Couples, marriage

What Research is Telling us About how Pornography is Impacting Long-Term Romantic Relationships

wife husband computer

A few years ago, I was sitting in front of my class of graduate students in a therapy training program when one of the students was describing some difficulty he was having with a case diagnostically coded in the DSM-5 (basically the diagnostic bible for mental health), but with a relatively rare prevalence. It made treatment trickier than some of the more common presentations assigned to the rest of his cohort.

Trying to empathize, I said that I could remember almost three decades earlier when I was assigned the only pornography case in the clinic, which was also associated with other paraphilic behaviors identified in the DSM-III-R (the version of the DSM at that time—which has since been altered to exclude any reference to sexual addiction). I added that as an early 20-something female, I had a “why me,” attitude when the intake staff informed me that they specifically wanted me to take the case so the male would have a real-life experience with a female instead of objectifying females in images.

The disbelief in the room was palpable. It took me a minute to decipher the incredulous stares boring into me from around the table. Suddenly, it clicked, “Oh,” I recognized, “You’re all thinking I can’t be telling the truth because you can’t imagine a time when couples weren’t bringing compulsive pornography use in as a problem at least 50% of the time, right?” “Yeah,” one student confirmed, “What do you mean you had the ONLY case of compulsive porn use?”

I knew it was the only case back then because the intake staff had driven the point home, explaining why they wanted me to agree to take it. “Well,” I continued, “Who in here is aware that Gambling Disorder is in the DSM?” All the hands went up. “OK, now, who in here is treating a gambling disorder case right now?” No hands went up. “So, you know it exists as a clinical presentation, but no one in here has that type of case. Well, that’s what compulsive pornography use was like before the internet.”

As I said the words out loud, a wave of nostalgia flooded my system. After watching the proliferation of compulsive pornography use through the decades, I longed for a return to the 80’s. I had anecdotally seen a shift in how pornography was impacting marriages, in a way the larger mental health community refused to openly acknowledge because the research was lagging and qualitative processes are always difficult to measure. Besides that, pornography covers such a broad range of materials and behaviors that trying to conceptualize it to regulate it is problematic when it’s viewed as normative and acceptable in varying degrees by a large percentage of the population. Another problem diagnostic professionals face is where to draw the line when pathologizing a natural biological human drive (except the DSM has an entire section on eating disorders, including binge eating–so…….).

However, regardless of whether pornography use is mentioned in the DSM, or whether it is officially an “addiction,” or not, it is showing up in couples’ therapy sessions in record numbers, and NOT just in religious populations. I tire of conservative religions taking the heat for sexual problems when the broader cultural messages and displays of sexuality are at least as much or more complicit in contributing to constraining sexual scripts for both males and females, which exacerbate disconnection in couples. In fact, research is verifying a clear decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors in general, so any increases in couples’ sexual challenges don’t seem to be correlated with increased religiosity (not to mention the fact that research also shows that higher rates of religiosity are significantly correlated with lower rates of pornography consumption).

The fact is that most media presentations of sexuality are dramatized and dichotomized in a way that denies the more complex and incremental ranges that exist for most people. Authentic displays about the emotional processes inherent to sexual intimacy are mostly absent at the societal level. Healthy relationship models of sexuality are nearly non-existent.

In my clinical opinion, many of the problems that come up with porn use in marriage have less to do with religious imperatives and more to do with attachment processes in long-term monogamous relationships. Sexuality is an expected part of a long-term monogamous romantic attachment, and is generally laden with special meaning. An expectation of sexual fidelity is normative in marriage. While some people report that porn can be beneficial to creating an erotic climate, or increasing comfort with sex, there are many partners who view it as betrayal and it makes them question whether they are loved or not.

Even in instances of consensual polyamory, attachment processes come into play in often unanticipated ways. I once attended a training with marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman in which he was questioned about long-term research related to polyamory, and he replied that his institute had problems gaining longitudinal research on those couples because they weren’t stable enough; in other words, too many of them ended their relationships to provide enough reliable data, implying that the lifestyle isn’t necessarily tenable for long-term couple relationships. Whenever I have treated polyamorous couples in therapy (which is admittedly not a lot), it is also my experience that they might agree to the arrangement but then struggle with emotions that arise when attachment security and a sense of “specialness,” to their partners are questioned. They start worrying that their partners will start caring about someone else more, and it often creates emotional pain for which they are unprepared. When many engage in the process, they report that it wasn’t “just sex,” like they thought it would be–there was emotional meaning attached.

