Blog by Miriam

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

  • …the fact that bad sex does not lead to good sex, so if you’re begging for it (which is generally a guarantee for mediocre sex) you might want to consider another approach (which doesn’t mean sitting back and letting HER initiate it this time).
  • …the idea that often times, the very things we are doing to try to improve things is making them worse.
  • … the idea of broadening your focus…i.e. to consider that a narrow and laser like focus on just the two of you can be destructive. There is more to your story.

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):

 

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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?

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.

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 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.