[What We Can Do When Sex Leaves a Relationship | Part One: Rediscovering Sexual Compatibility | Part Two: Alternatives to Monogamy]
Part Three: Crossing Conventional Boundaries
Most of us, gay and straight alike, feel that having a life-long partner is preferable to going through life alone or with a series of affairs or short-term relationships. There is much in our culture that supports this notion, from the large number of tax benefits given to married couples, to the countless themes of Sunday morning church services. And while we idealize this idea in movies, television shows, novels and fairy tales, forging a successful long-term relationship is quite another story.
Statistics over the last few decades show that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce though the number has been decreasing slightly in recent years. Among the most commonly reported reasons are problems related to sex, especially the loss of intimacy and infidelity. Yet we still underestimate the importance of sex in our relationships, placing it low on the list of priorities. Collectively, we fail to appreciate sex as a spiritual and psychological affirmation of life.
The steps of Intelligent Lust encourage us to understand and explore our true sexuality openly and responsibly without presuppositions. The process better prepares us for the issues that typically occur in a relationships because through sex we communicate, negotiate power, give and receive, and sometimes heal our past. The act of giving and receiving pleasure can make facing life’s daily challenges much easier. By making sexual fulfillment a prominent part of our relationships giving it greater importance, we are less likely to fight over folding the laundry or the details of renovating a house. No matter what struggles we face, we momentarily put them aside and establish a time and place to embrace intimacy and desire.
Whether it’s because of an absence of communication or misunderstanding of our true desires, problems arise when our thoughts and feelings go unspoken; sexual frustration and resentment builds. The key to the longevity of relationships is in maintaining an ongoing conversation even when it’s difficult – at times when we lose sexual interest in a partner, fantasize about less conventional sex, or feel sexually interested in other people. When these feelings do occur, it’s essential to acknowledge them to each other and make an intelligent decision about what to do rather than keep them secret or sweep them under the rug.
It’s secrecy that threatens the relationship because, in hiding our desires, we often subvert feelings into self-serving, abusive, or manipulative behavior.
Instead, we must consider all the possible solutions from finding a way to bring sex back into the relationship to polyamory – sex with multiple partners – in order to remain genuinely invested in the authenticity and integrity of the relationships. It’s not monogamy that necessarily improves the chances of a relationship’s survival, rather, it’s our ability to confront the truth about our desires and navigate all the possibilities for their fulfillment that will lead to greater understanding and connection.
Under these circumstances, monogamy should be equally considered along with other alternatives and a conscious choice made based on what is right for the individuals involved at the time.
In last week’s column, I showed how Robert and James navigated an open relationship.
My patients Paul and Melissa found a happy middle ground to deal with their sexual differences, while Margot and Billy broke conventional boundaries. Both couples dared to make sex a vital part of their lives, a rich fertile ground in which to cultivate self-knowledge and true acceptance.
Paul and Melissa
My patient Paul is an older man who has been married three times; Melissa, twenty years younger, has never been married and tended to bounce from one relationship to the next. They met when fixed up by a friend, and hit it off immediately.
In the past, both Paul and Melissa had dated perfectionists whom they felt a strong need to please based on similar childhood experiences with equally demanding parents. Eventually, they always rebelled against their partners’ demands, and all their relationships ended in failure – a common trait they discovered on their first date, and one they liked talking about, as now they had each found a partner whom they didn’t feel the need to please, as much as simply enjoy. As neither had many expectations of the other, they felt no need to protest and in a short time grew quite close.
Not long into their relationship, Paul and Melissa came to me for couples counseling. They wanted their relationship to work out, but were concerned because the sex hadn’t been good. It quickly became clear that despite their ability to discuss almost anything, they hadn’t been talking to each other about sex; they had only been fumbling around unhappily in bed. Over time, I took them through the steps, opening their minds to what they truly wanted from sex, investigating their fantasies, talking candidly as much as felt comfortable.
What they discovered was that, at age sixty-seven, Paul’s sexual drive was a fraction of what it had been. He was growing to love Melissa, but much of that came from her companionship and the close physical contact they both enjoyed.
Melissa, twenty years younger, however, was still sexual. Because her fantasies often centered on being told what to do by an authoritarian man, the couple eventually developed a practice that satisfied both of them: In bed, Paul would hold Melissa and tell her exactly what she should do to reach orgasm on her own. Once she had, Melissa would take time to embrace and caress Paul, which pleased him immensely.
This might strike some people as an odd compromise, but it was anything but that to the couple, who could now not only talk about sex but could also regularly embellish on the scene to make it uniquely theirs–and it made them very happy as well.
