Blog by Miriam

Sex Therapy 101

The people have spoken! It was clear from my last survey that you guys want to read more blogs about sex, and specifically about an unsatisfying, lack-of-intimacy kind of sex life. So, here you go. Part 1 in a 6-part series.

Intimacy Problems in Marriage

Part I: Bad Sex Does Not Lead to Good Sex

Are you having sex with your spouse but finding it to be a monumental task trying to get her to be interested? Are you finding yourself constantly pursuing her and almost begging for sex? Maybe you feel it’s the only way you’ll ever even have sex. Maybe you’re afraid of where this could lead for the two of you. Is she complaining to you about a lack of intimacy and suggesting that if she could feel close to you she might want sex more? Maybe you’ve heard her and tried to increase intimacy, but it still doesn’t change the amount of sex you’re having with each other.

I recently asked a husband who was struggling with intimacy problems in his marriage, “Which kind of sex would you prefer: really great sex once a month, or the unsatisfying sex you’ve been having once a week?” When he didn’t hesitate to answer that he’d rather have the unsatisfying weekly sex, I asked him why. His answer was, “Well, because it has to get better, right?! It’s our only chance!”

He was more than aware of her lack of interest in sex, and he was constantly making moves to try to get her to be interested. From “being nice,” to doing dishes, to bathing the children every night after work, and even to the moves he’d make during sex, he was always thinking of the next time they’d be having sex and what it would take to get her there. And he really thought that bad sex was going to somehow lead to good sex.

When I suggested that he wasn’t going to have good sex until he asked for it, he was perplexed. He thought he’d been asking for good sex, even begging for it all the time. But I asked him, “What would compel your wife to give you good sex if you’re willing to settle for the crap…even beg for it?”

Many spouses in this man’s position will react to this and say that they will never initiate sex again and leave it all up to their spouse. But this is more of the same kind of behavior. It’s reactionary. Just like his constant pursuit of his wife.

Good sex is less reactionary and more dignified. In other words, one’s dignity is in tact. Dignity, in close emotional proximity to our spouses, is sexy. When we’re less needy, we’re more attractive. I’m not saying your wife is going to jump you if you were to develop more of a sense of dignity. I’m not saying that you will ever get the frequency of sex you believe is essential. But if you can work on that dignity thing, you’ll be a lot closer to a more satisfying sex life than you are now.

Sex therapy can help with this and with taking it to the next level. What I’ve described here is simple, conceptually, but not so easy to accomplish. It’s not a matter of changing or “behaving” for a few weeks (or for those of you with real stamina, it’s not about “behaving” for years). It’s about real and sustainable change. Stay tuned for the next post in a couple of weeks about his wife’s position and the possibility of change on her part.

Belonging in Marriage

Ed Wilson, Harvard professor, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of On Human Nature, was fascinated with ant colonies from a young age. It was enough of an interest for him as a boy that he continued it over the course of his long, successful career as an entomologist.
He was most intrigued by the similarities between ant societies and human societies. One of the things Dr. Wilson believes, after his many long years of thought and study, is that our two species share the same biological drive to be connected, to be a part of, to belong. He believes both ant (16 species of them) and human evolution took a major turn when each developed the DNA that made us utterly and irrevocably, emotionally dependent on each other—to our families, our tribes (and yes, ants have families and tribes and are “emotionally” or instinctively dependent on each other). When this occurred, when we became more emotionally tied to one another across generations, both humans and ants began to thrive and to multiply exponentially.

Belongingtcrn400_hi copy

So, what does this have to do with you and your marriage? That emotional or instinctual connectedness that developed thousands of years ago is part of not only what made us produce offspring by the billions, but also what made us a little too focused on each other…with too much, and at the same time, too little expectation of each other.
We come into marriage with highly romantic expectations of our spouses (you-complete-me/I-complete-you), which of course doesn’t pan out. So, we try really hard to make it pan out. Which, of course, usually leads to trying to get our spouses to change…to listen better, to understand, to be more loving, to see us as equals, and on and on. When that doesn’t work, our high expectations turn to low expectations. We expect them to fail us. Let the blame game begin.
While this process is terribly painful and feels “unhealthy” and like something is wrong, perhaps it would be helpful to remember that the heart of the issue has more to do with our instinctual focus on other rather than on self. We are more tied to our evolutionary history than we really know.
But how to we turn this focus on other into something else that might lead to a greater sense of belonging?

The “I” Position: A Bastardized Concept

I’m sure most of my readers have heard of the communication technique known as the “I” statement. It’s a tool by which the speaker uses the word “I” rather than “you” to work out a conflict. Here’s a great (and funny) example of how this technique falls apart: This is 40
The original concept known as the “I” position, has unfortunately been bastardized into the “I” statement. I say bastardized because most people don’t know where the idea originally came from…they don’t know the father of the idea…and it’s hard to really understand the concept if you don’t know where it came from. If you’d like to learn more about the man who observed that developing your “I” position (a.k.a. maturing emotionally) is a powerful and more effective way to solve problems, you can go here.
The “I” position is the idea that despite what difficulties your spouse (or son or daughter, mother or father) is causing you, you can learn to better manage your reaction to it. You can work on ways to react less emotionally, and more empowered. This doesn’t mean talking yourself out of what you think your spouse is doing. It just means doing something different with your self in response. When family relationships are troubled, developing your self (your “I” position) is your best bet for developing a greater sense of belonging.


