This is the first post in a three-part series about sex and differentiation of self in relationships.
Sex is perhaps the area of human experience in which we feel the most vulnerable. In sex, we are exposed, naked before another human being, both literally and figuratively. With vulnerability often comes anxiety: how will my partner react to my body, my sexual preferences, my fantasies? How will they react to my discomfort, awkwardness and uncertainty? What if I don’t get hard or stay hard? Will I be able to figure out how to please them? What if they don’t reach orgasm, or if I don’t? What if I suggest something they think is gross?
Sex is a place where our deepest sense of desire and our deepest vulnerabilities meet. In this tender intersection, it can feel like the future of the relationship rests on whether our partner is pleased by us or, heaven forbid, turned off by us. We look for any sign of the latter so we can adapt, and quickly. “Oh, did you think I said vibrator? I didn’t say that, I would never say that! I absolutely agree with you, vibrators are gross!” or “Yeah, that was DEFINITELY an orgasm. Absolutely. Awesome.” There is a whole lot of nonverbal communication going on, as well as people working hard to accommodate one another before there is even a sign of distress. Before you know it, you have an entire narrative about who you and your partner are together sexually that is based on, in part, false assumptions and kindly-meant untruths.
Where did the connection go, to say nothing of the pleasure? How did sex become a performance, frequently ending in hurt feelings or tears? Why isn’t sex spontaneous any more? What happened to all that super hot desire?
Let’s just pause there for a minute; think about those questions. What is your theory about what happened? And how might you approach that as a relational therapist?
Helping couples work with questions such as these used to be VERY difficult for me, because the level of distress the partners were experiencing was hard to handle in therapy. How directive should I be? How can I join with everyone? How can I shift unrealistic expectations effectively? Also, what expectations were realistic? Where does psychoeducation fit in? And certainly, how can I get the partners to calm down sufficiently to hear one another, and me? Improving communication is a great goal, but not if nobody can hear.
Some days felt like a win, others most definitely felt like a loss. I researched couple therapy in every way I could. I knew I needed to get much more effective. I borrowed some ideas and techniques from others, and I developed some of my own. I knew deep down that differentiation of self had to be at the root of the solution, but most couple therapy modalities focused on attachment to the exclusion of differentiation.
That’s when I discovered the Developmental Model. The DM incorporates aspects of attachment, differentiation, and neuroscience. Not two opposing camps but one cohesive whole, informed by science. What’s not to love? I looked deeper. I took webinars and then training from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson the developers of the model. I took every opportunity to learn from them, and I took pages of notes. I replayed webinars again and again. I memorized. I took very specific interventions to my clients, and right away, my life got easier. I collected those interventions like precious stones. The more I had, the better things got. Naturally, I applied what I learned to my own clientele, and noticed the difference in progress. Of course I wanted to train with Ellyn and Pete.
As I learned more about the Developmental Model, I came to understand that relationships progress through stages. There is a connection between getting stuck in a developmental stage and experiencing relational problems. This provided a road map of sorts for therapy, and a non-pathologizing one at that. As a relationship develops, the couple’s experience of sex changes, too–providing an opportunity for relational and personal growth.
So how can you or your clients build a healthy sexual relationship that doesn’t suffer when the new relationship energy dissipates? In my next post, I’ll discuss the early, symbiotic phase of the relationship, and I’ll share some tips for setting up an easier transition into the differentiation phase.
Click here for the second post in this three-part series.