Margot and Billy
Like most couples, Margot and Billy, had married without much discussion of sex. For the two years since, both imagined the other enjoyed their love making, though privately each felt detached and unsatisfied. They cared about each other deeply, got along well in most ways and shared similar values about life. But without honest communication about sex, which each withheld for fear of upsetting the other, they had grown quietly more distant.
When Margot, with my encouragement, finally asked Billy if they could talk about their sex lives, he actually felt relieved. Since then, they’ve had regular conversations in which they followed the steps of Intelligent Lust. Each had come to recognize what he/she had eroticized earlier in their lives as well as the meaning behind those desires.
Margot’s mother was a ballet dancer who retired after a knee injury. She had pinned her hopes on her only daughter, pushing her into ballet class and local performances at an early age. She called on Margot, who was by nature shy and reluctant, at every social occasion to dance for friends and family. “Frankly,” Margot told me, “I had no talent and no interest, but that never stopped my mother. She was determined for me to be the star she never was.”
By the time Margot reached adolescence, she resented both dance and her mother’s control. Despite these feelings, she began day-dreaming about performing for school friends and boys from the neighborhood. She had read the story of Salome for a school project and imagined herself as the beautiful seductress, dancing with her seven veils. Gradually, her day-dreams became sexual fantasies in which she imagined herself dancing naked in front of men. Without knowing it, she had eroticized the painful feelings that surrounded her mothers demands bringing instead, deep pleasure to the very thing she feared and hated. As she grew into adulthood, the majority of her masturbatory fantasies focussed on having sex while being watched. Yet, because these fantasies also felt as if she was surrendering to her mother, she made a decision to avoid sex altogether and therefore, rarely engaged in it.
“No one would know it,” Margot said to me early in our therapy. “If I would let myself go, I would be a full-blown exhibitionist!”
Billy, on the other hand, felt invisible as a child. He was the middle of five siblings and while he wasn’t neglected, he did feel overlooked. A shy boy, Billy was small for his age and didn’t mature as rapidly as his brother or peers at school. One day when he was fourteen, he walked in on his older brother having sex with his girlfriend. From that time on, Billy couldn’t get the images out of his thoughts. Soon he began masturbating imagining other people having sex, never picturing himself engaging in it. He was always the observer. In his unconscious mind, he had merged the episode with his brother with childhood feelings of invisibility and from that crucible, created an erotic fantasy that brought pleasure to what had caused unhappiness and confusion. Now, as an adult, his sexuality was dependent on not being seen or actually participating in sex, a secret which kept him emotionally and sexually distant from Margot. That was, until they began speaking about it with my encouragement.
Instead of feeling threatened, the honesty of these conversations had sparked a sense of discovery and excitement. When Margot finally shared her fantasies with Billy that she imagined performing sexually for an audience of men, he laughed rather expressing outrage as she expected. He immediately confessed that he shared her fantasy and had been secretly imagining her with other men as a way of climaxing on the rare occasions they had sex. Rather than dividing them, the conversations brought them emotionally closer and soon they started discussing how they could act out their mutual fantasies safely. When Margot finally suggested they visit a sex club, Billy jumped at the idea and together they searched the Internet. They decided on a club in another city because there would be less chance of running into anyone they knew. They planned a weekend away and agreed to a series of ground rules for how they would conduct themselves at the club even creating a discrete “stop signal,” a tug to the earlobe, to signal his/her discomfort with anything that happened.
Going to the sex club was enormously exciting, though not without anxiety. They were, after all, betraying social conventions with which they were raised.
Checking their clothing at the door, they entered a room full of other couples engaged in various forms of sex. The freedom to be sexual in a public place, or Billy’s case to watch people acting sexual, was immediately liberating and thrilling for both of them. With Billy’s consent, Margot eventually joined in and like Salome, teased and seduced a group of men and woman. Amazingly, Billy felt no jealousy. In fact, he experienced Margot’s behavior as an act of love and generosity, which turned him on sexually even more. No one had ever placed his needs first, and while he knew she was satisfying her own as well, for the first time in his life, he ironically felt “seen.”
For weeks after, they discussed their feelings about the experience. The act of expressing their erotic fantasies by transgressing sexual convention, opened up conversations about trust, jealousy, rivalry, boundaries and limits, further deepening the intimacy and bond between them. Where Margot had always felt controlled and disrespect by her mother, she now felt profoundly appreciated and respected by the person who mattered most in her life.
Margot and Bill had the courage to break tradition – the family and social rules with which they were raised – and invent an original relationship in which they honored powerful longings and desires, giving pleasure to themselves and each other as well as depth and substance to the lives.
Stanley Siegel, Intelligent Lust.
First published on PsychologyToday.com on November 1, 2011.