Blog by Miriam

Sex Therapy 101: You Cannot Force A Change

Online Counseling in Georgia

Serving couples in Roswell and the surrounding areas for 20 years.

Part 5 in a 6-Part Series

I’m on my soapbox again. But I know you guys like that, so here goes. No matter how much conventional sex therapy and marriage counseling try, it cannot open up the marital box, then shove in all the stuff-you’re-supposed-to-do-to-be-happy-together and expect to resolve a lack of intimacy or any other common relationship problem. You can’t insert a communication technique, a good-behavior-checklist, a step-by-step guide, or even regular sex and expect to bypass the emotional processes set forth by God, Yaweh, Allah, The Great Spirit, or the God of Thunder.

Are there communication strategies that can be helpful? Yes. Are there known and well-researched behaviors associated with having a warm, happy marriage? Yes! Is regular sex associated with long term, stable marriages? Probably! But couples can’t just adopt these behaviors and expect to achieve some kind of resolution to the complex emotional and intellectual problems in marriage. We are not automatons. If your husband starts having sex with you, but doesn’t really want to, you haven’t resolved anything. If your wife agrees she needs to listen better, but isn’t really interested in hearing what you have to say (again), then you haven’t really resolved anything. You’ve put a Band-Aid on it. Good as it may feel, it’s just a Band-Aid…and could possibly…no, most likely…will make things worse in the long run.

There is an unfolding that must take place. There is a long, unmercifully slow, emerging that must take place. The emergence of a self. A self that knows a little something about what they value most. About what they are willing to go through to achieve their most important goals. About how to get centered when faced with an emotional challenge.

Learning to Think Emotional-Process

One of the reasons communication techniques don’t work is because they are linear, and problems in marriage are dynamic, non-linear, and constantly in motion. Something emotional is going on. Something instinctive. Something bigger than the two of you. It’s hard to see without stepping back far enough to observe the evolutionary ebb and flow of things.

Learning to think in terms of emotional process can help you step back far enough to see more fully. And, unless you see more fully (you, not your therapist, not your mother, or anyone else), you are going to be missing the mark. Your thinking has to change. The way you process things has to change. Thinking in terms of emotional process is like those posters that were popular in the 80’s where, once you stared at them long enough, an entire 3-D image would pop out from nowhere. Seeing the 3-D image is like seeing in terms of emotional process.

No matter how much we might want your marriage difficulties to be simple and straightforward, they are 3-D. And unless you can see the full picture, you will be shooting in the dark.

For example, an overly simplistic definition of a common relationship problem is something along the lines of my-spouse-is-too-needy/insecure when it comes to sex. With that 2-D definition, the 2-D solution is to be careful with them, be sensitive to their needs, and tip-toe around them when they are moody. As most of you know, this isn’t terribly successful! Why? Because both the definition of the problem and its solution are missing a 3-D perspective. A 3-D perspective would be that the two of you are stuck in a reactive pattern, one’s reactivity feeding upon the others. With this more dimensional definition, you have options. You can change your part…your own reactive part.

In some ways this is a relief. You only have to be responsible for your own emotions and not your spouse’s! Can you think of ways this would also be more challenging?

More on Emotional Process

Emotional process in relationships is most often automatic, instinctual, and beyond our clear awareness. It is associated with the parts of our brain we have in common with other mammals. Emotional process in relationships is hypothesized, by some really smart people, to be the reason our brains evolved to be as large and complex as they are. It takes some serious grey matter to live in the kinds of complex social and familial groups we live in.

Distance

We can get caught in any combination of the following four emotional process patterns: conflict, triangles, over-/under-functioning, and distance. By far, I think the emotional process pattern of distance is ultimately the most vexing for couples. It underlies all of the others. I’ve described it in blog posts over the years in various ways. It’s the perplexing question of how do two people connect openly with each other when anxiety and stress are chronic, as is the case for most humans? I think it has a lot to do with understanding space vs. distance.

