Rules for poly relationships? It’s not that simple.

Sometimes couples considering polyamory are advised to create a rule book laying out the boundaries of the relationship. This is a common idea about poly: if you have enough rules, everyone will feel safe and secure. Partners simply promise not to engage in activities, or under circumstances, that make one another uncomfortable. However, creating a rule book is a much more complicated idea than it may seem.

One problem is the assumption that we can predict with any accuracy what will make us uncomfortable and under which circumstances. Especially for those new to poly, there is no way to envision how you will respond to any particular circumstance or situation. I’ve seen people surprised in every possible way; some are not jealous when they were sure they would be, and others experience lots of uncomfortable emotions they didn’t expect to feel. This can even be true for those with lots of experience. Every relationship is unique, and brings unique gifts and challenges.

Another problem is that many people, whether monogamous or not, have difficulty making and keeping agreements. In order to make an agreement about relational expectations and preferences, one needs a very complex skill set. You need to be able to do three difficult things:

  1. look inside, and take an internal read on what you think, feel, believe, and prefer, separate from whatever someone else might think.
  2. feel grounded enough to share this with a partner even if you think they might not feel comfortable hearing it.
  3. stay grounded, curious, and steady when a partner shares with you something YOU don’t feel comfortable hearing.

I refer to this trio of skills as differentiation of self. Differentiation is a lifelong growth process, and some are more practiced at it than others. As a relational therapist, it is a given that I see people in relationships that are struggling in some way. Very often, difficulty with some aspect of differentiation is the culprit.

Why is this important to poly? Because if you can’t figure out what you think, feel and want, it is very difficult to make an agreement you are able to keep.

Imagine that a couple, Joe and June, are negotiating the boundaries of their relationship. June pressures Joe to makes a particular agreement. Joe thinks “Sure, I don’t agree with that, but I care about June, and it sounds reasonable, so I’ll try to keep that agreement.”

That is a much shakier construct than if Joe were able to identify his feelings and beliefs and tell June, “I wish I could say I can do that, but honestly I’m not sure I even believe in it.” For many, that type of sentiment can seem like the beginning of a nasty disagreement. To well-differentiated couples, however, a difference of opinion or preference is an invitation to get to know one another more thoroughly and explore the options more deeply. That kind of solid foundation allows for flexibility, and flexibility is what is required when surprises are likely–as they are in open relationships.

There is a lot of evidence that flexibility is the quality most likely to build healthy, happy families over time, regardless of relationship structure. Let’s face it, life is always handing us surprises–illness, death of a loved one, unexpected pregnancy, changes in sexual desire, changes in job situations, and a zillion other things we can’t predict but just need to get through for one reason or another. Families that can have deeper and more personally courageous (that is, differentiated) conversations are more likely to do well when challenges come around. The key is sitting down together and discussing feelings, differences in perception, and experience, and being genuinely curious about our partner’s perspective.

Postpartum Low Desire: Improving Intimacy and Strengthening Relationships

My last two posts were about dealing with the effects of birth on your body and your mind. This week, it’s all about teamwork. It’s about finding that connection that brought you and your partner together in the first place–and rebuilding it stronger than ever.

When you or your partner are experiencing low desire postpartum, how can you increase intimacy and closeness, reduce frustration, and get the teamwork feeling back in your relationship?

In order to encourage arousal, you need to be able to relax and let go of your worries and calm the “mama lion” protective instinct for a short time. Can you leave your baby with a deeply trusted friend or relative? Is there a hotel near your home? Could you and your partner connect during nap time? Planning intimacy may not feel romantic, but think of it as planning a mini-vacation–a time to escape your anxiety and really connect.

Performance pressure will not help, so don’t put too many expectations on your mini-vacations. Focus on enjoying one another, on pleasurable touch and emotional connection, rather than on meeting specific expectations.

Couples I see often report that they can’t connect because their lives are too busy. I have news for you: no matter how busy you are, the remedy for “not enough time” is not something you need to pay a therapist for. If you can’t find time to listen, talk, connect, and enjoy one another, your marriage will suffer until you do. Eventually it will suffer beyond repair. You absolutely must find at least a little time to give one another undivided attention. Why not commit to do that starting with 10 minutes today?

If one or both of you are emotionally exhausted, you may need to reconnect with a sense of self before intimacy can bloom. Make it a priority to nurture yourself and your interests, even if only by listening to an audiobook that ignites your imagination while driving or rocking the baby. Although this may seem an indirect route to closeness with one another, it will nurture your loving connection and create an environment where desire can emerge.

One of the most important (and most difficult) ways to nurture yourself is by trying to love and appreciate your body the way it is right now. Self-consciousness about your body is a common experience postpartum. Try thinking about it like this: if there is one moment in your life to feel PROUD of your body, it’s now! Your body created a miracle, without conscious effort on your part! And if there’s one time in your life when your body deserves all the love and support you can give it, it’s now. If you catch yourself in negative self-talk about how your body looks, take a moment to appreciate all the amazing things your body can do. No matter what, it’s a miracle. Your body is perfect exactly as it is, and if there is one time in your life you should be certain about that, it is postpartum.

