Relationship in need of a bit of attention as we start 2017?

I often say that relationships are like gardens.  They don’t just look after themselves; they require some careful tending and nurturing if you don’t want them to end up overgrown, ugly and unloved.

My favourite reading over the Christmas break was this wonderful article, 1500 People Give All The Relationship Advice You’ll Ever Need by the talented writer Mark Manson.  As a newly wed, he asked his readers for their relationship dos and don’ts and then distilled their answers into the most concise yet comprehensive relationship advice I’ve ever read.

In fact, if everyone were to read this and do their best to put it into practice, we Couples Therapists would be sat at home twiddling our thumbs all year waiting for the phone to ring. It’s that good.

Does sharing household chores help or kill passion?

There’s an interesting (and by the looks of the comments, very controversial) article by Lori Gottlieb in this week’s New York Times about male-female relationships. Does a More Equal Marriage mean Less Sex?

It considers whether an egalitarian marriage (where decisions and tasks are shared equally), while good for marital harmony, might be bad for the couple’s sexual relationship. For example, are gender stereotypes so deeply entrenched that seeing a man do “feminine” tasks makes him less attractive to his mate at a sexual drive level, even while making him a more appealing person to be sharing a house with? Is it possible that women want to be married to men who are kind, considerate, thoughtful and treat them as equals … but fancy men who are quite different?

This is of course a big generalisation, but I do get the sense from my own couples therapy practice that there may be something in this idea, at least some of the time. What we want at an intellectual level may be quite different from what we want at a sexual level; or, as sex therapist Esther Perel puts it in the article, ” … the values that make for good social relationships are not necessarily the same ones that drive lust … most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.”

Funnily enough, I was reading this article while standing up on a train home from London. I sensed that the man seated next to me was really uncomfortable about being seated for a long period while I was standing, but also torn with indecision over whether giving up his seat for me could be seen as insulting or patronising. And with some cause: male friends tell me they have been berated for such “crimes” as holding a door open for a woman, which makes me sad. Personally, I’m all for acts of kindness and good manners, and don’t see the need to turn them into an argument on gender politics.

In any case, I think it can be really hard nowadays for men to know how to be around women; indeed I think they are often in a double bind, as the case studies in the article illustrate well. I applaud the author for daring to write on such a contentious subject, because surely more reflection can only be a good thing.

Dan Savage on being monogamish, and other juicy subjects

I really enjoyed this talk by Dan Savage, US writer, columnist and co-founder (with his husband Terry Miller) of the It Gets Better project (created to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better).

In this talk Dan expands on two concepts that are of particular interest to him:

1) Many more couples are monogamish than we might think (i.e. they have an agreement to be mostly but not completely sexually exclusive). Dan argues that, contrary to popular opinion, this can give relationships a much better chance of long-term survival than those where monogamy is an absolute and any sexual transgression is a deal-breaker.

2) Long term couples stand a much better chance of staying together joyfully if they commit to being “GGG” in their sexual relationship, which stands for “Good, Giving, and Game”. Listen to find out more!

It’s a long talk but he’s very entertaining to listen to, and provides much food for thought. He is very frank in his language, however, so definitely NSFW!

Don’t stop touching each other just because sex is causing you some difficulties

It’s been a busy few months one way or another and I have woefully neglected my blog. A few weeks back I read an excellent article on the importance of affectionate touch between couples, and made myself an entry on my To Do list to blog about it further. Sadly, I can no longer find the article. I’m sure there’s a lesson (even a New Year’s Resolution) for me in there somewhere.

Meanwhile, it will have to suffice for me to say that many of the couples who come through my consulting room door make the mistake of avoiding physical intimacy if they have a sexual problem of some sort. Usually they don’t want to “give their partner the wrong idea” or “lead him/her on” when they don’t know if they can “follow through”.

I cannot emphasise enough how much additional unnecessary misery this seems to cause. It’s very easy for the partner to feel, not only does s/he not want to have sex with me any more – s/he doesn’t even want to touch me. I must be really unlovable … literally, I’m untouchable.

I haven’t yet met a partner who has said, “I’m so glad s/he’s stopped showing me affection. If I was being cuddled, stroked, caressed and kissed without it leading to sex, that would just be unbearable. Much better that we just avoid all touch until we can be sure that sex will follow”. Really, I haven’t. And without the release of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) that affectionate touch brings about, the chances that sex will get back on track are only likely to decrease.

