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

Couples, Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Jack Sprat and His Wife Go to Couples Therapy: Body Weight as a Problem in Marriage

couple weightOne day, pregnant with my second child, I went shopping for maternity clothes. I was feeling nauseous and suddenly experienced the familiar lightheaded dizzy feeling which accompanied all my pregnancies.  Afraid that I would pass out, I dropped down on the floor in the aisle of clothes, obscured from view.  A married couple walked up a few aisles over. The wife began questioning her husband about apparel and he reacted with indifference, communicating that he didn’t really want to be there. “That’s why I’m here by myself,” I thought, since my husband considers shopping a form of torture.

The wife was somewhat heavyset, and her spouse appeared to be average weight.  While considering different outfits, she suddenly pointed, “Oh, we can look over there in the “petites,” section.  His back was turned, so I couldn’t see his face, but I could absolutely hear the disdain in his voice.  His one-word response was a jab, “Petites?”  His contempt spewed his intended message, which was, “Aren’t you too fat for the ‘petites’ section, Fatty?” She paused a moment and snapped monosyllabically, “Short!” which throbbed, “Petite means short, Dummy, and by the way, I know I’m overweight—you don’t need to keep reminding me about it! Jerk!”

I remember sitting there, fighting nausea, thinking, “I can’t imagine my husband talking to me like that, even if I did fight weight gain.” I knew if anything, this man’s negative message would only heighten her shame and anxiety, likely driving her more toward food as comfort, which is verified by research.

Empirical studies of mixed-weight marriages show that they are at risk for higher levels of conflict. Weight can create sexual and emotional distance. Occasionally, I have a mixed weight couple in therapy in which the average weight partner expresses dissatisfaction with the heavier partner’s weight.  Sometimes it’s about health, but a lot of the time it can impact physical attraction.  Rarely, however, is weight the only presenting concern.  It’s usually just one of a myriad of complaints, but it’s a highly visible one, complex, and challenging in therapy.

For a while now, my husband and I have been answering couple questions in an app called “Happy Couple.”  This was one of my questions last week:

Steve pulls on jeans and finds that he can no longer zip them up.  How do you react?

A. Give subtle hints when he goes for second helping at dinner

B. Dole out a diet mandate

C. Probably wouldn’t be so into sex

D. Shrug it off and tell him to buy a new pair

Any guesses about my answer?  Definitely “D.” In fact, I was asked this question anonymously at a marriage presentation last year and I explained why I recommend the answer be “D.” Or, I might add an option “E,” for “Reassure him that you love him and ask how you can be supportive.”

Here’s why the other responses won’t work:

  1. Your partner doesn’t need a reminder that he/she is overweight. I guarantee that the broader culture is already reinforcing that message.
  2. Threatening a partner only increases anxiety and shuts people down. It’s the opposite of motivating.
  3. Attempting to control a diet makes it your problem, and if you have ownership of your spouse’s weight, your spouse cannot own it and be autonomous in developing healthier habits.
  4. Humiliating or shaming a partner also increases anxiety and hiding behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that weight gain can create fear about attraction to a partner, or fear for a partner’s health. In my marriage, my husband has always put on weight easier than I do, even though he always exercised more consistently than I while I was having babies. His weight generally fluctuates between 10-20 pounds with external stressors. It bothers him a lot and me not so much. While it has never affected my attraction to him (I simply see the person I married, and I always thought he was good-looking), I have occasionally worried about his health, given his father’s history with heart surgeries.

I know 100% that I cannot control what he does and if I tried he’d feel criticized and resentful. I also know it bothers him and he’s always hyper-aware and working on it, and the last thing he needs is a spouse to make him feel worse.  In fact, throughout our marriage, I have frequently joked that the “teenage girl,” persona is showing up, because he will complain about how fat he is, and I almost never notice if he’s putting on weight. “When did you turn into a 14 year-old girl and what have you done with my husband?” I’ve mused. I think it’s the obsessive cyclist part of him.

So, how do you handle it when a spouse is overweight and it’s scaring you because you are worried about their health or worried about your physical relationship, or that you’ll never be united?