Religious or not, many couples are displaying clinical challenges related to increased pornography use. After seeing hundreds of couples as a clinician and as a supervisor to therapists, if I said otherwise, it would be a lie. There are some anecdotally discernible differences in couples now compared to three decades ago, directly related to pornography. Now, research is emerging verifying the clinical challenges I have witnessed for some time.

Here is a short summary of what some of the research indicates about pornography use and its impact on marriage and other long-term romantic relationships, and which I have also seen clinically.

  1. Male pornography use is correlated with lower sexual satisfaction for both the porn users and their partners (and sexual satisfaction is highly correlated with overall relationship satisfaction, so relationship happiness is likely collaterally impacted through this pathway).
  2. Some studies have shown that male porn use is associated with lower interest in relational sex, and lower satisfaction with sexual partners.
  3. In some studies, porn use was related to weakened commitment to romantic partners (as measured by both self-report and outward observation).
  4. Porn use is associated with higher rates of extra-relationship flirtation, considering alternative partners, and infidelity.
  5. Women whose spouses use porn report lower self-esteem and increased insecurity about physical appearance.
  6. Some studies show that higher porn use is related to higher divorce and infidelity.
  7. Some research shows an association between higher porn use and less global happiness.
  8. Recent longitudinal research (2017) shows that higher rates of porn use are associated with decreased marital quality OVER TIME (this matters, because most of the research is cross-sectional, so cause and effect can’t be determined).
  9. Females whose partners use porn report decreased attraction for their partners and more damaged senses of self.
  10. Increased porn use is sometimes associated with a negative impact on financial well-being and work productivity, which impacts relationships.

It’s important to note that men use pornography at a higher rate than females. The research has demonstrated some subtle differences among gender. It seems that female use doesn’t necessarily have the deleterious impact on marriage that male use has, which could be that females use porn more frequently in a relational context while men use it more individually, or that the fewer females users don’t provide enough statistical power to show significant associations.

Also, most porn research has been cross-sectional, self-report, which can be biased, and with limited sample sizes, so generalizability is limited. Longitudinal research that is finally emerging is demonstrated more causality between porn use and decreased relationship quality.

What have I seen clinically?

For what it’s worth, as a clinician, I have seen several changes in couples that I believe have arisen from increased porn use. I’m just one clinician, but in my conversations with other couples’ clinicians, they are verifying these shifts as well:

  1. More instances of low relationship sexual desire in porn-viewing males and females married to porn-viewing males. I was learning sex therapy back in 1989-1990, and fewer instances of low male desire in young adults appeared clinically than now.
  2. More instances of male erectile dysfunction. I used to see this presentation almost exclusively in older males or those with a health condition. Now, I see it in young men with no known medical conditions, but with high rates of porn use.
  3. More instances of lower sexual quality reported for males and females. 
  4. More instances of males blaming their inabilities to perform on their partners’ appearances.
  5. More instances of wives’ unwillingness to engage in sexual experiences, often because they don’t want to be compared to pornography. In general, sexual safety is diminished.
  6. More women reporting what looks like a type of porn betrayal trauma in which they can’t safely engage in sex because images of what their partners may have been viewing flash in their heads.
  7. More women reporting inability to engage sexually because of increased self-monitoring about their own bodies, after feeling compared to pornography.
  8. More women reporting feeling manipulated into sexual behaviors with which they are uncomfortable, reportedly introduced by pornography.
  9. Seeming lower relational sex frequency. Again, I don’t have research numbers on this–it’s just a clinical impression. It seems like couples are having less relational sex in part because porn users are having sex by themselves with porn.

In many ways, sex therapy was easier back in the early 1990’s. I actually had an easier time getting females to engage in sex therapy exercises because to them, collaboration didn’t feel like competing with supernormal images.

One of the biggest indicators that pornography is a problem appeared via an open letter on pornography posted by Dr. John Gottman, viewable here. He is a gold star researcher. Like many clinicians, he used to support couple porn use for upregulating desire and sexual quality. This letter explains how he has shifted his position because the supernormal images presented in porn have a negative impact, as well as increased portrayals of violence toward women.

Anyone who says pornography isn’t having a negative impact overall on long-term marriage is either lying, ignorant, or in denial.

