Leaving the Honeymoon

In my last post, I wrote about some reasons romantic sparks flicker out, and how that shift relates to the natural evolution of relationships, as the early crushy, head-over-heels symbiotic stage gives  way to a more mature phase of the relationship. 

This week, I’m discussing a related question: How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?

It’s important to recognize that nobody can, or should, live in the honeymoon phase forever. At some point other commitments and connections will need some attention. In order to reconnect with friends, hold down a job, and engage in solo pursuits as well as mundane tasks, we have to go to bed and wake up on time, focus on something other than the new love, and resume building and maintaining a stable life. 

The reality of this might feel a bit melancholy–falling in love is magical, after all–but falling in love can also be immensely destabilizing. Also, let’s be honest, it’s not the state from which to make major life decisions (for instance, marriage) since the rose-colored glasses are too thick for flawless judgement. If you tell yourself that you are losing out as the honeymoon phase fades, you are doing yourself a disservice. Instead, I recommend focusing on what you gain through developing further. 

I can speak from experience here. I’ve had several failed relationships, as many of us have, so I understand how difficult it can be to move from symbiosis into a more differentiated relational state. But I also have a 25-year-long resounding relationship success. I can honestly say that my long-term relationship definitely has much more depth, intimacy, and rich connection than any honeymoon phase I have ever had. 

That richness comes with being very realistic about who we are, rather than trying to change one another, or pretend to be someone we really aren’t. We each believe in personal growth, and take our own growth and development seriously, but we don’t try to change each other. Change is an individual project, and how my partner changes (or doesn’t) is something I can influence at most–not something I can control. There is a powerful intimacy that comes with knowing and being known deeply, accepting the truth of your challenges as well as your strengths, and working together to maximize your potential and support your dreams and growth over time. 

The art of creating synergistic relationships, strongly interconnected yet independent, involves some very specific skills, including: 

  • Being able to identify what you think, feel, and want, separate from what anyone else might want for you or from you
  • Being able to get grounded and share that information even if you think the other person will feel uncomfortable hearing it
  • Staying balanced when your partner tells you something you are not entirely comfortable hearing. 

For more on this, check out my blog series about differentiation of self.  

Part of the process of moving out of symbiosis and towards a more differentiated relationship involves seeing our partner more fully, flaws and all. That will involve acknowledging some differences that probably got obscured in the excitement of the early relationship. It may be that you expect a very different level of cleanliness in the house, or you have very different levels of desire for sex, or one of you is a homebody and the other wants to go out almost every night. 

To strengthen your connection while acknowledging differences like these, you first need to approach relationships with the philosophy that difference is acceptable, even enriching. This is quite different from the “Disney Relationship Model” in which two halves of the same soul meld and complete one another, happily ever after. This shift requires you to look at your belief systems about relationships. Shifting toward celebrating differences requires that we neither take these differences personally, nor catastrophize them. 

Cultivating curiosity about your partner is one of the most important skills for navigating differences: “I would love to know more about why you feel that way, because it will help me deepen my understanding of you, my love.” That can feel like a stretch when it comes to a thorny topic with strong feelings attached. But keep in mind that if the two of you stagnate in a state of too-much-the-same, it will certainly kill the spark. Learning to find the spicy, somewhat sexy aspect of even very inconvenient differences will help motivate you to get curious. 

No matter how long you’ve been together, no matter how well you know each other, there’s always room for discovery–and that discovery can be thrilling. Maybe the spark from the honeymoon period can’t last, but there’s another kind of spark that comes with watching the person you love evolve and reveal new dimensions over time.

What Happened To The Spark?

Here’s a common relationship problem, and a frequent question I get from relationship therapists: What do you do when the “spark” fades from the relationship? 

This is an interesting question, because it is actually several questions disguised as one. Here is my rundown: 

  1. Why does the spark fade? Is inevitable?
  2. How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?
  3. Is it possible to get the spark back after it is gone?

This week, I’m tackling part 1. In the next two weeks, I’ll address numbers 2 and 3.

Let’s imagine a couple who has had a blissful first year or so of their relationship. They fell in love. Everything felt like a romantic movie. But now, they are starting to have some uncomfortable feelings, experience some disappointments, or notice things about their partner they don’t like so much. Maybe one notices their sweetie leaves socks in the middle of the hallway as a regular practice, not just once in a while. Or they don’t carry their dishes to the sink, or are obsessed with sparkling clean counters in a maddening way.  Or maybe one partner starts to miss their friends, who they haven’t seen much of lately during the flurry of new love. 