  1. Ask how you can be a support person. Once my husband tore a ligament in his foot which shut down his exercise for months. He was also working full-time, in full-time MBA school, and being a father to 7 children. He was cranky about it and complained about his weight constantly. I finally reassured, “I want you to know that your weight gain isn’t bothering me—I don’t notice–but you keep talking about it, so it’s bothering you. Do you want me to do something differently to help you?”  I had been trying to make dinner healthy, but I have always despised eating breakfast and usually skip it, so I’m really lacking in that area, and he lunched with his work buddies. We decided if I made up healthy snacks, it would help him stay on track with his eating.
  2. Model behaviors. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a nutrition expert, but I know enough to impact the food choices in my home, and my family takes a lot of cues from what I purchase, eat and prepare.
  3. Understand and respect differences. Cooked spinach and chard with lemon were my sometimes comfort foods growing up. While pregnant with my third child, I planted a garden with a bunch of chard and decided I would serve it to my family without telling my husband because he hates cooked spinach, so I didn’t want the protest. When he showed up, I started serving the kids with my sales job, “Look, daddy, this is the chard we grew, just like Grandpa Cluff—we’re eating it with lemon.  It’s yummy, right daddy?” I put a forkful in his mouth, winking at him to play along.  He did. He ate the serving on his plate with a smile and extolled its health benefits to our sons. I thought I had him sold. Then, he approached me while I was doing dishes, bent down and calmly whispered in my ear, “By the way, that was the most vile, disgusting thing I have ever had to eat; I choked it down because I knew you wanted the example for the boys, but if you ever serve that to me again, my serving is going right in the trash.” OK. Fair enough. I won’t make him eat cooked greens, beets, or cucumbers soaked in vinegar as long as I don’t have to eat melted cheese.
  4. Find a physical activity to enjoy together. My husband is a cyclist and I’m a runner. We don’t usually exercise together, but we do like hiking and tennis, which count. Find something you both like. There’s always walking.
  5. Identify whether the problem is really the weight or something deeper. Usually weight becomes symbolic of dissatisfaction coming from other areas of the marriage. Are there previous relationship injuries or conflicts to address?
  6. If the sexual relationship is impacted, try focusing on other forms of physical affection first. Because weight and attraction and sex are intertwined, I’m not going to pretend like sexual connection won’t be affected. However, couples get hyper-focused on orgasm. Sometimes slowing down and increasing sensuality first can increase sexual desire and/or performance.
  7. Focus on other characteristics you like about your spouse. I know this sounds trite, but it can shape your level of support. When my spouse gains weight, I really rarely notice, because I like HIM–I just like him for who he is, not for weight changes.

In mixed weight marriages, studies verify that many partners try to regulate their spouses’ eating behaviors. A rule of thumb in addressing weight issues is to approach it with positive influences. Negative influences (criticism, nagging, shaming, lecturing, threatening, punishing, stonewalling, withholding) only make the problem worse.

Weight can become like a separate entity in the marriage, either dividing or uniting the spouses.  Think teamwork. If my husband is inspired by a certain program, because the structure gives him scaffolding, I will use the recipes in the program, as long as they’re consistent with the basics and simplicity I think are foundational to a healthy life style. The only way to address weight without compromising the marital relationship is to gain unity—the couple against the weight challenge.

Maybe that’s why Jack Sprat just helped his wife lick the platter clean.

References:

Romantic Relationships and Eating Regulation: An Investigation of Partners’ Attempts to Control Each Others’ Eating Behaviors by Markey, C. M., Gomel, J. N. & Markey, P. M. (2008) in Journal of Health Psychology, 13(3), 422-432.

The Meaning of Weight in Marriage: A Phenomenological Investigation of Relational Factors Involved in Obesity by Ledyard, M. L. & Morrison, N. C. (2008) in Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 7(3), 230-247.

“You’re Going to Eat That?” Relationship Processes and Conflict Among Mixed-Weight Couples by Burke, T. J., Randall, A. K., Corkery, S. A., Young, V. J., & Butler, E. A. (2012) in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(8), 1109-1130.

Photo credit: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Why a Husband’s Pornography Use Can be so Painful to so Many Wives

42915540 - offended the wife with her husband playing computer games**Side note—When I read the title to my husband, he said, “Do you really have to explain that?  Isn’t it obvious?”  The answer is that I don’t think it’s obvious enough, because men get socialized so differently than women.  As much as they try, I think they have a hard time understanding the pain of felt betrayal and rejection that can be associated with pornography.  Too often it is minimized.

Anyone practicing as a marriage therapist nowadays is going to have clients in which pornography is presented as a problem in the marriage by one or both spouses, regardless of religious belief.  Whenever sexuality comes up in marriage therapy (which is almost always), it’s a complex topic with varying emotions, histories, experiences, desires and outcomes.  Every situation is a little different.  However, a somewhat typical presentation is one in which a husband is or has been viewing pornography and his wife feels betrayed by his behaviors and has a decreased desire to engage sexually with him.  I want to attempt to explain why I think a husband’s pornography use can be so painful for women, and why I think it’s hard for men to understand why it’s so rejecting.