As you reflect on these ideas, remember from the last post: The most important question isn’t what-do-I-do. It’s how-do-I-think about any given marital difficulty I’m facing? People do a lot better when they start thinking and stop worrying so much about doing.

 

 

1

Sex Therapy 101: I don’t know how to fix your sex life

My least favorite question from clients working in sex therapy is the what-do-I-do-now question, because the reality is I don’t know. I don’t know how to fix your sex life, and I don’t like not knowing. I rather enjoy feeling like I know everything, and this question just reminds me that I don’t. So what are people paying me for? Answer to follow shortly…Read on.

In the last 3 blog posts in this series on sex therapy, I talked about

In this fourth installment, I’d like you to consider another idea, the most important idea regarding the lack of intimacy in your marriage: Asking what-do-I-do-now is the worst possible question you can ask…either of me or of yourself or of your spouse (or of the internet).

Why? Because it’s an anxious question, and anxious questions lead to anxious answers. (And there’s not much that’s sexy about anxiety!)

Instead of worrying about what to do, consider reflecting on what-do-I-think. Why would thinking be the most important thing you can do right now?

Because thinking is often the last thing we do when our sex lives are lacking. Most of the time we react. We get busy, feverishly trying to change something that we don’t really understand. (Or maybe we’ve done enough of that so we withdraw and give up.) And these kinds of anxious “solutions” usually make things worse.

Intimacy issues seem to function as a force of evolution, demanding over and over again that we either keep reacting emotionally or we find a way to step back, settle down, and think through our problems with a little perspective. (This paragraph, by the way, is one of the thoughts people begin to reflect upon that changes their sex lives…the idea that there are forces larger than the two of you…the idea that you are part of evolution which is WAY bigger than you…the idea that stepping back—not withdrawing—is more important and more effective than any list of 10-things-you-can-do-right-now-to-improve-your-sex-life from Cosmo Magazine.)

I’m not talking about ruminating or overthinking. I’m talking about reflection. Reflection has a little wiggle room in it for curiosity and creativity and not-having-all-the-answers-while-having-faith-that-the-problem-isn’t-set-in-concrete.

Nowhere is this kind of thinking more powerful than in our most important relationships. A lack of intimacy in marriage pushes and shoves and manhandles us into defining ourselves, into living what we believe, into taking a leadership role (yes leadership), rather than getting lost in begging or fixing or giving up (more ideas here in this paragraph for you to consider).

What-do-I-do is an anxious question. How-do-I-think is a calmer question. So is what-do-I-observe and what-does-leadership-mean-when-it-comes-to-our-lack-of-intimacy and in-what-ways-am-I-a-leader-here and how-do-I-define-leadership-at-home and what-do-I-believe-about-what-makes-a-good-sex-life and what-is-my-spouse’s-answer-to-that-question and when-I-get-upset-about-our-lack-of-intimacy-what-happens-to-this-thinking?

Behind these questions, by the way, is the understanding that you have time to figure some things out. You can take it slowly.

The bottom line is I really don’t know how to fix your sex life. All I can do is help you think about it differently, help you stop running into the same old thought loops (which are really just emotional reactions) that get you nowhere.

So, what are people paying me for? They are paying me to help them think more clearly, objectively. What they decide to do with the thinking is, of course, up to them. But change comes when people stop with the anxious focus on what-do-I-do.

And in the end, if you really have to DO something, as my granny used to say (no, not really):

 

http://

 

2

Intimacy Problems: Getting Connected

ONLINE MARRIAGE COUNSELING IN GEORGIA

Are you struggling with a lonely marriage? Have your marriage problems and life stresses gotten in the way of intimacy? Have your communication problems taken their toll on your marriage? Have you tried couples counseling or sex therapy and still find yourself stuck without direction? Maybe you’re afraid things aren’t going to improve. Perhaps you are deeply sad and full of longing for a meaningful connection.