Some of the studies including for this post are listed below, and the abstracts are easy to find online for anyone interested. There are many resources available for people who want to decrease porn use, or feel betrayed and injured by partners who use porn. Patrick Carnes and his daughter, Stefanie Carnes, have worked extensively in this area. I recommend both authors’ books to couples who want to deal with compulsive pornography use.

References:

A Love That Doesn’t Last: Pornography Consumption and Weakened Commitment to One’s Romantic Partner (2012) by Lambert, N. M., Negash, S., Stillman, T., Olmstead, S. B. & Fincham, F. D. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 31(4), 410-438.

Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence from Longitudinal Data (2017), Perry, S. L. in Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559.

Pornography and Marriage (2014) by Doran, K. & Price, J. in Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 35:489-498.

Pornography Use: Who Uses It and How It Is Associated with Couple Outcomes (2013), Poulsen, F. O., Busby, D. M. & Galovan, A. M. in Journal of Sex Research, 50(1), 72-83.

Photo credit: Copyright: georgemuresan / 123RF Stock Photo

Advertisements
Couples, marriage

Why the “Men are Pigs” Narrative is Flawed

12285202 - crazy man. man wearing pig suit over gray background

If you read the title and thought, “Well, she doesn’t know my husband,” I admittedly don’t.  Trust me, I have met with plenty of men who model unfavorable gender stereotypes when it comes to sexuality.  However, I have met with many more who are far more relationally complex in their sexuality than modern western culture leads people to believe.

I felt validated by a recent Canadian study exploring the tenets of male sexual desire among 30-65-year-old heterosexual men in long-term relationships lasting 2.5 years or more.  The study used a small sample size (n=30) typical of qualitative studies, but the findings were so congruent with my experience with men in therapy that I wanted to shed light on the topic.  In essence, the authors wanted to know if the way men really feel about sex fits the predominant sexual scripts imposed on them in society.

In short, what elicits sexual desire and what inhibits sexual desire for adult men in long-term relationships?

The common expectation imposed on men is that they will have higher sexual desire than their female partners–pretty much always–and that they will generally have a high enduring interest in sex in general.  A basic assumption is that male sexual desire is independent of emotional closeness or relationship quality fluctuations.

However, the study found that male sexual desire was highly tied to relationships.  This did not surprise me at all.  The study reflected what I consistently see with most men in long-term marriages.

The three most common themes associated with evoking sexual desire were:

  1. Feeling desired—the majority of participants described this. This is incongruent with a social norm that men are the ones who should do the wanting.  Females often underestimate the importance of communicating desire for male partners, believing instead that they are the ones to be desired.  Please, can we just normalize the female sex drive already???!!!!!  Best way to communicate desire for a male partner:  initiate sex, which was described as the “ultimate expression or reassurance,” communicating “I (still) want you.” BAM!  I have explained this in therapy so many times I am sick of hearing myself say it out loud.  Need inspiration?  Play Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me, circa 1979.  Catchy and straight to the point. (What? I’m old?  Yeah, I know).
  2. Exciting and unexpected sexual encounters—this was most often presented in the context of spontaneity. Kind of like—“Do you realize this is the first time we are actually in our house alone without children for the first time in 127 consecutive days? What should we do about it?” Extra points if that question comes from the wife—as an integration with #1.
  3. Intimate communication—defined as intelligent exchanges with talking and laughing.  Men explained that talking was actually connecting for them, which led to more intimate sexual encounters.  A lot of men said that they wished they could talk about the sexual relationship with their partners.  I can verify that this is a healthy and advisable process—it creates more possibilities for increased sexual quality.  Unfortunately, I can also verify that many couples struggle talking about their sex lives, and in my experience women are generally more avoidant and uncomfortable about it.  If you struggle with this, start with just discussing what it would be like to be able to talk about sexuality, or talk about what makes it hard for you, or what gets uncomfortable when you think about it?

The factors inhibiting sexuality were mostly things that inhibited general relationship closeness. 

The three most common were:

  1. Rejection—this is HUGE and way too many wives underestimate the profoundly devastating impact on their partners—mostly because men do such a good job of hiding their hurt by numbing, turning away, becoming dismissive, or transforming it into anger. They rarely talk about how painful sexual rejection really is.  In my therapy experience, it’s one of the most painful rejections and can have a long-term impact.  These men often stop initiating, and some wives experience that as favorable, or being “off the hook,” when in reality it is creating gargantuan relationship distance which can be difficult to repair.  Rejecting your partner makes you untrustworthy.
  2. Physical ailments and negative health characteristics.  This can be extra challenging if the physical ailment is directly affecting sexual performance.
  3. Lack of emotional connection with partner—This is where some people might be surprised and I’m not surprised at all–men commonly want to feel connected when having sex with their wives. Many of the respondents said they would still have sex if their wives initiated, but their desire would be lower.  This is an area where women may be generally different.  More women might outright refuse sex than participate with a disconnected partner, while men MIGHT be more willing to participate in sex even with lower desire, but they still described preferring emotional connection.  Most of them said their emotional connection was entwined with their physical desire.

