Sex and Relationship
In this culture we are conditioned to always be ‘doing;’ that actually restricts our flexibility and power. When you are acting in order to suppress a feeling, you're not really thinking about what you're doing anymore.
What's your focus these days?
Helping couples to deepen their connection and helping people recover parts of themselves that were repressed, ignored, and denied as children. I work to help people to understand why they choose their partner, how that partner is there to help them recover those lost parts of themselves, and what gets in the way of that process.
What does get in the way?
Fear is huge. A difficulty tolerating feelings. Sitting with the discomfort. In this culture we are conditioned to always be ‘doing;’ that actually restricts our flexibility and power. When you are acting in order to suppress a feeling, you're not really thinking about what you're doing anymore. You react versus being able to tolerate a feeling. Once you actually realize you have a feeling, you then have a choice. ‘What would I like to do about it?’ And if there is something to be done, we go through the process of ‘is my head going to blow up if I don’t react? Am I going to die? Is my loved one going to die? Because I feel this, right?’ This is something that happens to people multiple times every day, even though they may not even be aware of it.
What happens is that sometimes we end up doing things that we wouldn't really want to do in an effort to avoid these feelings: having sex, watching too much TV, gambling, eating, drinking, socializing, working, going to kids’ extracurricular activities, getting kids involved in extracurricular activities - going, going, going, going – simply to avoid feelings.
Aren’t there two camps about acknowledging vs. ignoring feelings?
From my perspective, you have somebody who is a ‘maximizer’ and somebody who is a ‘minimizer:’ the maximizer is expressive and their feelings come much more easily. The feelings may not be in control yet, but they're there. Then you have the minimizer who generally is much more reserved and less in touch with their feelings, less able to access them, verbalize them, and articulate them.
Feelings are feelings. They are part of our existence. They are intricately related to the physiological responses in our body. Sometimes they're related to the reality around us and sometimes they're not, and it's important to recognize that everything you feel isn't the truth. You don't want to believe everything that you think, right?
How do you bring maximizers and minimizers together?
Communication is a huge part of my work. I set up a structure so that each person in the couple can be 'heard' and 'listened to,' where someone can actually step into their partner's shoes for a few moments to see the world from their viewpoint, and not agree. It’s not about agreeing or feeling the same way at all. It's about being able to say 'oh, I get it. I understand. It makes sense to me that you see the world this way. I may have my own view about it and that's okay because I'm a different person.'
I teach people about reducing their reactivity. Normally, when you're in a conversation with somebody, they say something and you're already thinking 'that's not true,’ especially with your partner. You might think 'well, that's not true. I wouldn't feel like that if that were the case' or 'why would you feel like that? I didn't say that and what are you doing? That's ridiculous.' All this stuff is going through your head. How are you listening to what the person's saying? You’re probably not.
If you want somebody to hear you, you have to say it in a way that they can hear it. That's one of the hardest parts.
How do you do that?
Both people have really important things to be doing while they're in this conversation. They need to pay attention to how they're sending the information, to how they're receiving it, and to make sure that they really are understood. In my work, two of the most important things are getting the listener's ego out of the way and, in turn, making sure the person who is talking isn't criticizing or blaming or shaming their partner, or already trying to figure out how to fix it.
Empathy comes from being able to really understand someone else's perspective and what's going on inside of them. If you are able to communicate what's going on inside you in a way that your partner can hear, then you're much more likely to actually get somewhere. There's a lot more mirroring back and forth then validating and empathizing, and really being able to walk around and see the situation from your partner's perspective. It's really, really hard.
This type of active communication also works with children.
Each child has her or his own needs, wants, desires, and views about the world. Realize that you can't empathize with your kid 100% of the time, every time, no matter how nice they are, but you can be mindful and keep trying.
What about moments when it's hard to empathize?
Empathy doesn't mean agreeing with the other. I'm not asking partners to agree with and believe the same thing as their partner. I'm asking you to try really hard to understand what they are saying and see it from their perspective. Examples of empathy might be: 'wow, it really makes sense to me that you would really want these $2000 whatever: gadget, donation, skis, trip’ or 'it really makes sense to me why it's very important for our kids to go to a public school versus a private school because of...' or ‘I don't agree with it. I feel differently AND I understand where you're coming from.’
How does this play into having a better sex life?
One of the biggest issues couples come in with is a discrepancy between levels of desire. One partner has a higher level of desire or interest in being sexually intimate than the other partner. Generally, if it's a heterosexual couple, the female comes in saying, 'I don't have any interest. My kids are pulling at me. My job is pulling at me. There's no foreplay. There's no romance. I'm not interested' and the male partner comes in and says, 'what's all this cuddling? I need intercourse.' When I think of sexuality and sexual intimacy, I'm thinking about a wide definition. American culture would have you believe that whenever you say 'having sex,' it means 'sexual intercourse'. I really try to encourage people to widen that view. It’s one of the first things we do in sessions.