Or…maybe some issues are showing up in the bedroom. Often this starts with one partner realizing they are slightly (or not-so-slightly) dissatisfied sexually. They don’t know how to talk about it, they worry about hurting their partner’s feelings, they think there is something wrong with them, they think there is something wrong with their partner, or they don’t think it is ok to discuss sex for any number of reasons. Here are some common scenarios:

  • One partner realizes there is a sexual activity they used to really enjoy, that their new partner doesn’t seem to like, or doesn’t often engage in. 
  • One partner hasn’t been experiencing orgasm, and one or both are distressed about it.
  • One partner either takes hardly any time to reach orgasm, or “too long”, and it is distressing
  • One partner hasn’t been experiencing orgasm, but the other partner thinks they have; discussing it will reveal the deception.
  • One partner experiences painful sex and is afraid to bring it up 
  • One partner has anxiety about sex that results in various misunderstandings and difficulties
  • Erectile difficulties or other sexual function challenges create misunderstandings 
  • They don’t know how to talk about a perfectly normal difference in level of desire
  • Now that sex has settled into a routine, one or both partners are a little bit bored 
  • Something one partner is doing in bed is somewhat anti-erotic to the other, and the sexy-hot vibe has cooled enough for this to be a problem. 

I could go on, and on. There are many, many sex-related issues that crop up at this stage of relationship.

Now let’s go back in time, to the earlier stage of the relationship. Our couple has been dizzy with love for several months. They have eyes only for one another. They play together, look forward to seeing one another, talk about everything under the sun, revel in every discovery of commonalities. They are having so much fun together, they don’t want this stage ever to end. They are also becoming exhausted by staying up too late at night and they haven’t been able to find time for friends, or mundane tasks of daily living. 

This is the first stage of relationship, and is referred to as symbiosis. (I’m deeply indebted, by the way, to Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson for this concept, and for creating the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy!) In the symbiotic stage, we look for, notice, and maximize all the ways we are similar to one another. We bond. We give and receive love, and feel cherished. We create as much same-ness as we can, in an effort to create emotional safety. We stretch ourselves to get curious, agree, try new things, explore. We want to share activities and interests with our new love, even if it is a bit of a stretch, and this can produce some pretty amazing personal growth outside of the previous restrictions of our comfort zone. All of this bonding is very important; it creates a foundation that is (hopefully) solid enough to hold us together as a team as we face life’s inevitable challenges. But symbiosis is only the first stage; there are other stages still to come, and each stage has some important aspects that lend support to subsequent stages.

The next stage is differentiation, and it usually starts when one or both partners start to notice some differences between them. Remember the dishes left out, hyper-clean counters, and sexual disappointment? If the couple succeeded in creating some significant amount of emotional safety in the symbiotic stage, it can feel like there is a lot to lose if the relationship doesn’t work out. That fear, the fear of losing the relationship, acts as an inhibitor to disclosing things we think our partner might have a hard time hearing as we start noticing differences and feeling uncomfortable feelings about it. (Refer back to the list of sex issues that often crop up, and consider the many other aspects of life in which such differences might emerge.)

So, now we have a couple who are disappointed, in love, fearful, hopeful, exhausted, probably somewhat out of touch with their friends, and sexually frustrated. They are trying to figure out how to stay connected while making sense of sudden realizations of differences between them. They might be questioning their judgment, making decisions about whether to stay or leave, or just trying to figure out how to have a conversation about sexual pleasure in a culture where we don’t generally do that. For most people, not much in life has prepared them to be able to do this easily, or in a way that fosters connection and increased intimacy. 

So you can see, sometimes the spark just gets lost in the shuffle. None of the above are sexy scenarios, and most people are terrified to talk about sex under even the best of circumstances. 

That’s why, even if it’s not entirely inevitable for the spark to fade from a relationship, it’s extremely common–and it’s pretty hard for people to know what to do about, especially since what will ultimately help (speaking up and saying the scary thing you’re afraid your partner won’t want to hear) feels like the worst possible thing to do, as it threatens the comfortable illusion of sameness that was created during the symbiotic phase. 

Things look tough for our couple now–but hope isn’t lost! Tune in next week, when I’ll discuss how couples can navigate the tricky transition from dizzy-in-love into a more mature stage of their relationship–and what you, as a therapist, can do to help. 

Working With Sexual Aversion

I’m continuing my series responding to the answers my readers sent me in response to the question, “What is your biggest challenge working with sex issues in therapy?” This week, I’m discussing a really challenging one: sexual aversion.

Understanding a little about the Dual Control Model of sexual arousal will help you begin to approach sexual aversion with more confidence. The Dual Control Model was developed by Jansson and Bancroft from the Kinsey Institute. Emily Nagoski’s excellent book Come as You Are presents the model accessibly and in depth, if you want more information. 

