Asexuality and Labels, Part Two

Last week, I shared the first part of my response to a colleague’s question about young people identifying as asexual. You can read the first part here, where I talked about the benefits and potential pitfalls of labels, and how we can embrace fluidity while still communicating important aspects of our identity to one another. This week, I’m tackling the second part of the question, and talking about youth and sexual identity. 

Youth and Identity

Young people have so much to figure out about themselves. I often wonder if my own coming out process would have been different had I known a fuller range of possibilities when I was very young. I was born in the early 1960’s, and I definitely did not know anything about being gay or bisexual, let alone pan or asexual. 

But I do remember how I fought with my mother when she wanted me to study subjects that would lead to me having a good job, and I wanted to study art. I got very stubborn. And I remember her vociferously discouraging me from marrying when I was 18. I often wonder if I would have been able to find the courage to call off the wedding if it hadn’t meant I’d have to swallow my pride and admit to my mother that I had been wrong. 

In both cases, I fought so hard for my right to know myself better than she did that I was not able to change my mind easily. I wasn’t willing to have that conversation with my mom. I didn’t want to hear “I told you so” on top of everything else I was going through at the time.

So how the heck do you teach young people how to navigate fluidity, without telling them you think they will probably change their minds and identities multiple times in their lives? Young people are often in a process of differentiating from their parents, and also from their culture. That might involve trying on new labels or identities, and it may involve engaging with important aspects of themselves–such as sexual identity–that may be surprising to you or run counter to your expectations. 

Maybe that identity will evolve over time, and maybe it won’t. In either case, you can help them stay open to whatever may emerge by welcoming their disclosures with warmth and curiosity: “Thank you so much for trusting me with this information. Tell me more about what this means to you. How can I best support you?” 

Teaching Resilience and Flexibility

I think it is so important that we help children and young people build resilience, flexibility, and differentiation. But I don’t think these are skills that can be taught directly, by explaining the concepts. It’s likely that would just feel too didactic, or judgmental to someone who is just beginning to explore what it is to disagree with authority figures. I think these are things that are better taught by example, and indirectly. 

You might be able to help a young person learn to bounce back from disappointment by doing so yourself, and by celebrating when they are able to do so in any area of life. Similarly, teaching young people how to challenge themselves, evaluate and re-evaluate situations, and make course-corrections and pivots in other spheres will give them the skills they need to navigate fluidity in intimate and relational contexts. Supporting differentiation in young people means giving them positive feedback for sharing difficult material with you: 

  • “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me.” 
  • “I’m so glad to know this about you.”  
  • “Would you like to tell me more? I’m so interested in how you came to understand this about yourself.” 
  • “How can I best support you?”

With support like that, I’m confident the young people in your life will be able to make any course-correction they need to, and will feel they can come to you with anything they want to share. They will meet with plenty of doubt and marginalization. Having a safe place where they don’t have to feel defensive about their self-exploration is the best gift you can possibly give.

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!

Is It Possible to Revive the Spark After It Fades?

This is the final post in a three-part series on what happens to the “spark” in a long-term relationship. In the first post, I talked about why the spark of early passion tends to flicker out; in the second, I addressed how people can gracefully transition from the early stage of a relationship to a more mature stage, when it may be less ‘spicy’, but also more deeply intimate, with a more steady and enduring connection. This time, I’m answering this question: Is it possible to revive the spark after it fades? 

The short answer is yes–but reviving it won’t happen without some effort on the parts of both partners, despite the magical nature of passion. There is no step-by-step guide to success, but there are a couple of aspects to consider:

  1. Are there conditions in your relationship that discourage passionate connection? If so, you will have to address these in order to create conditions where something magical can happen.
  2. Are you approaching the problem in a way that ends up suppressing desire? Passion is a feeling, and thoughts, feelings, and actions are intimately connected. Expecting your partner to create your desire is not likely to succeed. Nor is simply waiting for desire to magically re-appear. You can roll up your sleeves and go to work figuring out how to fan the flames of desire through your own thinking.

