This part three of a three-part series on sex and differentiation of self in relationships. If you missed the previous part, about symbiosis in the early stages of a relationship, you can check it out here.
At some point in a relationship things start to change. Partners begin to notice that all is not completely rosy, and there have been some disappointments and disillusionments. They shake off the super bonded and immersed-in-other mindset, look around, and realize they are two unique individuals, with very different thoughts, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, and preferences. How annoying! As the fog clears, you realize you’re not all that happy they cook and eat meat in what used to be your pristine vegan kitchen. Or you feel a little cranky about how you actually never DO have an orgasm, you just fake them. How could your partner not know that? This step from the first stage, symbiosis (rose colored glasses), to the second stage, differentiation (showing up more completely and uniquely), is where many relationships get stuck.
Depending in part in how lost we got in the symbiotic stage, and how secure and grounded we are generally, this new awareness of self can be challenging and messy. Probably your clients have had a very difficult time with this transition, or are still stuck in it, maybe for many years. Some couples never get through this. Some fight, some shut down, but if you look closely, at the root of things is discomfort with our differences of opinions, preferences, and beliefs. How clean is clean? Who decides when sex is finished? Is porn ok? These are real differences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get my way multiple times EVERY DAY. Becoming able to come to terms with the idea that the differences are interesting and healthy sure makes life easier.
Why is this so hard? Because here’s the thing about differentiation: it’s scary as hell. If you figure out what you think, feel, believe, and prefer and then share it with your partner, they might not agree with you. They might be offended or angry, or collapse in hurt. If your tentative first foray into vulnerable disclosure was met with an extreme or distressing reaction, how can you steel yourself to try again, and again, and again? If you aren’t willing to risk the relationship, it is mighty hard to say something uncomfortable, however true it may be.
That’s when you have the Big Choice: differentiate or assimilate. Rock the boat, or capitulate and stabilize. Just to clarify: rocking the boat, or differentiating, is NOT the same thing as stonewalling, digging in, having a debate, or proving you’re right. What if you were to choose to get curious about your partner’s perspective, and why they see it differently than you do, rather than hammering your point in an effort to change your partner’s mind? What if you remained calm as you explained why you believe what you believe, and allowed your partner to ask questions about that in order to better understand you, with neither of you getting defensive, shutting down, or going on the attack?
Let’s make this less abstract and more specific to sex:
Do you know what you want sexually? Can you tell your partner? Under what circumstances? How about right in the middle of sex? How about if you think your partner won’t like what you want to say–for instance, that you would prefer to go back to snuggling on the couch watching Netflix? What if you lose your erection? Can both of you stay connected, sexy, and loving? Or do you make a lot of problematic meaning of the situation and pull away? Think of an opinion you have about sex–for instance, what is your opinion about crossdressing? Or polyamory? Or how about condom use? Can you share that with someone you love who might have a strongly-held opinion that doesn’t agree with yours?
A healthy sexual relationship requires differentiation–or else sex becomes an empty, anxiety-ridden performance, in which each partner plays the part they imagine their partner wants from them. The strong foundation you built in the symbiotic stage ideally should create safety for you to take some risks now.
It takes courage to ease through the vulnerability of self-disclosure and the fear of losing a relationship in order to reveal your true feelings and desires to your partner. It takes compassion to open your heart to your partner’s true feelings and desires, even if you are afraid of what they might mean. A strong relationship calls for both courage and compassion, and a therapist’s role is to help each partner discover those resources within themselves.