I'm trying to make them think larger so there is space for desire to even develop. There has to be some room for the female partner to feel some volition, and very often it takes women a little longer to warm up than guys. Very often in a busy life, there's not a lot of time for that, so the male partner comes in and wants to get going right away and the woman's like, 'I just paid my taxes.'
It is really important for people to get out of the tit for tat. 'Well, if I do this for you, then you're supposed to do this for me' or 'I can't do this for you because you haven't done this for me.' It's a big trap. It is really important for people to get out of that pattern because it breeds resentment and a lack of generosity.
Identify things that your partner likes and makes them feel cared for. Ask them. 'I love when I come home from a really hard day and there's a gin and tonic on the counter already made' or 'I love that when I get up in the morning, my coffee's already at the table in my favorite cup with the right amount of sugar in it.' 'I love that when I get ready to go to bed at night, the bed is turned down.' 'I love that my car's warmed up in the morning.' 'I love that you leave a note in the drawer in the bathroom where I always reach for my...' Whatever it is, figure it out.
And you must do these things without the expectation that you're going to get anything back. Fake it until you make it. You will be amazed at the increase in the kind of affection and intimacy that develops as well as an appreciation for your partner.
How do you help couples overcome sexual temptation after many years with the same partner, and what happens when it translates into infidelity?
Cheating. The infidelity piece is all about a decrease in the intimacy in the relationship, of not being seen. Really, at the base, everybody wants to know: ‘am I okay? Do you see me for who I am? Do you really see who I am? And am I enough?' That last one, ‘am I enough?’ is a really big, basic question. Am I enough of a good parent? Am I enough of a good partner? Am I enough of a good lawyer, member of the school board, friend?
The desire to stray generally comes from the decrease in intimacy that comes from not being able to see your partner or from not feeling seen. And that goes back to being able to really see the world from your partner's perspective and taking the time to understand it. Recognize that your partner really is a different person.
Why is this a challenge for many people?
Many of us have parents who did not recognize that about us, that we were a different person. A child comes to their parent and says, 'mom, I dropped my ice cream cone on the ground,' and the child is really upset about it, and the mom says, 'oh, honey, I'll get you another one. Don't be upset. Why are you upset? I wouldn't be upset. I'd be happy because I'd be getting a different flavor.’ This is negating, denying, and not allowing the child to have their experience, nor recognizing what the child is feeling. All the parent needs to do is say - 'oh, yes, I get it that it's really upsetting to drop your ice cream cone on the floor.' That's incredibly powerful and it doesn't happen often enough.
Many people grew up with parents who asked 'why would you want to go to medical school? I think you really need to go to business school.’ Or ‘you don't really want to go out with that girl, right?' and then 'really? You're a lesbian? What? What are you talking about? That can't possibly be…' It is a constant negating of one's being and so very often, without knowing, we get into relationships with people who are like that as well.
We are very much drawn to what is familiar even if it's repeating something that didn’t work. People talk about getting into abusive relationships or destructive relationships or something that's not very healthy. It feels a lot safer to go with what you know than trying to step into something you don't understand and where you don't know the rules.
When you get to the base of it, it's like, 'wow, this person feels very much like being with my dad or my mother.' Not exactly the same but definitely pieces are similar. And that is where you have to work hard to recognize that your partner is a separate person. The power struggle comes when you start to realize the other person has some different views and feels differently at different times.
That is where the ‘how do I tolerate that?’ comes in. ‘What does it mean that this person feels differently from the way that I do? Does it mean there's something bad about me?’ The answer is no, they're a different person. We are right back to tolerating the feeling, tolerating the fact that somebody close to us that we care about disagrees or doesn't feel the same way. It's really at the core of an awful lot of relationship struggles, and not only marital but with your children as well.
How does this play out in parenting?
I also spend a lot of my time counseling parents about raising sexually healthy kids and about widening their own definition. I ask them to see if they can go back to when they were early adolescents and think about the first forays into touching and caressing and kissing. That counts as sexual activity. You're genitally aroused. It's not intercourse, but it's sexual activity.
When parents are like, 'oh, my God, I don't want my kids to be sexually active until they’re 22,' I ask them if it would it be okay for their fourteen or fifteen-year-old to make out with their boyfriend and kiss? Would that be okay? We can talk about what sexual intercourse means and we can talk about how you make that decision when you're ready. We can talk about how kids learn which questions to ask and if they are willing to talk about certain things before they do them. In general, I say that if you can't talk about it, you don't need to be doing it. In some ways, that goes for adult couples as well.