The Dual Control is useful in understanding lots of sexual dynamics. The idea of the Dual Control Model is that sexual arousal isn’t an on-off switch. It has two components–excitation and inhibition, which Nagoski frames as being like an accelerator and a brake. That is to say, things that turn you on hit the accelerator, and things that turn you off hit the brake. The point is, you can stomp on the accelerator all you want, but if something’s holding down the brake, you’re not going to get anywhere.

With sexual aversion cases, generally what’s going on is that something is holding down the brake, hard. No matter what your client or their partner might do to increase stimulation (or hit the accelerator), nothing is going to improve in any substantial way unless they figure out how to let up the brake. Your job as a therapist is to help them identify what’s hitting the brake, and how to let it up.

Anxiety is the biggest brake ever. Sexual aversion is a form of anxiety, or even panic. Aversion sometimes results from a history of trauma, or from untreated sex pain, or a subtle (or overt) feeling of coercion or pressure around sex, but there isn’t always an obvious cause. If you think of it as anxiety, you’re more likely to get to the bottom of it. There might be subtle but pervasive shame about sex, for instance, or body image issues. Start with the Will Lily brief assessment to make sure you are targeting your questions and not missing anything crucial. (Spoiler alert: don’t forget to ask if any kind of sexual contact is uncomfortable or painful!)

Regardless of cause, there are some skills that usually require strengthening in order to resolve an aversion. These include: 

  1. Help them get control over the situation. Your client must feel in control, at all times, when in sexual contexts. It is extremely helpful if their partner is on board with taking a supportive role until the aversion resolves. The role of the partner is so important to this treatment plan, because aversion is an entirely systemic phenomenon. Any little hint of external or internal psychic pressure about sex will have to be addressed. If this is an individual client, see if you can have the partner come in every now and then so you can see the dynamics between them, and strengthen the collaboration and teamwork. It is also very helpful to have both partners in the room for complicated psychoeducation that requires a perspective shift, as is often true when discussing sex pain, psychic pressure about sex, sexual pleasure (which can really increase desire!), and sexual differentiation of self. The partner of someone with a sexual aversion probably also could really benefit from some support; it is an extremely difficult situation to be in! It would be fabulous if you could support them both as they learn to work together and heal this dynamic around sex. They have a lot to gain.
  2. Build their ability to identify desires, set boundaries, and hold those boundaries. Without the ability to identify desires, preferences, and boundaries, communicate them, and back them up with action, it will not be possible for the client to really feel in control.
  3. Diagnose physical problems. Painful sex will make aversion worse, guaranteed. Absolutely get any sex pain diagnosed and treated. While that is under way, the client will need to completely abstain from any painful type of contact.
  4. Practice relaxation or mindfulness. Once safety and control are in place, the linchpin of your treatment plan will be teaching the client, and their partner, how to relax in sexual situations and enjoy sex for the purpose of pleasure, rather than performance. This is a lot easier to do in a relational therapy where you have both partners in the room. Consider bringing in the partner for a few sessions if this is an individual client.
  5. Explore intrapsychic blocks. Ambivalence about sex is worth a deep dive. Look for signs of past or current trauma, including psychically “benign” sex pain, but don’t forget to look for subtle shameful messages about sex, which are extremely pervasive. What were they taught about sex? About themselves sexually? About people who enjoy sex? Are they able to enjoy pleasure in any aspect of their life? How about sexual pleasure? You can identify blocks by having a client talk you through a sexual interaction, step by step. Ask what occurred, but also what they were feeling, and what they were thinking. At the first little sign of anxiety, which might be merely a body sensation, delve into the multiple messages they are telling themselves in that moment. “What are you telling yourself to make yourself feel anxious?” “What are you telling yourself to make yourself feel scared?” Chair work can be very helpful in both uncovering and treating blocks of all types.
  6. Keep your client’s goals front and center. Don’t forget: Having sex is not a requirement of life. It is possible your client is asexual, or just not very interested in sex. Before you really dig into treating an aversion, ask where your client would like to get. There is no point in working toward a goal that your client isn’t interested in meeting. That said, if they have the type of aversion that comes with a big “ick” reaction or panicky feelings, they might want to resolve the negative feelings. But having anxiety-free sex is not the only possible positive outcome. Being in control of what they choose to do, even if that means being able to feel good about themselves while saying “no” to sex forevermore, would also be a great outcome.
  7. Refer or consult if necessary. If you don’t find your treatment plan progressing, a sex therapist can probably help. You might choose to refer the client, for a time, or permanently. You could also consult with a specialist every now and then as the treatment evolves, while continuing to do the therapy yourself.