The big takeaway here is that the men’s answers were so similar to what we know from studies of women and reported sexual desire.  Male sexual desire waxes and wanes in long-term relationships with other relationship variables.

In our sexcentric society, multiple casual, disconnected and meaningless sexual encounters are presented as the norm, while co-created meaningful sexual encounters in long-term relationships seem almost non-existent.  However, in my clinical experience, both men and women generally have greater sexual desire when the emotional relationship is safe and healthy and when mutuality is high, meaning both partners want to participate.  We limit ourselves in marriage when we categorize our partners according to socially projected stereotypes.  We limit ourselves even more when we allow the media to inform our sexual relationship expectations.

Before you feel the urge to email or message me about your stereotypically hypersexual and insensitive husband, I can assure you I already know those humans exist.  So do mean, critical, withholding wives.  So do emotionally disconnected wives.  My point is that before you write off your spouse, take some time to get to know him individually and try to suspend preconceived malicious intent.  If you can do that, you can generate different possibilities for connection…as in WE WE WE….all the way home.

Reference:

A Qualitative Exploration of Factors That Affect Sexual Desire Among Men Aged 30 to 65 in Long-Term Relationships (2017) by Murray, S. H., Milhausen, R. R., Graham, C. A., & Kuczynski, L. in The Journal of Sex Research, 54(3), 319-330.

Photo credit: Copyright: dasha11 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy

Involuntary Celibacy in Marriage

20790930 - close-up of couple's feet sleeping on bed in bedroomMost people get married with the expectation that they will have a sexual relationship.  Yet, it can become one of the most challenging aspects of a long-term marriage.  About half of all Americans report having experienced some type of sexual dysfunction.  Negotiating an ongoing sexual relationship is rather complex.  It includes questions about who initiates contact, how often sex happens, when and where it happens, and what behaviors are desired and accepted in the couple’s repertoire.  Obviously, if couple communication is strained, navigating this area becomes more challenging.

Sex researcher and clinician Barry McCarthy points out in his trainings that couples who report having satisfactory sex lives claim that it only makes up about 15-20% of their overall relationship happiness, but couples reporting low satisfaction with their sex lives estimate that it accounts for 50-70% of the overall relationship satisfaction (which is usually dissatisfaction).  In other words, if the sexual relationship is not going well, it’s going to take up a lot of space between the couple.

When I heard that the term “Sexless marriage,” was one of the most popular Google searches related to marriage, I wasn’t at all surprised.  Clinically, I see many couples who fall into this category, and it creates an environment of distress for both partners in the marriage.  Even though I hear “sex therapists,” (who don’t always have training in managing couple dynamics) make the point that a lot of couples can be emotionally disconnected and have “great sex,” I see those couples far less frequently than couples who feel completely emotionally disconnected or unsafe, and the sex is symptomatic of other things going on in the relationship.  I estimate the ratio of couples who have good sex while emotionally disconnected at about 1:20 of the couples I see at best.  Marital quality and sexual quality do have a high level of covariance and are probably recursive, meaning that a good overall marriage contributes to good sex, which also contributes to an overall good marriage, and vice versa.

Gaining reliable data about couples’ sexual relationships is nearly impossible because people who are willing to answer questions about sex are already going to be different than those who refuse (thus affecting the sample), people lie in surveys, and sex is such a broad and complex topic that it is measured differently across studies and is very subjective.

What is a “Sexless Marriage”

Even defining terms for a sexless marriage is difficult.  The most quantifiable definition with which I am familiar is “fewer than 10 times a year.”  However, if couples are having sex less frequently than this but are both happy with the amount of sex they are having, “sexless marriage,” is inaccurate.  I have seen couples who have sex this infrequently and are ok with it.

Another limitation is defining what couples consider “sex.”  Most people agree that traditional intercourse is sex, but an inclusion of other erotic exchanges could also be considered sex.  I have also had couples who are not able to have traditional intercourse but engage in other sexual encounters and don’t consider the marriage “sexless.”  It varies from couple to couple.  Ultimately, the partner decides if the marriage is “sexless.”