From the moment they are born, females get consistent messages that they are being evaluated by their looks.  The message is, “Be pretty.”  One of my earliest memories of elementary school is standing in line near my teacher and hearing my friend ask my teacher, “Ms. Hoffmann, do you think Lori’s pretty?”  I remember feeling a sense of panic and watching my teacher carefully to hear her answer.  “Yes,” she answered—what else was she going to say with me standing right there?  I wondered why my friend was asking her when she followed up with, “Because I think she’s pretty.”  I remember experiencing an emotion I hadn’t experienced before—fear that I wasn’t going to look good enough—fear that I wasn’t going to BE enough.  The message I got was clear—People were evaluating me based on my appearance—something over which I had limited control.

In junior high, the messages about image intensify.  Females are judged constantly and harshly on every aspect of appearance.  Boys comment on body parts continually.  This is the age at which some girls decide not to be “too smart,” and focus more on how they look.  Social rejection related to looks is painful.  Anyone who thinks this doesn’t happen more for girls than boys hasn’t been to a secondary school lately.  Once when I got the highest score in the class on a chemistry test, I was horrified, worrying that someone was going to find out it was me, because our scores were graded on a curve.  When one young man did find out, he said, “Lori Cluff’s too cute to be that smart.”  Whether I was that cute or that smart was debatable, but his statement represented the predominant message for females in our culture.  The message I got was that I needed to work harder to hide academic achievement to gain social approval.

Fortunately, I had a father who valued competency above appearance, but sadly, for many girls, any dimension of competency is underrated in comparison to their looks.  Also, my father’s voice was influential but was often easily lost in the surrounding cultural message.  It didn’t matter if I outperformed all but two boys in my high school cohort on every academic measure—it didn’t matter if I studied the piano enough for my teacher to encourage me toward a music major—it mattered if I looked good.  Boys, conversely, are more frequently praised for their performances rather than their ornamental values.  They simply don’t experience the same pressure about appearance, which I believe makes it harder for them to understand as men how deeply their porn use can hurt their wives.

As women age, the messages don’t get any better.  Aging is to be feared because it makes you ugly.  In my late 30’s, after my mother experienced serious heart health issues, I went to the library to check out every book I could on aging and health, determined to learn how to use exercise and nutrition to try to attain a better quality of life than she was experiencing.  The female librarian recognized me from my previous frequent visits.  She took at a look at my books and comforted, “Oh, honey—I always thought you were the prettiest girl.”  I smiled wanly and thought, “What does that have to do with it?”  It didn’t even occur to her that my concern was my physical health and not my looks.  I can promise that if my husband walked up to the library counter with the same books, the assumption would be that he was trying to preserve his physical condition and not that he was clinging to his hotness factor.

Not only are women CONSTANTLY evaluated on how they look, but they are CONSTANTLY compared, implicitly and explicitly, as a group.  Marketers target women by inciting insecurity to fuel consumerism—very effectively–so effectively that it’s rare to find a female who thinks she is skinny enough, toned enough, glamorous enough, pretty enough, sexual enough, young enough, shapely enough, perfect enough, flawless enough, enough ENOUGH.  At age 5, I sat in front of the mirror wondering how I could get my hair to change to black like Snow White.  I asked my mom if we could make my hair black, and she acted confused.  My response came from comparing myself to the iconic Disney princess.  Now, the pressure is SO much greater—with SO many more princesses to compare.

Disney princesses are literally child’s play when juxtaposed with the pressure elicited from pornography where surgically altered bodies are the norm.  When prevailing female cosmetic insecurity meets the porn industry in marriage, the result can be devastating.  In a relationship in which a female felt presumably safe and reasonably confident (not entirely—because let’s not get too crazy or unrealistic), suddenly she has to worry again about her appearance in a big way.  Having a husband who is viewing porn can trigger every self-doubt a women has ever had about how she looks.  In short, it’s common for a woman to conclude, “If he has to look at porn (other women), I must not be enough.”

Now, think about wanting to be sexual with a spouse who doesn’t think you are enough.  For most couples, sexuality is an area of utmost vulnerability.  I have often said that if you really want to destroy your marriage, criticize your spouse’s sexual performance.  Both men and women are usually highly sensitive to evaluations of their sexuality, which is entwined with desirability.  I have seen men withdraw from sex in a big way based on one performance-related comment.  Women withdraw similarly when they find out their husbands have been hiding a porn-viewing habit.