So, instead of coming from here: You are making me miserable…or…If you would just listen…or…I just need you to understand me better… or Can’t you give me some space?! Consider coming from here: I am miserable, and I think my reactions to you might be a part of my misery…or…I wonder if I stopped taking so much responsibility for your feelings, I might start acting a little better…or…Ya know, I know you’re a good person, and I know you have a point of view that’s is legitimate, and I’m not sure I really understand it. Will you tell me again what you think about X, so I can try to understand. I’m going to try to listen and not react so much.
As Michael J. Fox once said (and I’m paraphrasing here)…the key to a good marriage is to keep your fights clean and your sex dirty.

Belonging is not romantic.

I think it’s helpful to think of belonging as biological rather than romantic. I mean, I get it. Feeling like you belong to someone is pretty darn amazing. I want someone to think my spindly legs are all that and that my bulging thorax is just beyond! But being unrealistic about our expectations of what belonging is supposed to be and how it is supposed to happen leads to low expectations and resentment and bitterness. Try approaching it more objectively, like it’s a project you want to use to learn more about yourself and your spouse (or any other family member), the easy-to-learn as well as the difficult. Try developing your “I” position. It won’t happen in a vacuum.
The hope is that we can come alongside each other and hold hands as we face our relationship difficulties separately from our loved (or not-so-loved) ones. Together and separate…at the same time.
Where do you belong? With whom do you belong? If you’re struggling with the answer or if you know exactly where you belong I’d love to hear from you. How did you cultivate that sense of belonging? What do you think goes wrong when you are attempting to connect?

The Space Between

And if I’ve built this fortress around your heart

Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire

Then let me build a bridge

For I cannot fill the chasm

And let me set the battlements on fire


-Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart


A husband came to me several years ago, let’s call him John, having been sent to therapy by his wife. The wife, let’s call her Jan, had had an I-am-not-doing-this-any-more moment and demanded he either seek therapy or they divorce. John had spent their marriage working more than spending time with the family. He finally heard Jan and her distress, and he embarked on a mission to try to “make up for” all the years of distance and neglect. But all his efforts to make her feel loved ironically made her feel like she needed space, and it was starting to feel more and more like Jan had one foot out the door. John grew beside himself with fear and anger…and confusion. Hadn’t she asked for more closeness? Why did she keep saying she needed space?

Flying McCoy's

Flying McCoy’s

Negotiating Space in Tight Quarters

I remember, a long, long…long time ago, when I lived in a dorm with a roommate. How did the two of us live together peacefully, even joyfully, in such a small space? And I also remember when my then boyfriend (now husband) and I first moved in together, how tight his small apartment felt to me, even though it was at least quadruple the size of my old dorm room. What was the difference between these two “spaces”—between these two relationships? Why did one feel so roomy while the other felt so tight? What was the dilemma that John and Jan were struggling with? Did the relationship need closeness as Jan had initially requested, or did it need space?

Space vs. Connection?

The question of either space OR connection is actually a false dichotomy, a question that makes you feel like you have to pick one or the other. But when it comes to emotional space and emotional connection, the two are utterly intertwined. A meaningful connection is spacious. It feels like you and your spouse can respect each other as individuals even when you see (and feel) each other’s flaws. There is a measure of peace that descends when people can even begin to accept life as it has presented itself to them…flawed, full of wish-I-hadn’t of’s, and infinitely complicated and twisted and curious. This kind of peace leads to more spacious connections over time.

John had been over doing it, trying to force a connection in tight quarters…in a space that was filled up with anger, resentment, hurt, and longing. It was going to require much more patience and time than he’d thought. It was going to require that he grow.

4 Tips for The Space Between

  1. Get centered…calm down The way John put it after a few weeks in therapy was that he needed to stop “catastrophizing”—to stop filling any space between them with anxious reassurances and fear. John had to learn to stop taking Jan’s every silence, every angry word, every criticism as the end of the world. Yes, he had a serious issue in his relationship, but his reactions to every problem or bit of tension between them made the issues feel even more unworkable…even though the only unworkable issue was the anxious bouncing off of one another. The actual issues were quite resolvable.
  2. Connect with your family In addition to his marriage, John had also spent years too busy to spend time with his family (his parents and brothers). His father was more than tough on him growing up, and his mother’s passivity was overwhelmingly frustrating. The space between them was full of judgment and fear. But in his distress with his wife, he reached out to them for help. He was surprised to find his parents’ open arms. He was even more surprised to discover how reconnecting with them was adding to his sense of inner calm and sense of himself. Open-arms isn’t always the response, of course, but it occurs more often than people suspect. As John continued his work, he continued to be surprised by what he learned about himself by talking with his parents and brothers more regularly.
  3. Learn the difference between a distant connection and spacious one. Both distance and space are forms of connection. Distance is an intense and emotionally reactive connection. It says GET-AWAY-FROM-ME in such a way that invites the space between to be filled with anger, resentment, and hatred. You may feel lonely, but at the same time you can’t think of much else, and the tension (tense connection) can be cut with a knife. Space, on the other hand, is a calm, quiet connectedness that doesn’t try to force anything. It recognizes the intensity (pain, anger, etc.), respects it, but isn’t controlled by it. Space is often about a clear decision to wait until things are calmer to delve into important topics. Space can handle tough emotions without thinking the end of the world is coming, while distancing is an automatic reaction to move away from pain. Space builds a bridge while distance creates a deeper chasm.
  4. Have a look at Bowen Theory For those of you who are real nerds about this kind of thing, have a look at Bowen Theory if you haven’t already. John learned to use the theory to make more accurate and neutral observations of his marriage, his parents, and himself. He learned to create spacious connections with his mother in particular. Instead of automatically reacting to her passivity he learned to be curious about her. This translated to his marriage slowly but surely over the course of a couple of years.

Space in a relationship isn’t full of anything except peace…which leads to a feeling of fullness. While distance is tense or vacant, space is relaxed. Space creates an atmosphere where people can share themselves and where they can receive and give generously.

Thanks again for reading the blog.