Asexuality and Labels, Part One

After my most recent blog post about asexuality, a colleague wrote to me to ask a question about the topic. She was interested in my thoughts about young people who identify as asexual–whether it’s possible to know that you’re asexual from a young age, without having had much relationship experience, and whether it can be unhelpful to lock yourself into an identity early on. 

I thought that her question was quite valuable and interesting, as well as being a fairly common one, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share my response here, for all of you who may be wondering something along the same lines.

There are three overlapping issues in this question: 

  1. What is the utility of labels?
  2. What about fluidity over the lifespan? Do we lock ourselves in or limit our options by identifying in a particular way?
  3. What about youth and identity? What can young people know about, in particular, orientations such as gay, lesbian, bi, pan, or asexuality? 

As you can see, my colleague’s question got me thinking about some interesting, meaty, complicated topics–too much for a single blog post, so I decided to split my response into two. I’ll tackle the first two questions in this post, and next week I’ll share my thoughts about the third–as well as a few stories from my own youth that might help illuminate my perspective. 

Regarding Labels

No label can perfectly express the complexity of a whole human being, or even come close. But labels can be useful nevertheless. They can serve a purpose in helping us communicate with each other. Labelling yourself “bisexual,” for instance, is unlikely to capture the nuances of how you experience attraction, what kind of person you happen to be drawn to, what intimacy means to you, or who you are currently intimate with–how could it? But it can serve as a little signpost, guiding the person you’re speaking to a little closer to understanding an important aspect of you. 

Because labels are both useful and imperfect, everyone has to make their own decisions about how to navigate the relationship between the fullness of the experiences and the somewhat limited information captured by the label. 

So when someone tells you that they’re asexual, we know it probably won’t capture the full nuance and fluidity of their inner world, just as with any label. But it does point you in the right direction, towards an important aspect of themselves that they want to express to you. 

Seen like this, an identity label is a shorthand form of communication. One way to respond would be to get curious, and let them know you are interested enough to invite them to go beyond shorthand–not because you want to argue with them or because you doubt them, but because you care about them and want to know them. You can simply say, “Tell me more about that, and what it means to you.” Your goal is to better understand what they are trying to communicate about themselves.

Regarding Fluidity

It is certainly true that identities can be fluid, and that people’s perceptions of themselves can shift a whole lot over the course of a lifespan. Things change. But does having an identity and using a label limit the range a person might experience? 

My thoughts about this are informed by my own development. I was attracted to boys when I was a teen, and definitely identified as straight. But when I moved to Seattle in my early 20s, I came out as a lesbian. There were a couple of years in between, when I knew that shift was coming, but I had no idea what was ahead for me when I was in middle school and high school. 

Nobody considers telling a straight-identified youth they shouldn’t limit their options by identifying as straight. But I’m imagining right now what it would have been like for me if someone had. I don’t think it would have been helpful. In fact, anyone voicing any opinion at all about my identity would probably have made me dig in more, and show some resistance to change, out of sheer rebellion. In my case, I think it would have complicated my coming out process. That’s because, in addition to a lot of other things I was already grappling with, I would have had to figure out how I felt about capitulating to whomever had voiced the opinion that I might change in the future.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of someone locking themselves into a label, then, consider the possibility that, if you put them on the defensive, you might increase the likelihood of that happening. Sexual identity and experience are so individual and unique that, to an extent, we all have to walk our path and figure things out on our own. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is show up with a warm heart and a curious mind. 

Next week I’ll tackle the second half of this question, youth and identity, so stay tuned!

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.