Blog by Miriam

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.

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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?

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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.

Sex Therapy 101: Overcoming a Lack of Intimacy

By Miriam Bellamy, LMFT

Serving Georgia for 20 years.

Online therapy for couples and individuals now available. Convenient. Confidential. Effective.

Does your husband constantly pursue you for sex? Does it feel like all he wants is sex, and that he’ll take it, even if you’re not interested? Are you wondering where the intimacy went? Do you sometimes wish he would leave you alone? Or maybe you feel guilty and feel like you should be giving it up to relieve his apparent misery. Perhaps you are torn between the resentment and the guilt.

The last post was for husbands who pursue their wives. This one is for the wives they pursue. Are you craving intimacy? Are you longing for an emotional connection with your husband? What do you think gets in the way? Most women feel it’s his lack of communication or his lack of emotional sensitivity or his lack of…you-name-it-he-lacks-it.

After seeing many couples turn this around in my 20 years of doing marriage counseling in Georgia, I’ve found that his lack-of-sensitivity isn’t an adequate explanation. When these couples have turned this painful pattern around, it’s not because he’s suddenly developed some skills he didn’t have before. It seems to be more related to a change they make in a fundamental pattern in their relationship. A pattern in systems theory known as distancing that I believe contributes to the most common relationship problems people have. Distancing is also known as a pursuer/distancer pattern, and it is a pattern that both men and women find themselves instinctively using to deal with relationship stresses and anxieties.

Pursuer/Distancer: Here’s how it goes

Years one to five: Husband comes home from work. He’s tired and preoccupied with a deadline he’s facing. Wife is excited to see him. He’s not responsive. Wife believes it is a lack of interest in her, but doesn’t want to be perceived as too sensitive, so she doesn’t bring it up. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Wife starts not bringing up other things as well. She’s tried to bring up other sensitive topics before, but they always end up in some kind of argument. He seems so offended when she shares her hurt or fear. She suspects he’s missing a few brain cells in the emotion department, so she only brings up topics she knows won’t lead to an argument. She starts to fear she married the wrong guy.

Years six to ten: Both wife and husband have continued down a path of not bringing up what’s on their minds to the point they are not revealing much about what they think from day-to-day, be it feelings or thoughts about their work or excitement about something new they’re learning…certainly not anything deeply personal. They’ve got two kids now, and Wife is busy with them. Husband seems not as involved with or interested in them, and Wife’s fear about marrying the wrong guy increases. As her fear increases she develops tunnel vision. She’s gotten to the point where she can’t see the times when her husband is responsive or attentive. She can’t see that he brings value to her life anymore, despite the facts. As husband’s fear increases, he develops tunnel vision as well. He senses wife’s distance and knows he feels connected when he has sex with her, so growing increasingly desperate, he pursues her. She is wondering how he could possibly think she would be interested in sex. He is wondering what he did wrong.

Years eleven to twenty: The couple is in real trouble now. Their marriage difficulties have started distracting them from work and social life, so they go for marriage counseling. Well intentioned, the therapist guides the each of them to tell the other what they feel and what they each need. The therapist encourages the wife to communicate her feelings like this: I feel left out when you don’t tell me what’s going on in your life, and I’d like to know what you’re thinking. Or I feel unimportant when you watch TV when I’m trying to talk to you. I’d like to learn more about your day. They have a lovely moment or two in the therapy session, but the feelings don’t last very long. Somehow they haven’t been able to reliably duplicate the lovely moments at home. Sex is almost non-existent. They both feel hopeless and scared. They’ve tried everything.

In this scenario the husband and wife take turns being the pursuer or the distancer. But the underlying pattern was that of distance. Each spouse was focused on the other. You know you’re in a distancer/pursuer dynamic when you or your spouse says something like this: “I’ve done my part, but we’re still having problems because you haven’t done yours.” It’s a statement that quickly halts open communication.

Some Signs You May be Using Distance

Roberta Gilbert, in her book Extraordinary Relationships, lists some signs that you may be in a distance pattern in your marriage:

  • Excessive periods of non-communication when one is emotionally reactive
  • Workaholism
  • Overuse of substances such as alcohol
  • Excessive time spent on hobbies or religious activity
  • A tendency to be quiet when anxiety arises
  • Talk that includes nothing of personal importance
  • An inability to relate to some of the people in one’s immediate or original family

Gilbert writes, “people who are involved in a distance relationship often see their part in it as an attempt to help the relationship—to give it some breathing room.” She says they could also be using distance in a manipulative manner “in an attempt to draw the other in.” Then there are those attempts to get far enough away from the relationship in order to gain control of one’s emotions. On the whole, distancing seems to be an attempt to find relief from the emotional intensity of the relationship. An attempt that rarely, if ever, works.

What She Did

Wife did what is widely accepted as “good” and “healthy” among marriage therapists: she shared her feelings with her husband with a great deal of feeling. But the more she shared, the more he seemed to back away. Her initial reaction was to conclude what she had from the beginning: that he lacked the fundamental ability to be close. But upon further reflection, and the help of a therapist versed in systems theory, she was able to consider there were other ways to approach him that were both meaningful and calm. She began to notice that the more calmly she approached him, the less he distanced from her. Over time and with a lot of practice, she was able to approach her husband more regularly, even if briefly. He began to do the same. This regular, calm contact freed them both up to focus on their own goals and aspirations and to enjoy the goodness each brought to the other’s life. And this included sex.

Want more information? Check out Roberta Gilber’s book Extraordinary Relationships or give me a call. I’m glad to help you develop your ability to get close to each other.

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!”
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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.