When Esther Perel says (or in this case tweets) something, I pay attention. Recently, she pointed to these TED Talks that just might save your relationship featuring two of hers and one from Brené Brown that together comprise an excellent relationship toolbox. Topics covered include infidelity, vulnerability, daring to conflict, getting heard when you speak, and long term desire in relationships. They are all worth a watch.
The post that caught my eye is about seeing monogamy and polyamory a spectrums rather than as a binary construct. In a time when more and more things are seen as spectrums, I think that this topic is an important addition to the conversation. The post was inspired by the reaction to two other posts titled 9 Things Monogamists Can Learn from Polyamory and 9 Things Polyamorists Can Learn from Monogamy. Both posts have great insights on different aspects of the different types of relationships and the 18 items taken together are great things to consider in any relationship.
Three quick takeaways regarding finding a therapist:
1. Shop! You can see more than one before you decide.
2. Advocate! You have no obligation to stay with any therapist let alone one who marginalizes you.
3. Refer! If you find a good therapist, tell other people so that they can benefit, too, and seek referrals from friends.
The New York Times Magazine seems to be the major news outlet talking about open relationships lately. In addition to the article published a few weeks ago, they posted a video with five people talking about their overlapping relationships. The participants talk about how they got to where they are and about some of the dynamics that they experience. I think it is a great video that speaks to the ups and downs of open relationships.
Having gotten feedback from therapists and non-therapists and from people in and out of the kink community about my episode on fetishes on Dr. Nazanin Moali's Sexology podcast, there are two themes that seem to resonate:
- Normalizing fetishes with examples can help people put aside the biases and pre-conceived notions that they have about fetishes and better understand how they operate.
- It is important to recognize that fetishes can be normalized and that many people can have them to varying degrees however it is equally important to realize that fetishes can become disordered.
These two themes are two of the most common themes in my work: normalizing and recognizing whether or not something is disordered.
The normalizing comes up in my work in alternative lifestyles communities because there can be a stigma about how people live their lives and how people practice their intimacy. This stigma can lead to shame and shame can lead to a number of things including not living a fulfilling life, to hiding wants and needs, and to acting on wants and needs without consent creating breaches of trust. I often use examples from outside of the alternative lifestyles communities that resonate with examples from within the communities to demonstrate that the various kinds of relationships are not all that different.
The normalizing also comes up with my work in general. It is reasonable to be anxious when you are going on a job interview or meeting someone new. It is reasonable to be depressed if your pet dies or you don't get that job you wanted. For whatever reason, mental health states and moods can be stigmatized. It may be socially acceptable for me to have high cholesterol or high blood pressure though please don't let anyone know that I can be anxious or depressed! It is this stigma that can lead to people not seeking the help they want or need. Sometimes citing an example outside of the client's experience can help demonstrate the things in common that their situation has with others.
The recognizing whether something is disordered is an important part of my work. Whether it is depression, anxiety, or stress; whether it is relationship choices; whether it is communication or lack thereof, I believe it is important to understand whether what is happening is a reasonable reaction to a situation or if it is a disordered reaction.
Though I use normalizing above, I use reasonable in my elaboration on reactions because I don't know that there is an objective standard of normal. I use disordered because I believe that something can be out of sorts without being a diagnosable disorder. Having disordered eating is different that having an eating disorder.
As I spoke about with fetishes in the podcast, one of the key things when examining an issue that a client presents is the impact that the issue is having on their lives. I have had a couple come in because they were concerned about some disagreements and arguing that they were having, and we determined that these things were reasonable and, in fact, were a part of adjusting to the new situation of living together. I have had individual clients bring up the shame they felt for having the sexual desires they had. When we looked into the desires and the shame, we determined that the desires were objectively fine. The initial impact can seem serious though when examined more closely, the reaction is reasonable. Disordered versions of these include some kinds of acting out with the couple that makes it difficult for them to function or the individual acting out their desire without consent.
I am happy with my Sexology episode because it spoke not only to a specific topic--sexual fetishes--but also spoke to some important concepts in therapy in general.
[This post appeared on my previous web site and this is an updated version.]
Recently, I again picked up Psychotherapy Grounded in the Feminine Principle by Barbara Stevens Sullivan. As I have said previously, this was one of the more influential books that I read while at Pacifica Graduate Institute about doing therapy, though in light of Sullivan’s message of embracing the practice of being noted below, saying so (“doing therapy”) is perhaps ironic. In addition to a wealth of other ideas, Stevens explores using the feminine-oriented (more receptive) practice of being with clients rather than the more masculine-oriented (more active) practice doing things with or to clients.
Along with being with clients, using a responsive and inviting approach, comes the idea that the role of the therapist is not to cure the client. The medical model that is the basis of a lot of therapy eduction is often focused on curing the patient.
A quick note to let you know that my Sexology podcast episode with Dr. Nazanin Moali hit the airwaves today. In addition to talking about fetishes, I was able to talk about consent for conversations, being comfortable now on your terms or later on someone else's terms, and other related topics.
Let me know what you think below.
In re-reading the recent New York Times Magazine article, I am struck by this passage:
Open marriages, I started to think, are not just for people who were more interested in sex, but also for people who were more interested in people, more willing to tolerate the inevitable unpacking conversations, the gentle making of amends, the late-night breakdowns and emotional work of recommitting to and delighting each other.
Few claimed there was no pain in nonmonogamy; but they were not afraid of that pain, whereas the notion of any extra pain in my life seemed an impossible burden, a commitment along the lines of taking on a second part-time job or caring for an ailing parent.
I appreciate the author's observations and her candor about her feelings. My overall takeaway from the article is that it portrays some of the challenges that come up in open relationships--other partners not knowing, jealousy, insecurity--as well as the possibility for success.