Wishing you all plenty of enjoyable touch, whether it’s from lovers, friends or family, in 2014.

Stop worrying about how sex SHOULD be

What I do in my consulting room is rarely about “teaching folks how to do things right”, although that may be what many clients anticipate when they present for sex therapy; more often, it’s about trying to unteach them things they think they know about how sex SHOULD be. So I was very pleased to see this superb quote from Meg Barker over on her “Rewriting The Rules” Blog:

” … we all have different kinds of bodies that work in different ways. Instead of this being a cause for shame and distress as we all try (or pretend) to meet up to some narrow, limiting standard of sex (or avoid sex entirely if we don’t), we could embrace this diversity and make it the starting point for each new sexual conversation. Rather than going in with assumptions about how our body, and our partner’s, ought to work, we could go in assuming that this will be a new and different body and being open to the inevitably new and different experience it will bring.

Our concerns could be not ‘will I get an erection?’, ‘will it last long enough?’, ‘will I be able to be penetrated?’, ‘will I come at the right time?’ but rather ‘how does this person’s body work?’, ‘what do they like having touched?’, ‘what other kinds of stimulation do they enjoy?’, ‘how do I respond to what they do?’, ‘what can I tell them about how I work with my words and with my body?’, ‘what new ways will I discover with them that I haven’t with other people?’. With such questions it ceases to matter whether or not we orgasm from penetration, or at all, or whether we get erections or can be penetrated. We can put down those anxieties and just open up to the conversation as it unfolds”.

Thanks, Meg, for summing it up so perfectly.

Reasons to be sexual: one, two, three

A friend of mine was grumbling recently about what he perceived as the difference between the genders when it comes to enjoyment of sex. “Why can’t women just enjoy sex for its own sake?”, he asked.

It got me wondering what people mean when they talk about enjoying sex for its own sake.  Does that mean for pleasure?  For fun? For release?  Sometimes people talk about “the difference between having sex and making love”.  But why stick at that, as if those were the only two options on offer?  What about making up?  Making friends? Making whoopee? Making sorrow go away for a while?

I think it’s easy to fall into narrow ideas about what sex should be for, when in fact there are many legitimate and positive reasons to choose to be sexual.  Here are some I hear in my practice:

It makes me feel good about myself

It’s a way of playing, having fun

To show my partner I love her/him

It helps me keep in shape

It’s the only thing special that’s just for my partner and I – no one else

To make babies

It helps get me out of my head and into my body

When I want to feel loved and special

It makes my partner feel good about him/herself

It gives us both a lot of pleasure

It’s a way of fulfilling the desire I have for my partner

It makes me feel less stressed – in my body, and in the relationship

When I’m feeling sad, it comforts me

It helps me sleep

It’s a place I can act out aggressive feelings in a safe and healthy way

It makes me and my partner much closer, and helps us work through difficulties

I like feeling fanciable; it gives me more confidence in the rest of my life

It gives us time out from a busy life

For me, it’s the closest I get to exercising my spiritual side, connecting with another dimension

I enjoy power play, sometimes being more dominant, sometimes less

To help us get over an argument

It feels like something that bonds my partner and I, and glues us together

It’s a way I can make myself vulnerable, and trusting, and that feels good to do

It helps me feel connected to my partner, to the world

It makes me feel younger, more vibrant, more alive

It makes me feel happy

To bring us back together when we’ve been apart, physically or emotionally.

I’m sure you can add some reasons of your own.  The main thing is, there needn’t be one “correct” reason to have sex.  It’s good when couples can allow themselves to express many facets of themselves – and their lives together – through the medium of their sexual relationship.

Put a lock on it!

No, we’re not talking chastity belts for footballers and golfers (although, now that I think of it …)  I mean, if you are parents, even of young children, you need get into the habit of shutting your bedroom door regularly, and for extra peace of mind, you may want to lock it too.  Not just when you’re planning to make love (you don’t need to telegraph your intentions!), but at other times too.

