Why I Hate the Concept of “Compromise”

What can you do to help a couple shift from an adversarial stance to a collaborative alliance?

Couples often come to therapy with at least one big difference or disagreement, and an expectation that I will “fix” it. They hope that I will verify that their partner is wrong and they are right–problem solved!

I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that this is not my agenda at all. Not even close.

In this and the next blog post, I’ll let you know more about my perspective, and how I work with impasses. Much of this material is drawn from the Bader/Pearson Developmental Model of Couple Therapy. The rest comes from my experience with consensus process as a Quaker.

Once I let my clients know that I won’t be acting as arbiter regarding their disagreements, they assume I will be guiding them through some sort of process to arrive at a compromise. I think many couple therapists do just that. However, I do not believe in or strive for compromise.

To me, compromise can be described as “lose/lose”, as it implies that everyone will give up something of value to them in order to “meet in the middle”. I think a middle ground that requires everyone to give up something of value sounds like quite a dull place to live in, particularly when we’re discussing lifelong commitment.

I much prefer a process of creating space for a miracle.

Gridlock is not a space for a miracle to occur. Neither is polarization. However, that is how most of us learned to disagree. We learned to lock in to “I’m right and you’re wrong.” If we have to come to an agreement, and I have to give up something, so do you. Obviously one will win, and one will lose, and I’m determined to be the one who wins.

Instead, I help my clients step into another space entirely. (This strategy comes from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson, and fits my belief system perfectly.) What kind of a person do you want to be in your committed relationship? Kind? Loving? Compassionate? Reliable? Strong? Whatever it is, my next question is, when you are a compassionate (or insert another value here) partner, how do you behave? What do you do? How do you know you’re being compassionate? What does it look like? And the next question: how far from that are you now, in your current relationship? Another question: how would it benefit you directly (not your partner but you) if you were able to act from your compassionate self more often?

Every person in a relationship ends up shooting themselves in the foot with their own behaviors now and again. Until this is looked at very directly and some motivation to change is identified, that conversation about the dishes (or sex, or kids, or whatever) is not going to shift. Even if it does, it will take many months of one-step-forward-two-steps-back therapy, and that’s frustrating and discouraging for all involved.

More importantly, the magic can’t happen until the adversarial stance is changed to something more collaborative. The abovementioned sequence is designed to switch adversarial thinking (characterized by hyper-focus on the other and the oppositional forces) to self-focus. This is so important because it leads to empowerment; a realization that there is something here that I have the power to change and it will make a difference.

Next week I’ll tell you about another strategy I have for shifting the adversarial stance and working with internal impasses.

Poly 101: Working With Jealousy

One of the most common things I hear when talking about polyamory is “Oh, I could never do that. I would just be too jealous.”

I don’t know where we get this idea that jealousy is insurmountable–or, on the other hand, that poly people are poly because they never get jealous.

Perhaps the problem is that we tend to see a person’s jealousy as a sign that their partner is doing something wrong. Even therapists can fall into the trap of holding one partner responsible for the other’s jealousy–rather than helping each see how their emotions belong to them, and are a facet of their unique experience and identity. Solving uncomfortable emotions by changing the partner’s behavior is a lovely solution *when the partner is truly interested in changing their behavior*. Otherwise, it is a slippery slope to resentment.

In my philosophy, jealousy is an emotion, just like any other emotion. That means it’s possible to work with jealousy, just like it’s possible to work with anger, guilt, fear or anxiety. In fact, I believe that most therapists already have the tools to work with jealousy.

Like any other strong emotion, working with jealousy is a process of learning to hold steady, to let go of expectations, and to recognize how your emotion is a reflection of the narratives you tell yourself, rather than a reflection of reality. Working with jealousy is an opportunity to challenge your client to grow beyond their knee jerk emotional reactions.

Certainly, if you have poly clients you will need to get good at working with jealousy. The idea that poly people just don’t get jealous certainly isn’t true in all cases, or even most of the time. Nor is it predictable. I’ve worked with plenty of poly people who went in thinking they wouldn’t be jealous, and surprised themselves with strong, difficult emotions. (On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who go in thinking they will be horribly jealous, who then discover that they are much more calm about their partner’s outside encounters than they anticipated.)

No matter what, it’s useful to go in with the attitude that jealousy is both expectable and surmountable. You can help your clients overcome their jealousy–you just need to apply the same lens and the same toolkit you use every day with every other powerful emotions your clients experience.

How (and Why) to Talk About Self-Pleasure in Therapy

When you talk about sex with your clients, you may find yourself in a situation in which it will be helpful to discuss self-pleasure. And yet most therapists, in my experience, tend to find that raising the topic of self-pleasure particularly uncomfortable and embarrassing. Why is this? And how can we make things easier for ourselves and our clients?

First off, I’d like to explain why I think it’s sometimes necessary to discuss self-pleasure in a therapeutic context. Self-pleasure is a much easier way of exploring what feels good for your body than being touched by a partner, for a number of reasons:

 

  • It’s immediate. There’s no need to say, “no, go back to what you were doing before,” or “that’s too rough, go more gently” or anything of the kind, because you can tell what feels right to you and make small adjustments instantly without the need for formulating or filtering words.
  • It’s safe. There’s no risk of pregnancy or disease transmission, which means that you may feel less anxious and more able to open up to your own sensation.
  • It’s lower-stakes. Self-pleasure doesn’t come with the same pressure that partnered sex does, such as the pressure to engage in activities your partner wants even if they’re not exactly what you want, or to put on a performance of enjoyment for your partner so that they feel reassured.
  • It’s private. Nobody needs to know about it, so you can explore things you might not be ready to explore with a partner yet.

For all these reasons and more, exploring self-pleasure can be a useful tool for your clients. I might recommend it if, for instance, your client has difficulty reaching orgasm and isn’t sure what kinds of touch they find pleasurable, or your client has developed an aversion to sex as a result of painful, coercive, or simply unfulfilling encounters, but wants to regain an experience of pleasure.

If you’ve identified a case in which recommending self-pleasure might help, how can you raise the topic without making your client (or yourself) uncomfortable? Here are some strategies that help me:

  • Choose your words thoughtfully. You may have noticed that I’ve used the term “self-pleasure” throughout this post. Personally, I think the term “masturbation” has negative and shameful connotations, so I rarely use it. The term “self-pleasure” emphasizes the positive, and isn’t part of the negative cultural narrative. You can read more about how to choose the right terms when talking about sex here.
  • Project a non-judgemental attitude. Your clients will respond to your level of comfort with the topic. If you project the idea that self-pleasure is normal and potentially helpful, that will help to put your clients at ease. If, conversely, you seem embarrassed to even bring up the topic, your clients will feel embarrassed too.
  • Let them opt out. There are plenty of people who have moral or religious objections to self-pleasure, or who just feel grossed out by the concept. For that reason, when you recommend self-pleasure, you should always give your clients the opportunity to say no. Self-pleasure is the easiest way to explore your body’s experience of pleasure, but it’s not the only option. Exploration with a partner is very possible, it’s just more of a challenge. Make sure your clients know that if they don’t want to try self-pleasure, partner exploration is a perfectly viable option, and you will continue to help and support them if they choose that path.