In short, being married to someone who is viewing pornography can feel threatening to the attachment safety in a relationship.  Part of attachment security is knowing that one is “enough,” for one’s partner.  I believe that pornography can strike so deeply for women because intensely socialized insecurities (physical appearance) are combined with an intensely vulnerable aspect (sex) of the relationship.

Another important facet of attachment is predictability in a partner.  Usually the deception that has accompanied porn use completely erodes trust. Commonly, women have reported discovering a partner’s hidden porn habit as a trauma and/or an infidelity.  Many become afraid and hypervigilant and disconnected sexually and emotionally from their partners.  Women repeatedly tell me that they can’t have sex without wondering what images of other women are flashing in their husbands’ minds.  Building safety back into the relationship can be a slow process.

An important step in healing is to try as much as is possible to understand a partner’s experience.  To understand better, ask your wife what messages she got about her appearance growing up and how pornography impacts those messages.  Then, really listen and see if you relate.  Be honest.

Reference:

Wives’ Experience of Husbands’ Pornography Use and Concomitant Deception as an Attachment Threat in the Adult Pair-Bond Relationship by Spencer T. Zitzman and Mark H. Butler (2009), in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 16(3), 210-240.

Photo credit: Copyright: kosmos111 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

Intimacy: The Safe Adventure

webheartsunsetMy recent song fix lately* is John Legend’s All of Me.  One of my sons had me buy him the piano music so he could learn to play it after he heard it at Legend’s local concert appearance, and I have found myself humming it several times throughout the day.  The lyrics of the emotionally evocative ballad capture what I believe most couples want from each other:  All of me loves all of you, love your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections.  Give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you, you’re my end and my beginning, even when I lose I’m winning, ‘cause I give you all of me, and you give me all of you.  The words imply complete security in a relationship.  In a nutshell, we all want to be understood and accepted for who we are, even if we are imperfect, and that kind of safety provides fertile ground for complete intimacy.

Complete Intimacy

Complete intimacy is a merging of physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy.  Marriage therapist and sex researcher Gina Ogden found that most people see their sexual relationship as one infused with meaning and spirituality, and it is far more than simple physical sexual response.  There is no sex position, toy or technique that will enhance a couple’s sexual relationship if the individuals don’t feel accepted and safe enough to want to be close.  The foundation for high quality sex is emotional connection.   In the words of world famous marriage clinician, Dr. Sue Johnson, “Emotional connection creates great sex, and great sex creates deeper emotional connection.  When partners are emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged, sex becomes intimate play, a safe adventure.  Secure partners feel free and confident to surrender to sensation in each other’s arms, explore and fulfill their sexual needs, and share their deepest joys, longings, and vulnerabilities.  Then, lovemaking is truly making love,” (p. 186).

This kind of accessibility, responsiveness and engagement was illustrated in a not atypical case of one couple who had come to therapy initially because the wife had been unable to achieve orgasm with her husband.  Complicating the situation and escalating her anxiety was the fact that she had previously been sexually active, and had been able to achieve orgasm with other men before she got married.  As I questioned her about her sexual history, she broke down sobbing and disclosed that she felt ashamed and embarrassed about her past and that she viewed her husband as somehow better than she was, and that she somehow didn’t deserve to have a good sexual relationship with him.  She was worried that he would figure this out and get rid of her.  When I encouraged her to talk to him directly in session about her fear and shame, her husband responded by saying, “I married you because I loved you.  I knew about your past, and it didn’t matter to me.  I just want you.”  He continued to share that he was having difficult emotions because he worried that he was undesirable to her.  He was afraid his performance was lacking, and that he didn’t have the ability to “turn her on.”  They clearly both had doubts and fears about being accepted by the other person, and when they shared their emotional vulnerabilities and received comfort and compassion from each other, they felt safer.  While I don’t think it’s often helpful to be sexually performance-oriented in therapy, it was no surprise to me when they came back to the next session reporting that she had in fact achieved orgasm, and they felt closer than ever.  By disclosing their mutual fears and uncertainties, they had created the “safe adventure,” of which Sue Johnson wrote, and could experiment with techniques for her to achieve orgasm.

