Differentiation of Self is the Key To Keeping Things Sexy In A Long-Term Relationship

Take a moment to think about how you felt last time you started a new relationship. Remember the sunny, dreamy, head-in-the-clouds feeling of a brand-new love, the early days when you can barely stand to spend a second apart and you can hardly sleep for excitement.

In the Bader/Pearson Developmental Model of couple therapy, that stage of a relationship is called symbiosis. The purpose of the symbiotic phase is to build a strong bond between the partners. In this time, you look for signs of similarity, and you may find yourself playing down differences. You probably read your partner’s smallest signs and present yourself as the partner you think they want you to be. Do they seem to like it when you dress up? You dress up. Do they like it when you wear makeup? You wear makeup. Are they turned off by a potty-mouth? You try not to swear. Are they a big fan of that TV show? You watch every episode.

This is perfectly normal and to be expected. But what do you do when you wake up one day and notice you and your new love are different from one another? What do you do when you realize you’re not prepared to go through life concealing certain aspects of yourself? This is where symbiosis begins to give way to differentiation of self, or the process of becoming unique individuals who are different, yet still connected.

This requires a sophisticated skill set, and one that most of us spend a lifetime working on. Part of it is being able to figure out what you think/feel/believe/want separate from your partner, parents, or anyone else. Then, you need to be able to share that with your partner even if you think they might not like what you’re saying, and create space for them to do the same. A big project!

As a sex therapist, I focus on differentiation a lot, because without difference and the slight tension it brings, sex tends to go flat. Playing it too safe is not sexy. However, telling your partner something vulnerable about yourself (perhaps that you want to try a sex act they might not be interested in) is risky. Increasing differentiation in your relationship is all about taking that risk.

If your risky disclosure doesn’t break up your relationship, it will make for a hot conversation and hotter sex in the near future. Even if you don’t decide together to do THAT thing, you will have opened an important conversation about what you might want to explore together. Hot.

If that discussion DOES break up your relationship, you need a partner with a stronger sense of self so they can stay with the conversation even when they’re not completely comfortable. A difficult conversation now and then is just part of the landscape of long-term relationships. You can’t avoid them, so you might as well get good at them.

Discussions about what you do and do not want to explore sexually are just one example of an important kind of conversation to have about sex. You’ll also need to discuss

  • Your thoughts and feelings about reaching orgasm, or not
  • Your preferences when you want to change activities during sex
  • If something is uncomfortable or painful during sex
  • The meanings you attach to initiation of sex
  • The meanings you attach when your partner says no
  • What happens inside of you when something sexual doesn’t go as planned
  • And many, many more topics

The best way to inject some sexiness back into the relationship is to take a risk, to tell your partner the truth about what you really want–and to invite them to share their own unvarnished truth with you. Make a mutual vow not to freak out about what you hear. Create some safe space together to talk, and remember that discussing is not the same as doing.

As Esther Perel says, fire needs air. Letting go of the fear of rejection and allowing your partner to see your true self can be a surprisingly sexy experience.

How to Build a Long-Term Relationship With Courage and Compassion

This part three of a three-part series on sex and differentiation of self in relationships. If you missed the previous part, about symbiosis in the early stages of a relationship, you can check it out here.

At some point in a relationship things start to change. Partners begin to notice that all is not completely rosy, and there have been some disappointments and disillusionments. They shake off the super bonded and immersed-in-other mindset,  look around, and realize they are two unique individuals, with very different thoughts, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, and preferences. How annoying! As the fog clears, you realize you’re not all that happy they cook and eat meat in what used to be your pristine vegan kitchen. Or you feel a little cranky about how you actually never DO have an orgasm, you just fake them. How could your partner not know that? This step from the first stage, symbiosis (rose colored glasses), to the second stage, differentiation (showing up more completely and uniquely), is where many relationships get stuck.

Depending in part in how lost we got in the symbiotic stage, and how secure and grounded we are generally, this new awareness of self can be challenging and messy. Probably your clients have had a very difficult time with this transition, or are still stuck in it, maybe for many years. Some couples never get through this. Some fight, some shut down, but if you look closely, at the root of things is discomfort with our differences of opinions, preferences, and beliefs. How clean is clean? Who decides when sex is finished? Is porn ok? These are real differences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get my way multiple times EVERY DAY. Becoming able to come to terms with the idea that the differences are interesting and healthy sure makes life easier.

Why is this so hard? Because here’s the thing about differentiation: it’s scary as hell. If you figure out what you think, feel, believe, and prefer and then share it with your partner, they might not agree with you. They might be offended or angry, or collapse in hurt. If your tentative first foray into vulnerable disclosure was met with an extreme or distressing reaction, how can you steel yourself to try again, and again, and again? If you aren’t willing to risk the relationship, it is mighty hard to say something uncomfortable, however true it may be.