Sexual Desire Discrepancy 

The most common sexual clinical presentation is low sexual desire.  This becomes more complex in the context of a romantic relationship where one partner has higher desire.  The term “Sexual desire discrepancy,” or “SDD,” is used to describe this mismatch in a couple presentation.  Couples with SDD are more likely to have relationship conflict, less stability and fewer positive communication interactions.  Because the sexual relationship is so entwined with the interpersonal relationship, it makes sense to treat it in the couple context.

Involuntary Celibacy

When one partner wants sex and one doesn’t, sometimes sexual interaction can dry up completely between the couple.  It’s not uncommon to see couples in which one is desiring sex, but the other partner will not or cannot engage in the sexual relationship.  This creates a situation of ongoing “involuntary celibacy,” for the partner desiring sex.  Many individuals in long-term marriages live in this state indefinitely, albeit unhappily.  These are individuals who are resigned to having no sexual activity, but who answer “yes,” when asked if they would like to return to sexual activity.

Researchers studying the phenomenon defined it as desiring but being unable to have sexual contact with a partner for at least 6 months.  Their definition of sexual contact was any pleasurable interpersonal and physical interaction of a sexual or erotic nature, not limited to intercourse.  It is not uncommon for me to see couples in which a partner has been living in a state of involuntary celibacy for years. Again, the number of months is not as important as whether the person self-identifies as involuntarily celibate.

Both Genders

Despite the stereotype that men end up as involuntarily celibate more often because it is assumed that they have higher sex drives, I see many women in this situation as well.  Historically, I have seen more involuntarily celibate husbands, but I have definitely seen an increase in involuntarily celibate females over the last decade.  It’s also common that as some men age and face health challenges, they not infrequently withdraw from sexual activity if sexual performance is affected.

Types of Involuntary Celibacy

The course toward involuntary celibacy is different for every couple.  Here are four main types:

  1. Slowed over time—Most couples fall into this category.  These couples start out sexually active and diminish over time.  They can’t always identify when or why they stopped sex completely.  Common reasons are a combination of variables, including a partner’s lack of interest, trauma, relationship problems, changed physical appearances, chronic addictions, physical or mental illness, or affairs.
  1. Stopped abruptly—These couples started out sexually active and stopped because of some precipitating event, such as pregnancy, illness, infidelity or another intrusive stressor.
  1. Little sexual activity ever—These couples report that sex was always somewhat difficult from the beginning. I see this presentation nearly as commonly as the first type.  Sometimes couples desire but have not been able to consummate the relationship.  The main reason given for this type is that it was never very rewarding for one or both partners.  This can be related to some type of sexual dysfunction, sexual trauma, inhibition and shame, physical barriers, early relationship pregnancy, or other early relationship struggles.
  1. No clear pattern—This is a combination of starts and stops at different times in the marriage for various reasons, with the sexual relationship being compounded by other problems.

Common Reasons (or a Combination) for Involuntary Celibacy

 These are common in the research as well as in my practice:

  1. Lack of interest by one partner
  2. Relationship problems and stressors
  3. Concern over physical appearance
  4. Addiction
  5. Physical or mental illness or disability
  6. Medications—common ones I see are SSRI anti-depressants and blood pressure medications, but medications should only EVER be altered under the advisement of the managing medical physician.
  7. Sexual trauma
  8. Time demands
  9. Aging (although people in good health generally remain sexually active)
  10. Infidelity
  11. Pregnancy/childbirth
  12. Low Sexual Desire
  13. Sexual dysfunction
  14. Habituation to lack of novelty
  15. Guilt or conflict with religious beliefs

Consequences of Sexual Inactivity 

Even though I realize that in many situations, a partner who decides that the marriage will be celibate is doing so out of a real or perceived inability to be sexual, the involuntarily celibate partner generally suffers greatly.  In worst case scenarios, low desire partners are purposely withholding or dismissive of a partner’s desire to be sexual, which I think is particularly cruel in a relationship assuming lifelong fidelity.  Additionally, it’s inappropriate to attach a religious banner to one’s low sexual desire, implying that the other partner is too “carnal,” or “devilish,” or generally “bad,” for wanting sex.  That’s complete nonsense and to advance that notion is misplaced, self-righteous, and inaccurate.  Refusing to get help  and requiring that a partner remain  celibate but monogamous without any hope for improvement is just a different type of betrayal .