When did you know you were on to something?
It feels intuitive to me, like it's inherent in the work. In graduate school, my dissertation was about teaching student therapists how to manage sexual feelings in therapy on their part and on the part of the therapist. Even back then, it was about learning to tolerate having sexual feelings in the session and being a separate person. It’s okay to talk about them. You don't have to act on them. Your patient doesn't have to act on them. Just because this person has a feeling doesn't mean that you fall apart or disappear or have to sooth it or take it away. Very often, when people go into the helping professions it truly is because they want to help, and sometimes they interpret that as taking away pain, taking away feelings. There is an awful lot of power in witnessing and helping people to know that they're not going to fall apart.
It’s the same thing in my work with kids. I work to help kids tolerate big feelings and name them, to recognize that being angry with their mom is not going to destroy their mom, because little kids feel like it might. There's still magical thinking.
What are your thoughts on pornography online and its effect on teens?
Kids need to learn and understand and be okay with the fact that their bodies react in certain ways and that it's okay. It's not necessarily something to hide or of which to be ashamed.
I've done an awful lot of work with people who were addicted to pornography, and it's an intimacy problem. It's another way to not have to feel whatever feelings are going on, like feelings of loneliness, not feeling good enough, feeling disconnected, feeling helpless, feeling small, feeling unwanted, feeling inadequate. You show me a kid who's actively and continually seeking out pornography and I'll show you a kid that's not connected to his peers or his family, and ultimately disconnected from himself. That's a kid that hasn't had the experience of having his feelings understood and validated and recognized. The arousal feelings, the genital kind of excitement that comes with pornography feels a hell of a lot better than feeling lonely and disconnected and inadequate.
What do you tell your parent clients?
Talk. Talk about it. Talk about it. You can approach pornography they may watch online from a perspective of the child not appreciating the disrespect it shows for the importance of intimate relationships. Parents have varying views on casual sex and committed partnerships and premarital sex and all that kind of stuff. What you need to do is tell your kids what your values are and why. It’s not helpful for you to simply say, 'well, this is the way it's supposed to be.' You need to understand why you believe what you believe, what your values are, and what it conflicts with and share that with your kid. And by the way, if you're still figuring it out, as with lots of other things in life, it's okay to go back and say, 'I was thinking about this more and I'm kind of shifting how I feel about it when I think about it based on this.'
What advice do you have for parents once they find their child actively watching online pornography?
Breathe! That's the first thing to do. You haven't caught your child running an actual pornography ring. Recognize that you may not be able to respond in a reasonable or helpful way in that moment. Tell your child this is not acceptable behavior and that you need to talk about it with them at a time when you can talk calmly. This is a serious issue, and deserves both of your full attention and energy. Ask them when a good time might be for them (you may have to set the time, but give them an opportunity to do so, within reason.)
The most important thing for parents to do is to LISTEN. The fact that your kid is looking at porn is a clear indication that you have some work to do in that arena. Be careful not to cause even more shame than your child is likely already feeling. Find out how your child is feeling about all of this. They already know they messed up, they don't need it drilled into their heads. Make it clear that you will have to set some firm boundaries around computer usage, free time, and time with friends. Part of growing up is learning how to set boundaries for oneself, so you are here to help them with it. Be careful about setting boundaries that you are unable to enforce. Kids want boundaries against which to bounce, so they will test to them. As much as they protest, kids want parents to know what is going on in their lives.
Seek additional consultation about how to bolster your communication and relationship with your child. Talk with your partner and talk with other parents. Get educated about talking about sex with your kids. Take it as a wake-up call to increase your connection with your kids, the earlier the better.
What public opinion would you most like to change?
Masturbation is wrong or less than. I would like to have the public opinion be that masturbation is a healthy part of life.
Whatever's going on in your sexual relationship is part of what's going on in the rest of your life. How you see yourself as a sexual being has great bearing on how you interact in the world and what your relationship is with yourself.
Where do you get your news?
What event are you most looking forward to?
My next Imago training session with my former supervisor Peggy Buttenheim and my current Imago trainer Maya Kollman in Princeton, New Jersey.
Favorite restaurant in Cambridge?
Evoo on Third Street. It's an awesome restaurant. That would be the place I go to replenish myself.
Favorite place to go with your three kids in Cambridge?
Danehy Park or camping in Maine at Sebago Lake. The lake is amazing on a weekend with a full moon.
I LOVE getting my nails done, same burgundy color every time, OPI Malaga Wine.