone seems to know what is and is not working for them sexually, whether or not they have shared this with their partner.
Fear gets in the way of desire
How willing are you to admit that the way that you respond to invitations to be intimate is accurately communicating how you feel about other ways that your partner approaches you? My hesitation to receive your bids for attention, physical connection, and pleasure are likely mirrored in how I feel about you and how I feel about me. When I feel unattractive, I am less likely to allow you to enjoy my body; I feel self-conscious and resistant. This is also true about my feelings of worth, competence, and self-esteem. When fear or anxiety is present, I am equally likely to respond defensively or passively. When I am irritated with you and unable to set that aside, I am not available to be tender, silly, or sexy.
Just say yes…
What would it be like for you to show up in your relationship with willingness? What does it cost you to say yes? Yes, I am available. Yes, I am interested. Yes, I am willing. Yes is about abundance, delight, and joy. Yes is a pleasure word. Consider taking no off the table. How does that change the way you approach virtually every interaction you have with your partner? Could you help me with…? Are you interested in…? Do you want to…? Will you take care of…? Are you available…? Whether we are talking about household tasks, parenting, and childcare, finances, or fun and adventures, the assurance of YES makes every query an invitation. Knowing that I will not be disappointed, alone, or ignored immediately changes the tenor of my request. My tone is lighter and easy going. My body language is receptive and welcoming. My attitude is confident and collaborative. My hope is that we will meet in the same energetic space of bounty, exuberance, and strength.
There are many reasons that we are hesitant to be unconditionally all-in with our partners, particularly sexually. What if you want me to do something I don’t like? What if I do it wrong? What if I am boring? What if I disappoint you? What if I am too tired, stressed, or out of sorts? What if I am having a hard time being present? So many things can go wrong if we approach each other with unspoken expectations and historical anticipation. The story I tell myself when you are not interested in me is that I am unattractive, inexperienced, too needy, high-maintenance, and too critical. Conversely, the story I tell myself about you is that you are demanding, controlling, disappointing, selfish, and pushy.
If it’s hysterical, it’s historical
If I am having a strong response to something you want or ask, chances are my feeling predates us. When your needs remind me of the ways that my needs were unmet as a child, I am immediately and unconsciously, transported back in time and the feeling that my needs will be unmet again plays out whether it is true or not. My real feeling is not always factually supported. But that does not prevent my emotions from hijacking my thinking and the situation becomes hysterically historical very quickly.
When this is the dance that plays out in our sex life, one or both of us is not going to be very satisfied. There are several ways that we communicate with each other that perpetuate a dance that does not work for either of us. If old emotional triggers show up unconsciously in this relationship, old behavioral responses are wired to be activated. For example, negative childhood messages about being sexual, sexy, flirtatious, provocative or simply expressing desire may pop-up when you least expect. Some sensed reminder triggers a feeling that is tied to shame or “being bad,” and, in a flash, desire is squashed, resistance rears up, and we are at an impasse. It only takes one person to change the dance steps for the dance to change.
When Mars and Venus are both in the room
Women are unfairly characterized as not wanting sex as much as men and using the “I have a headache” excuse to gently or defensively let their partners know “not tonight.” Men are generally expected to be the initiator in sexual liaisons and may suffer an emotional blow when their efforts are effectively rebuffed. The problem with all of this is how much of the communication goes unspoken. Why am I not available to be touched or to touch you? Is there something distracting me? Am I carrying something from earlier in the day into this moment? Am I worried, unable to get out of my head, feeling stressed, rushed, or pressure to perform? How do you feel when I affect disinterest or a lack of desire? Do you hear my resistance as an excuse? What story do you tell yourself about why I am not available? How do you respond to that now and next time?
The story I tell about me or you is very compelling
How does the way I respond to you sexually, my communication, my demonstration of trust in you, and my expression of vulnerability with you mirror my behavior around our disagreements, difficult topics, stressful situations, opportunities for fun, approaches to new adventures, decision making, finances, and frustrations? Do I take the time to be curious? To say what is really on my mind? Do I share my thoughts and feelings? Do I ask for what I want and am I curious about what you want? Or do I clam up and shut down? Does my failure to engage with you tell a story about our relationship or an enduring or temporary story about me?
This is what emotional maturity looks like
The only way that I see hope for deeply, consciously connecting with my partner is through communication, trust, and vulnerability. Most of us have not been taught how to do that with each other. That is not a failing, just a fact. If you have an inkling of how to show up completely emotionally educated, chances are you are not reading articles like this! The rest of us may have some skills coming into our relationships and then discover that our partner brings out the best and the worst in us. The worst moments are the most informative for relationship deepening and growth. Embrace them!
With Imago there is HOPE
Using Imago dialogue and other consciously connecting behaviors, we learn to create abundance, listen to our beloved, choose curiosity over fear and have the strength to not take personally things that are not ours to pick up. So, I ask you, when was the last time you had sex and was it satisfying on so many different levels? Can we talk about it?
Imago Center Resources:
Find an Imago Therapist to walk you through the hard conversations. Register for a workshop on learning connecting behaviors:
A New Way to Love: Oct 13, 20 and 27 for 4 hours on Capitol Hill. I will be there with my husband, ready to coach you and dancing the dance of connection. Learn more here.
Getting the Love You Want: September 7-8 with Caroline and Jason in Bethesda. A two-day weekend workshop that gets you started on the path of true connection. Learn more here.
Start Right, Stay Connected: A one-day weekend event for premarital couples. Oct 12 in Bethesda. Learn more here.