Each relationship and individual will be different, but common consequences of involuntary celibacy are:

  1. Lower relationship quality
  2. Increased extra-marital sexual activity
  3. Decreased mental health—e.g. depression, low self-esteem, low self-worth, feelings of rejection and sexual and emotional frustration, decreased focus and concentration.

Why do People Stay? 

Again, these reasons are varied and case-specific, but common reasons are:

  1. Nonsexual benefits—Some people enjoy the close friendship, despite the lack of sex.
  2. Lack of alternatives—Some people think they can’t do better elsewhere.
  3. Financial constraints—Some people simply can’t afford to end the relationship.
  4. Investment in relationship—People who have invested time, money and other resources into a family are often unwilling to walk away from it, despite the distress, or don’t want to upset the children.
  5. Social prescriptions—In short, “What will the Joneses think?”
  6. Religious or moral imperatives—Some people see their marital relationships as having spiritual significance and don’t want to make the wrong choice by leaving.

Common Coping Strategies

Common ways of dealing with involuntary celibacy are:

  1. Channel energy elsewhere—Many people report putting time and energy into hobbies or other social relationships.
  2. Compartmentalizing—Some people become very skilled at walling off the sexual part of themselves. I have had clients describe how they completely avoid anything that might access any kind of sexuality—in essence they describe becoming almost asexual so they don’t have to feel the pain of ongoing sexual rejection.
  3. Therapy—Some individuals seek help in therapy, often for the resulting depression from living in this state long-term.
  4. Other sexual outlets—It’s not uncommon to see an increase in activities like masturbation, cybersex, or fantasy, or even seeking out alternative partners.
  5. Resignation—Some people give up entirely and capitulate to the partner barring sex.

If you are in an involuntarily celibate marriage and are unhappy, you are not alone, and there is treatment.  I am convinced that most people have no idea how many other couples are not having sex.  They think it’s just them, and there is so much shame and pain around it that they don’t get help.  The partner who doesn’t want sex often feels hopeless and broken and feels shame as much as the other partner feels the consequences of rejection.  These can be dark and dismal marriages, and if that describes your situation, consider possible change.

How to get help

Most people have no idea where to get help.  I have a caveat about “sex therapists.”  Except for one state, this is a certification, not a licensed nor monitored profession.  Like anything else in therapy, training and background are so varied that you can tell very little from someone’s license.  In my experience, while there are some cases in which simple sexual interventions can address very specific problems, most cases are so complex and entwined with the emotional relationship, that I would only ever send my own children to someone HIGHLY specialized in couples’ treatment with POSSIBLY an additional background in sex therapy training.  In most cases, I would look for an LMFT who specializes in couples’ treatment, because sex therapy is at least part of the training for this profession.  The couples’ treatment part would be more important to me than the “sex therapy,” part, simply because in my experience, having taught human sexuality at the university level, having supervised marriage therapy students, and having studied sex therapy in detail, the sexual mechanics are far too simplistic for most complex couples’ cases.  The emotional aspects of a relationship are more nuanced and challenging to shift, and are inextricably linked with sex most of the time.

A lot of marriage therapists aren’t going to spend their time and money paying for a “sex therapist,” certification, simply because they don’t need to, so the designation is limited in usefulness.  I have seen many disappointing cases of sex therapists treating couples, who have no idea what they are doing; consumers don’t know how to tell the difference. Being a “sex therapist,” does not make someone a couples’ therapist.

Sex is a couples’ bonding activity. We are born to connect, and the hormones released in sexual exchanges are glue to a long-term monogamous relationship.  It’s worth fighting for.

Lastly, don’t feel embarrassed.  If you are struggling sexually, again, I promise you are not alone.

References:

The Decision to Remain in an Involuntarily Celibate Relationship by Donnelly, D. A. and Burgess, E. O. (2008). Journal of Marriage and the Family, 70(2), 519-535.

Using Emotionally Focused Therapy to Treat Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Couples by Girard, A. & Woolley, S. (2016).  Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2016.1263703

Photo credit: Copyright: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo

gender stereotypes

In Defense of Men

This isn’t necessarily a popular opinion, but I think men get beat up on a lot in our culture in ways that are considered normative and are yet unacknowledged:

Uniting Couples to Strengthen Families

lego men largerA few days ago, my husband and I were in our bedroom, and I was addressing him with a pile of concerns.  At one point, I asked him if he would grab my running skirt out of the laundry basket, and he enthusiastically replied, “Yes!  I would love to get your running skirt!  Finally, a problem I can solve!”  As he tossed it to me, I replied, “Thanks.  Now, let’s talk about our feelings.”