Of course, a locked door is going to mean you’re both more likely to be able to relax and enjoy lovemaking, without fear of intrusion.  (Not that it’s the end of the world if one of the kids catches you “in the act”, they won’t be marred for life – just handle it with calm, age-appropriate reasurance).  But knowing you might be walked in on at any moment is not usually conducive to being able to really get into sex and let go; knowing the door is locked can make all the difference.  (Incidentally, if you’re worried about being overheard, why not make it a common occurrence to play music in the bedroom?)

So many parents nowadays seem to feel they should be available to their children 24/7.  I disagree.  Of course you need to be responsible and make sure your children are safe, but parents need and have a right to privacy and time out too.  I believe retreating together behind a locked door gives an important statement (to the kids AND to each other) that you as a couple value and protect the bond between you.  It also models good boundaries, which are healthy for everyone living together in a family.

So don’t feel guilty about prioritising private couple time.  What could be more important for children than that their parents nurture and invest in their own relationship?

Evolutionary sense?

I’ve been ruminating (ok, fulminating) all weekend on a lecture by Professor Stuart Brody (Professor of Psychology at the University of the West of Scotland) which I heard at the Royal Society of Medicine on Friday evening. It was the fourth and final instalment of a seminar on “Sexual Pleasure” organised by the Sexuality and Sexual Health Section.

Prof Brody is well-known in sexology circles for his controversial research findings. (“They’re not politically correct”, he says proudly, “But then, science isn’t politically correct! And evolution isn’t politically correct!”) His big thing is that penile-vaginal intercourse – without a condom, mind you – is way superior to all “other sexual behaviours” (safe sex, sex between two men, sex between two women, solo sex, oral sex, anal sex, foreplay, stimulating the clitoris during intercourse – you get the picture). Some of these are even detrimental to one’s physical and mental health, apparently, and are indicative of immaturity. (Hello, Mr Freud, is that you I hear?)

The reason for this is obvious, in his mind – it’s evolution, innit? The selfish gene. Ensuring humankind reproduces!

Anyhow, the thrust of Prof Brody’s lecture on Friday (for thrusting he certainly was) was that us sex educators are irresponsible to be going round telling women about the importance of the clitoris in sexual satisfaction, and may even be causing them harm, by detracting from the importance of the VAGINAL orgasm (ie from penile thrusting only, with no clitoral stimulation). These are the only orgasms worth having, apparently.

Now, I would have liked to take Prof Brody to task on so many of his sexist, heterosexist points, but he’s a clever scientist who has done all kinds of research (although not without many expert critics in my field – see here for starters), whereas I’m just a Sex Therapist, and a woman who’s had sex. But you know when you only think of the right thing to say, several hours after a put-down?

If vaginal orgasms really are the evolutionary way to go, then why do so many women only have them rarely, and others not at all?

Tonight in some way I loved you

I can tell by your walk , I won’t need to make small talk when we get home. Like ask your name and then promise to phone …

I found the lyrics to this song on “Affairs of the Heart” (Ralph McTell)  thought-provoking when I first listened to them on “You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here” in the mid 1970s.  Listening to the song again this morning , I still find myself with more questions than answers.

Why is it that some of us seem to be able to enjoy sex as a purely recreational activity, akin to playing a game of tennis with someone (only better!), whereas others of us seem to need a sense of connection, or meaning, to make sex feel good? 

The traditional answer is that men compartmentalise sex and love, whereas women don’t; but this isn’t my experience, personally or professionally.  I see women who enjoy anonymous and/or purely recreational sex, just as I see men who have been hurt by casual sex, or who feel pressurised to get into a sexual relationship far earlier than they’re comfortable with.

So what is it that makes us different in this respect?  Why is it that some people can’t have sex without feeling as though something significant, bonding even, has occurred; whereas others don’t seem to experience that?  Is it to do with the meaning each of us ascribes to sex, which informs our experience?  Or something more fundamental? 

And how easy/common is it to move between the two camps?  In order to be able to enjoy sex where the only meaning is pleasure and enjoying the moment, do we need to ‘ switch off’ something inside us that gives us the potential for sex to feel more meaningful?  And conversely,  if we only enjoy connected or meaningful sex, are we missing out on something that those who “can do casual sex” are able to experience?

I can tell by your smile that tomorrow you will not think that it’s been worthwhile, and I don’t know what to say, to prove it need not be that way.

I can tell by your crying, you’d only think I was lying if I said what I know to be true – that tonight in some way I loved you. That tonight in some way I loved you.