That’s when you have the Big Choice: differentiate or assimilate. Rock the boat, or capitulate and stabilize. Just to clarify: rocking the boat, or differentiating, is NOT the same thing as stonewalling, digging in, having a debate, or proving you’re right. What if you were to choose to get curious about your partner’s perspective, and why they see it differently than you do, rather than hammering your point in an effort to change your partner’s mind? What if you remained calm as you explained why you believe what you believe, and allowed your partner to ask questions about that in order to better understand you, with neither of you getting defensive, shutting down, or going on the attack?

Let’s make this less abstract and more specific to sex:

Do you know what you want sexually? Can you tell your partner? Under what circumstances? How about right in the middle of sex? How about if you think your partner won’t like what you want to say–for instance, that you would prefer to go back to snuggling on the couch watching Netflix? What if you lose your erection? Can both of you stay connected, sexy, and loving? Or do you make a lot of problematic meaning of the situation and pull away? Think of an opinion you have about sex–for instance, what is your opinion about crossdressing? Or polyamory? Or how about condom use? Can you share that with someone you love who might have a strongly-held opinion that doesn’t agree with yours?

A healthy sexual relationship requires differentiation–or else sex becomes an empty, anxiety-ridden performance, in which each partner plays the part they imagine their partner wants from them. The strong foundation you built in the symbiotic stage ideally should create safety for you to take some risks now.

It takes courage to ease through the vulnerability of self-disclosure and the fear of losing a relationship in order to reveal your true feelings and desires to your partner. It takes compassion to open your heart to your partner’s true feelings and desires, even if you are afraid of what they might mean. A strong relationship calls for both courage and compassion, and a therapist’s role is to help each partner discover those resources within themselves.

3 Ways to Handle New Relationship Bliss That Support a Long-Term Healthy Relationship

This is the second post in a three-part series about sex and differentiation of self in relationships. If you missed the first post, about the phases relationships go through, and how that development can get stuck, check it out here.

Think about those exciting early days at the beginning of a relationship. All the hormones and novelty work together to ease much potential distress around sex. This is a stage where we don’t generally see our partner very clearly. We see all the things we agree about and love about them, based on quite limited experience from a few dates, or a few months together. Then we invent the other 98% to support the story that they are perfect for us. We see the best in one another, and see how much we can change ourselves to be as much alike as possible. This phase is called symbiosis. Over time, the new relationship energy starts to fade, time goes by, and at some point we look around and realize “they’re not who I thought they were”. We start to notice we have differences, and some of them are big. Some are huge. Who IS this person?? This is the beginning of a natural transition from symbiosis to differentiation.

You (or your client) can set yourself up for an easier transition from one stage to the next. If you know that in past relationships you’ve tended to lose yourself in your partner, setting aside your own interests or habits for theirs, and becoming dependent on their approval or attention, this is valuable information to take into future relationships. You can get better at holding on to what makes you a unique and separate person from your partner without losing the joy and intimacy of a loving partnership–in fact, that joy and intimacy will only be heightened, ultimately, by the vulnerability you can find in welcoming your partner into the truth of your innermost self. Here are a few important steps you can take to prevent getting stuck:  

  1. Don’t tell “kind untruths” like  “I always had an orgasm with you” or “I never use a vibrator” or “I only think of you when I fantasize”. Any kindly-meant bending or breaking of the truth will certainly come back to bite you later on, and when it does, it will seriously undermine or destroy your partner’s trust in you.  
  2. There is nothing wrong with seeking to grow as a person, but don’t give yourself up to your partner entirely. Grow to be more the person you want to be, not simply more the person you partner wants you to be.
  3. Don’t give up any parts of yourself that are a major part of the “juiciness” of your life, like independence, career aspirations, major life goals. The healthy business of the symbiotic stage of your relationship is to bond and stabilize, but if you take it too far and eliminate all of the things that are most important to you, you will find yourself without a sexual spark later on. Ask yourself (or your client):
    • When do I feel alive?
    • When do I experience joy?
    • If I stopped doing _____, would I miss it five years from now? Ten?

When you answer these questions you must go further than “when I’m with my partner”.  Get down to an answer that is just about you.

The things that make you feel alive are the things you must keep. In fact, they’re probably the things your partner was attracted to in the first place. Unless you want to feel flat in 5 years, prioritize those things. This creates a foundation for a relationship that has room for you to be happy!

In my next post, I’ll zero in on some reasons couples struggle when moving from symbiosis toward differentiation. I’ll talk about the Big Choice couples are faced with, between the path of differentiation (risk) and the path of assimilation (safety).