If my husband wants to get a laugh at the end of a night out with another couple, he will sometimes announce, “Goodnight.  Now we’re going to talk about our feelings.”   The cliché is comedic, of course, because it’s so ironic.  It works against gender stereotypes.  I have had a lot of time to think about those gender stereotypes in romantic pairings, and I want to specifically address how I think they may harm both men…

View original post 1,053 more words

Attachment, Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

The Truth About “Neediness” in Close Relationships

couple holding up backbend

“I don’t want to be needy,” I heard for the umpteenth time in a couples therapy session.  The reality is that sometimes we just need our partners to hold us up…and that’s actually a good thing.

At the risk of expressing an unpopular viewpoint, I think our societal views of independence often negatively impact our close intimate relationships.  Our western society highly values independence.  Independence can be practical in many contexts.  The concept of relying on others is frequently considered a weakness.  However, in intimate couple relationships, too much focus on individuality can work someone right out of a relationship, or precipitate anxious emotions, diminishing relationship happiness.

Effective Dependence

I have observed in clinical practice that many couples don’t understand that there is a concept called “effective dependence,” in which partners actually become more functional and exploratory in the world when they feel safe and secure in their close intimate relationships.  When couples don’t understand this and how it works, they often end up seeking independence at a level that paradoxically perpetuates the clingy behavior which can be smothering.

In other words, people think that if they respond to their partners’ emotional needs, then their partners will become more dependent and just want more.  Because of this fear, they push their partners away.

In fact, there is research showing just the opposite—that if a partner is responsive to dependency needs, the partner functions more autonomously likely because they feel more secure.  As human beings, we are wired to depend on one another.

Additionally, current research indicates that in the presence of a close supportive partner, the actual perceived experience of physical pain can decrease.  Predictable support from a partner helps us regulate emotion more efficiently.

In the words of study author Brooke Feeney, “Because dependence on close relationship partners, particularly in times of need, is an intrinsic part of human nature, relationship partners who are sensitive and responsive to this behavior actually serve to promote independence and self-sufficiency, not inhibit it.” She further explains that “Attachment figures promote healthy functioning by providing a safe haven to which a relationship partner can retreat for comfort, support, reassurance, assistance, and protection, and by providing a secure base from which a relationship partner can explore the world and strive to meet his or her full potential.”

This is great news for close couple relationships, because it means there is a built-in mechanism for potentially enhancing individual well-being.  Famous psychologist and marriage expert Sue Johnson wrote, “It is easier to be completely yourself if you are securely connected to those you depend on.”  We actually individuate more readily in the environment of an accepting partner.

How needing your partner can be good

Couples don’t always recognize this benefit, however, and actually end up eliciting the type of anxiety associated with clingy behavior.  Some partners think they are doing their companions a favor by being completely independent without ever needing anything without realizing that “if my partner is always perfectly fine without me and needs me for nothing, it in essence means that he/she could leave me.”

Effective dependence has two parts

Many people in relationships haven’t learned that it is beneficial to reach out overtly to a partner for support, or they haven’t learned how important their responsiveness can be.  I often spend time helping couples understand effective dependence.  There are two sides to this concept—learning to reach out to a partner and learning to show up for a partner.  Many people haven’t learned to do either one.

Sometimes when a partner has dependency needs, a spouse can even get triggered to withdraw.  They get the idea that they aren’t good at meeting those needs or they don’t know how, or they don’t recognize needs, and so they push it away, generating relationship distress.  It is very common.

In a very typical example, I recall once having a wife in therapy tell her husband that sometimes she just needed reassurance that he still loved her.  He looked at her for a moment without responding, and then turned to me and began explaining that as a surgeon, when he completed a particular procedure, that procedure was expected to stay functional for at least 15 years.  “If something goes wrong before then,” he added, “then it means I must have done something wrong.”

I remember watching him very carefully with furrowed brows, trying to discern what he was really trying to tell me by explaining this surgical procedure.  I checked in with him, “So, are you saying that if your wife has insecure moments when she needs reassurance that you still love her, it’s like saying you’re a bad husband or you aren’t doing your job of loving her correctly?” “Essentially, yes,” he fired back.