I don't believe that every relationship type is ideal for every person--I tend not to speak in all or nothing anyway--though the reality is that a variety of relationship types exist. Some people may know up front that one type or the other may or may not work for them. Others may need to try things out, with better or worse results, to get a better idea.
Recently, I was interviewed by Dr. Nazanin Moali for an upcoming episode of her podcast Sexology. We talked about fetishes, both from a clinical point of view and a practical point of view. Clinically, fetishistic disorder falls under paraphilia, things like exhibitionism, voyeurism, and other sexual practices that are often taken to extremes. Specifically, fetishistic disorder involves arousal by non-living objects or non-genital parts of the body. The important factor is that for a fetish to be disordered, there must be some significant impairment of functioning or negative impact on the person's life. I think that many people may have fetishes though fewer people have fetishistic disorder.
Talking about fetishes from a practical point of view, I drew a connection between the idea of a fetish in culture and a sexual fetish. Culturally, a fetish is an ordinary object that has been made extraordinary by a person or a community often for some ritual or religious purpose. The key here is that the magical, mystical, or religious quality--what makes it extraordinary--of the fetish object comes from the person or community and it is not imposed from outside the community.
As an example, I talked about the idea of a shoe fetish. Someone may be aroused by the idea of shoe worship--often as a ritual--and for them, shoes in general or certain types of shoes specifically may be a turn-on. They may like all high heels or only leather ones. They may like sneakers, though only sweaty ones. If this is an activity that they can engage in with the consent of the other people involved, it is not the only way they can become aroused or achieve orgasm, and it is not having a significant negative impact on their life, then it has the quality of a fetish though it is not a fetishistic disorder.
For more of my discussion with Dr. Moali, look for the June 6, 2017, episode of her Sexology podcast. I'll post more about our discussion when the podcast goes live.
The New York Times Magazine featured an article recently titled "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?." I find the article an interesting read and I believe that it reflects a number of different experiences that people can have in open relationships, though somewhat limited to open marriages as a subset of open relationships.
My fascination is in the intensity of the comments after the article, many wholly against the idea of open relationships and critical if not scornful of people who engage in them. I often say that the judgements that people make say more about them than they do about what they are judging. I wonder if some of these critical comments--and this can apply to positive comments as well--come from people who came in with preconceived notions and who may not have read the article at all.
When I teach other therapists about working with clients in open relationships, one of the points that I make is that it is not a matter of wondering if open relationships should exist in the first place. Rather, it is a matter of accepting that they do exist, and if and when an open relationship client enters your office, you need to know how to handle it.
A topic that comes up with some frequency with my clients goes more or less like this: "We wanted to open our relationship and we agreed that we wouldn't fall in love." You can likely guess what happened. What may come into my office is: "We promised not to fall in love and s/he broke that promise! How can I have trust now?"
While I understand the logic and intention behind this statement, I also think that falling in love is something that is difficult to control since the process seems to be at best irrational and unconscious. I doubt that there is an intention or a conscious breach of trust behind someone falling in love. I think we can choose who we love and I am less sure we can choose when and with whom we fall in love. Or can we?
"BDSM isn't what you see in porn flicks. The image of BDSM that is portrayed in many materials of this sort has about as much to do with BDSM as the child's tale "Jack and the Magic Beanstalk" has to do with agriculture."
I love this quote from Franklin Veaux's valuable (and potentially Not Safe For Work) overview of BDSM. Veaux, the author of More than Two, has a lot of good things to say about alternative sexuality in general and he has a sense of humor that I enjoy.
"I don't know" and "I don't care"
"I don't know" and "I don't care" are two phrases that I have heard a lot in the therapy office. I don't say *my* therapy office because I have heard these come out of my mouth in my own analysis. What I have tried to do for myself and what I encourage my clients to do is to pause when they think or say either of things and ask: "Do I *really* not know?" or "Do I *really* not care?" More often than not, the answer to either or both of these questions is "No, I do know or I do care."
"Sex is not a metaphor for a relationship, it's a parallel narrative. It speaks its own language. Love and desire are two different languages. We would like to think that they flow from each other. While love and desire relate, they also conflict. Love thrives in an atmosphere of reciprocity, protection , and congruence. Desire is more selfish. In fact, at times, the very elements that nurture love: comfort, stability, safety, for example, can extinguish desire.
Love seeks closeness, but desire needs space to thrive."
A friend posted an article about Cuddle Party which got me thinking about consent in its many forms. The article explores the author's experience at a Cuddle Party and is a reflection of my experience at Cuddle Party in general. How do I know about Cuddle Party? I was in the initial beta-test of their facilitator training in 2005 and if they have been consistent--and it seems that they have--over the last more than a decade then they provide the opportunity for a great conversation and experience regarding consent and touch and consent in general. In the article and at the event, one thing that the discussion stresses that I particularly value is this: "Say 'yes' if you are a yes, say 'no' if you are a no, and, if you are a maybe, say 'no' and you can always change your answer later."
This afternoon, I was interviewed for an upcoming book on relationships and one of my favorite sayings, one that seems to come up with almost every client (and more than a few friends, colleagues, and acquaintances), came up. The saying is "Life is uncomfortable. You can be uncomfortable now on your terms or uncomfortable later on someone else's terms." I can't honestly remember if I saw this somewhere or if I coined it. I have a feeling that others have used something similar however I have gotten a great reaction to saying it this way.
Something that has been on my mind a lot lately is the perceived motivation behind behaviors people exhibit toward one another. I have seen this come up with couples where they end up coming to therapy because they are experiencing a lot of antagonism from one another. Most of the time, I don't find that they *want* to antagonize each another, though that is what ends up happening. I don't believe that most people--unless they are sociopaths--want to antagonize other people, so what is happening in these situations?