A big key to staying intimately connected during times of great change is flexibility. This looks a little different for every couple. For instance, it can look like:

  • Adjusting your expectations of how interested you have to be in order to begin intimate touching, and maybe taking willingness as your starting place.
  • Scheduling intimacy so you can connect during naptime.
  • Agreeing not to pressure one another, so that you both can initiate physical affection without either of you feeling obligated to follow through in any particular way. This also gives you both the experience of feeling wanted rather than pushed away.
  • Adding self-pleasure to your couple intimacy repertoire.
  • Expressing your love and attraction in non-physical, non-pressuring ways, in order to remind one another that you look forward to returning to increased feelings of desire in the future.
  • Whatever activities you engage in, can you make connection the primary goal and help one another stay curious, engaged, and loving even if some intimate interactions don’t go as planned? I don’t know what flexibility will look like for you, but I know it’s an extremely powerful tool for maintaining desire with changing health, hormones, and bodies. Over a lifetime, you will have many chances to use the flexibility skills you develop now.

If you think frequent disagreements are part of the desire problem, things may improve if you feel like your partner hears and cares about your feelings and the challenges you are facing, even if they can’t entirely relate. Here’s the hitch: this goes both ways. You also need to validate your partner’s experience, express empathy even if you can’t entirely relate, and accept that you have different and equally valid challenges right now. This can feel like a big hurdle; nonetheless, it is a necessary step towards emotional closeness. Accepting your differences and loving one another despite (and for) them is one of the building blocks for keeping things spicy in a long term relationship.

All of these skills will serve you, your long term relationship, and your intimate life in multiple circumstances, not just now. The time you spend building these skills will really pay off. You are building a strong, intimate relationship where you each feel loved and valued for your whole self.

When Sex Doesn’t Go as Planned

This week, a therapist friend asked me how to help a client enjoy sexual interactions when things don’t go as planned. This is such a universal experience that I think it merits a blog post.

There are about a million ways in which sex might not go as planned, so let me start by normalizing that. Sex very often doesn’t go as planned. Sex is an improvisation, not a script. If either or both partners need sex to proceed like a script in order to feel it was successful, one or both partners is probably personalizing something that is not actually about them, and then reaching problematic and likely incorrect conclusions about what it means about them, or about their partner.

Here’s an example of how this might play out: a heterosexual couple is having a sexual interaction, and the male partner loses his erection. His partner thinks this means something about her. She’s worried, maybe, that she is not attractive or not a good enough lover. She doesn’t check that assumption with him, because that would be a very vulnerable conversation to have. Instead, she distances herself a little. Her partner assumes that means something about him–that he is a big disappointment to her, perhaps, or that he’s is flawed in his manliness. He doesn’t want to risk the vulnerability of checking that assumption with her; as a result, both partners feel awful and disconnected. Over time, if they have enough interactions like this one, they’ll begin to see sex as a disconnecting activity, rather than a connecting one.

If the marker of success for a sexual interaction is that the couple is able to achieve penis-in-vagina sex (PIV), followed by one or both reaching orgasm, that is problematic. PIV and orgasm both require MANY body systems to be working in two different bodies, not to mention the multiple emotional and relational aspects that need to be in alignment. I wish we talked, as a culture, more openly about sex because then perhaps everyone would know that the people who have consistently great sex especially over long periods of time also have an improvisational sexual style that includes adjusting in the moment to whatever emerges either physically or emotionally.

What if the goal of sex was to experience pleasure while staying emotionally connected? With this in mind, let’s replay the above example:

The same couple begins a sexual interaction, and the male partner loses his erection. They both notice it, and accept it as the reality of the moment, and move to stimulate one another in other ways. Let’s imagine as they are doing this, one of them can’t stay grounded and gets taken over by negative self-talk. For instance, he feels bad about himself because he lost his erection, or she feels bad about herself because she fears she somehow caused the loss of his erection. Now, they decide to share that information, even though it is vulnerable to do so. They perform an act of courage, and say something like “I can’t keep up with the negative thoughts I’m having with myself about this.” Their partner responds in a supportive manner while initiating a mutually soothing activity like cuddling or holding hands. They have a conversation where they intentionally choose to lift their connection above their scripted performance. Perhaps they acknowledge this is hard for both of them. Perhaps they help one another remember that the meaning they make about loss of erection is optional. Perhaps they remind one another of non-erection-dependent sexual activities they would still like to enjoy together. They both experience vulnerability, and through that, connection. Their emotional safety increases, their resilience strengthens, and whether or not they return to sexual touching is nearly irrelevant. They have had a positive interaction when sex didn’t go as planned.

With practice, most couples I work with get better at this, and the negative self-talk become less powerful as they learn how to redirect the interaction. They are able to develop a flexible sexual repertoire; when one activity they both enjoy is not possible for any reason, they have others to choose from. They have ways to experience the creative flow of improvisation together, and are able to see that they can choose connection intentionally no matter the circumstances.