The times when we are not feeling close are extremely painful. Many people experience grief during these times and may feel a sense of guilt, fear, anger, or a sense of a loss of self. It’s pretty important to feel these feelings, explore them, work to try to understand them, and never invalidate them. Relationship problems have a particular way of making us doubt ourselves, making us feel small and powerless. Gaining perspective on these emotions is challenging but important.

sextherapyshutterstock_362085584-copy

When Emotions Run High Couples Go Distant

How does a couple get connected when the intimacy problems seem insurmountable—when emotions are running too high to go deep? Within the question lies an answer of sorts. It is one of the most important truths about how intimate relationships really work. When emotions run high, people can’t get close and stay there. Perhaps this seems counterintuitive. I mean, isn’t love, by its very nature, intense? And don’t most therapists advise that sharing intense feelings is the secret to love and happiness? Didn’t we feel completely connected in the beginning of our relationship when things were over the moon intense and beautiful? Isn’t that what we crave—an intense emotional connection?

We may crave it, but when does craving something ever turn out good in the long run? I mean come on…ice cream…chocolate…beer… You get the idea.

But craving in intimate relationships quickly turns into begging, and that’s no way to get close…whether you’re begging for emotional intimacy or for sexual intimacy. Close couples that have resolved their intimacy problems have somehow learned to calm these emotions down, so that they can connect peacefully. One colleague put it this way: Intimacy, whether sexual or emotional, requires smooth/calm/peaceful waters.

Developing a More Neutral or Balanced View

But how do couples learn to calm these emotions down? I think it starts first and foremost with developing a more neutral view of relationship problems…one where there is no “bad guy,” where we stop thinking of things as “wrong” or “broken” or “dysfunctional,” painful as things may be.

It’s not helpful to think of our marital or intimacy problems as occurring because we or our spouses are doing something wrong or bad. It’s just the nature of emotional intensity and the nature of what happens when you put two or more emotional beings together. I’m not saying that what you or your spouse is doing is OK. I’m talking about stepping back out of the melee just a little so you can be less controlled by it. The number one way to be controlled by it is to react to it, whether your reaction is to go cold or to go hot. What kind of perspective can you ultimately develop about your marriage problems? Can your perspective be a little more informed on the human as an animal that is tied to its evolutionary history?

couple hugging in the park

Changing the Context of Your Relationship

The second shift in thinking has to do with context. Neuroscience is demonstrating in multiple studies that emotional and relationship problems are not as much about the individual, but about the context in which individuals live and develop and make moment-by-moment decisions. Will power isn’t a thing. Context is everything.

For example, couples might understand the impact of context in a phenomenon that frequently occurs on vacation. Many couples with intimacy problems experience dull or infrequent sex at home, but on vacation it spices up or occurs more frequently. The context has changed.

But how do couples change the context of their relationship at home where the status quo is in charge? It’s not as simple as getting a babysitter, lighting some candles, or buying flowers as many can attest. This can work at times, but it’s not a long-term solution. It takes more of a fundamental context change than a cosmetic one. It takes a bit of a reordering of relationship systems that already exist in and have influence over your life. For example, do your lives revolve around your children? Do they have a little too much “presence” in your marriage? What small moves could you make to change this context? Would it have an impact on your sex life? There are many other relationships that have an impact on your sex life as well.

To many people, thinking about the other relationships in their lives sounds unrelated to their emotional or sexual relationship with their spouses, but it’s an idea worth considering. I mean, think about how much time and energy you’ve perhaps spent on improving your marital and sexual relationship. When there’s heavy focus, most people don’t get very far. What could it hurt to shift focus? That’s a context change in and of itself!

If you’d like to learn more about changing the context of your life, consider doing a little research here.  If Bowen Family Systems Theory resonates, you may find some answers in places you never thought to look.

 

By Miriam Bellamy, LMFT

20 Years Experience

Online therapy in Georgia for couples and individuals. Convenient. Confidential. Effective.