“Oh, okay, so at those moments when she is reaching out to you for reassurance, you don’t see it as her reaching out because you are the antidote….you actually see it as her implying that you are a bad husband?”  “Yep,” he nodded.  I continued, “So it sounds like you also need some kind of reassurance from her that you are the person she wants to be with and that you actually help her in those moments…it’s important to you to feel effective?”  “Yes,” he added, “When she keeps coming back to me needing reassurance, I just end up thinking I can’t ever fix it so why does she keep coming to me?  I just want it to go away.”

A possible gender effect

This is a routine pattern in therapy, and while I observe this reaction with both genders, I actually see it more in males who have been socialized to be independent and solution-oriented, and who can actually be shamed by their wife’s emotions, because they have been socialized away from attuning to vulnerable emotions.  I can’t exaggerate how often I have seen men in very powerful career positions who are absolutely terrified of disappointing their wives and causing a perceived emotional firestorm.

It’s not uncommon for husbands to be completely freaked out by crying wives.  If their wives are crying about something they have done, they feel even more shame.  They often miss the cue that they are wanted.  They experience it as being pushed away.  It can be experienced as rejection.  They commonly withdraw in those moments when they are actually needed the most, and end up rejecting their partners in return.  They don’t realize how important their presence can be, even if negative emotion doesn’t immediately dissipate.

I once asked my own husband if he experienced my tears as shaming, because I observed it so much in therapy, and it comes up in therapist trainings.  “Absolutely!” he answered just a little too quickly, “If you are crying, then I feel like a lousy husband.”

How to do effective dependency

SOOO….in light of the research indicating that we are wired to reach out to someone for support in this big bad world, and that getting comfort from a partner in a high quality relationship is actually an efficient way of regulating emotion, how do we make the most of effective dependency in a close bonded relationship?

  1. Take turns.  In a healthy partnership, couples take turns needing each other and being there for each other.  This is important, because sometimes one partner will stop withdrawing and stay more present to meet a partner’s needs, but he/she won’t reach out with their own needs because they don’t want to risk upsetting the system.  This happens a lot with men who are disconnected from any emotional need and who don’t want to exacerbate any kind of emotional response in their wives.  They will often (not always) reach out for sex because it’s a way to get both physical and emotional needs met.  It doesn’t even occur to many people (especially men) to have emotional needs, but they have them.  We all have them.  Remember the surgeon who felt like a failure when his wife was insecure about whether or not he loved her?  That implies an unspoken emotional need on his part, for example, to be enough.
  2. Have a conversation about what your emotional needs are. I am often trying to help couples uncover these needs, which are usually related to some form of acceptance, support, and reassurance of love.  There are many ways to language these needs.  A common one is knowing that your partner would choose you again if given the chance.
  3. If you don’t know how to meet the need, reassure your partner that you are trying to figure it out, but you might need help. You might also need to balance your own emotional need (e.g. to be “enough,”) with your partner’s, and have an overt conversation about it.  My husband hates feeling like a failure.  If I am crying about something and he is processing it with me and my emotion stays high, he starts feeling ineffective.  I have to sometimes reassure him that even though I’m still upset, it helps me that he’s still there with me.
  4. Recognize how sexuality can be entwined with emotional needs. Many people don’t know how to verbalize emotional need, either because they don’t have the awareness or language, or they are shamed by having emotional needs because they think they shouldn’t need anyone, or they fear rejection.  It’s not uncommon for sexuality to be a way to get emotional needs for love and acceptance met.  It’s often a form of, “If you’ll let me get that close to you, then I know you still want me, love me, etc.  I’m still good.”
  5. Realize that learning to both reach out for and to meet emotional needs can be a learned behavior. I have had lots of couples in therapy get better at this process, and as a result, grow a more secure relationship.  It’s as important to be able to take in someone’s offer of support as it is to ask or offer support oneself.  People forget this sometimes and reject the support they are actually wanting.  Accepting support matters a lot.

A.A. Milne, creator of children’s classic storybook character Winnie the Pooh, seemed to understand attachment relationships very well.  In one exchange, Pooh expresses, “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” And THAT is how relationships promote independent functioning.

References:

The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence Promotes Independence by Brooke C. Feeney.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, 92(2), 268-285.

Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat by James A. Coan, Hillary S. Schaefer, and Richard J. Davidson.  Psychological Science, 2006, 17(12), 1032-1039.

The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy by Susan M. Johnson, 2004, New York: Brunner Routledge.