Here are some examples of situations and ways of thinking that tend to kill desire. Think about your situation, or that of your client, and see which of these areas needs some attention in order to revive the spark:

  • Joined at the hip. If you and your partner spend almost no time apart, consult each other on everything, and/or have given up having individual interests, friends, and personalities, that is a situation where eventually the spark tends to disappear. Granted, it can be scary to give one another a little space, but consider the conditions that created the spark in the first place: you were just discovering one another, and had the opportunity to learn new things about each other every time you were together. You need to bring back a little of that distance–take a step back, so that you can actually see one another again. Give your partner a little space, and get a little fresh air yourself too. Take up a new hobby, and let your light shine. Passion requires a degree of novelty. You will each need to live a little in order to have the chance to discover some newness in one another. 
  • Too much distance. Conversely, if you are both completely absorbed in your own worlds, interests, jobs, etc., that is also a situation where you don’t have the opportunity to learn new things about one another. Go ahead and do you, but go check out how amazing your partner is when they are doing their thing, too. It might be hot.
  • No quality time. If every conversation revolves around chores, finances, raising the kids, or work, you will not get to experience one another as erotic beings. (Or maybe there are no conversations at all?) There is no substitute for spending time together. Have a dinner table conversation about something interesting, or give yourself a two-hour vacation and spend it holding hands and talking. You might hire a babysitter and go have an experience together so you have something new to talk about, or read a book aloud to one another. If you’re not spending high quality time together, that is the first order of business. You must figure out how to put aside the mundane or stressful day-to-day for a little while in order to let romance blossom. 
  • Constant pressure. This is a common dynamic in desire discrepancies: the higher-desire partner constantly pressures the lower-desire partner for more sex, more touch, more closeness, and the lower-desire partner constantly evades, avoids, and retreats. Each pushes the other into a more extreme pursuer/distancer dynamic, which is massively unsexy for everyone. Both partners will need to stop blaming their partner or the universe, and make a deliberate effort to shift their part in this dynamic. Start with a reality-based self-assessment: what are you telling yourself about yourself, your partner, or your relationship that is keeping you in the role you are in? What did you used to tell yourself, when things were hot? Start noticing the not-hot thoughts and challenge yourself to start thinking the way you used to, when you were more actively in touch with your love for one another.
  • Too much familiarity. Eroticism thrives on a bit of uncertainty. It loves novelty. Do you know all there is to know about your partner? If you think you do, there’s at least part of your problem. Get creative and get curious: What does your partner think about the thing you did together last weekend? What are they currently reading? What about it do they enjoy, and what about it do they not like so much? What dreams and desires do they have? Where would they love to go on vacation, and more importantly, why? What hobby or interest would they like to take up next, and why? If they took a class, what would it be about, and what is interesting about that to them? What is preventing them from doing more creative things in their life, if anything? What parts of their teenaged self do they miss, and what parts are they delighted they were able to leave behind? These are all examples of the infinite variety of questions that can start a new conversation. Take it upon yourself to be a brilliant conversationalist–by which I mean, stop talking about yourself and get curious about your partner. 

If you create the conditions for enjoyment of one another, you might find yourselves enjoying one another. Once you have those conditions in place, it is time to look at your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Rather than thinking desire and passion are outside of your control, start considering: What do you tell yourself to turn yourself off? And what might you tell yourself to turn yourself on? 

You are in charge of your thoughts, and your thoughts give birth to your feelings, including the feeling of not experiencing desire, and the feeling of desire itself. (For more about how to create shifts in thoughts and feelings, see my post on creating change in yourself.)

The strength of the spark will certainly fluctuate in a healthy long-term relationship. There will be plenty of times when you’re dealing with all the minutiae of everyday life, and things just don’t feel optimally sexy. But there can also be moments when you are suddenly struck anew by how special your partner is, and what a miracle it is that you get to spend your lives with one another.