Sex as a Litmus Test

As a couples therapist, I have come to think of sex as something of a litmus test in marriage.  When couples present with “communication problems,” or ongoing cycles of conflict or distance, it is usually only a matter of time before they reveal that their physical intimacy is suffering.  Rarely do I see a couple who report that the sex is “great,” when they aren’t getting along outside the bedroom (although it has happened).  It’s not uncommon for me to hear that the couple isn’t sharing a bed, or hasn’t had any physical intimacy, including physical affection, for months or even years.  On occasion, couples will present with sexual connection difficulties up front, and questioning almost always reveals that one partner doesn’t feel emotionally safe in the hands of their partner. The act of physical intimacy is literally the closest you can allow someone into your personal space, and it becomes very symbolic in marriages.  When the marriage doesn’t feel safe in other areas, it can seem almost dangerous to get that close to a partner.

Although our culture perpetuates rigid gender stereotypes of a husband wanting sex, regardless of emotional connection, it is my experience that husbands actually usually want the same kind of emotional engagement during physical intimacy that their wives want.  One of the differences is that men are socialized out of identifying and expressing vulnerable emotional need, so often the way they get those needs met is through sexual expression.  In the words of one male client, “If she will have sex with me, I know I’m okay with her, that she still wants me.”  It’s often a way men seek soothing and comfort, when they don’t have the know-how or comfort level to seek closeness in other ways.  In sexless marriages, I observe that men sometimes become seemingly numb to emotional needs, because their only way of gaining some kind of reassurance has been erased, and they emotionally disconnect to keep from feeling rejection.  The emotional disconnection makes the possibility for sex even less likely, because their wives don’t feel emotional responsiveness, and the cycle continues, downward spiral fashion.

When Safety is Threatened

Because acceptance and emotional engagement are so integral to a quality sexual relationship, any perceived criticism can absolutely kill the desire of either partner to get close physically.  In one case, a wife was complaining that her husband didn’t pursue her sexually, and she worried that he was viewing pornography.  He had repeatedly denied pornography use, but explained to me that every time he became intimate with his wife, she began directing him about what and what not to do.  While it’s an excellent idea for couples to dialogue about what they want their physical relationship to be like, and to help each other understand sexual preferences, in this case, the husband felt like he was on stage and always “getting it wrong,” and finally gave up wanting to connect at all.  On one occasion, he was having difficulty with performance, and while it’s common for men of a certain age to have some difficulty maintaining an erection due to cardiovascular or other health-related challenges, his wife became very emotional about it, and accused him of viewing pornography.  The situation was very anxiety-provoking and shaming for him, and he became avoidant of further physical contact, unwilling to risk feeling those emotions again.  His wife hadn’t realized she had had such an impact on him, and was blind to the fact that her fear had felt like criticism and blame to him, shutting him down.

The pornography use of a partner can also endanger safety in a sexual relationship.  Women whose husbands have a history of viewing pornography struggle with many barriers to getting physically close.  They worry incessantly that their bodies aren’t matching up to the computer generated images; they worry about the images playing out in their husbands’ minds; they don’t know how to discern normal patterns of sexual behavior and worry that any sexual requests are a result of viewing pornography.  I had one female client concerned that her husband wanted her to wear lingerie.  She didn’t know if this was normal or if it was because he had a history of viewing pornography.  When I told her it was not uncommon for men to respond to visual cues, and that back in 1989 when I started doing couples therapy, before internet pornography was available, there were indeed husbands who had a preference for their wives to wear lingerie, she felt a little more comfortable with the idea.  She did not, however, want to be objectified like the women in pornography, and she a very difficult time engaging in such a physically vulnerable way with someone who had been viewing images of other women.  It took a lot of her emotionally risking sharing her doubts and fears and receiving reassurance from him, while he was also abstaining from pornography use for a while, before she could risk engaging with him sexually.

Amidst the incessant noise surrounding sexuality in our culture, it is more important than ever for spouses to create a safe place.  Like any adventure, you want to know that your partner will be there to catch you if you fall, and sexuality is no exception.

Questions for couples:

  1. When have you felt sexually safe with your partner?
  2. When have you been able to be vulnerable with your partner?
  3. What does your partner not understand about what sometimes makes it difficult to engage sexually?
  4. What would safety with your partner look like?

References:

Johnson, Sue (2008).  Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, New York: Little, Brown & Company.

Ogden, Gina (2013).  Expanding the Practice of Sex Therapy: An Integrative Model for Exploring Desire and Intimacy, New York: Routledge.

*This was originally published on an earlier blog of mine, Monogamy and Bliss

Attachment, Couples, Love, marriage

The Number One Question Men Ask me About their Marriages

man and wife in bed

From time to time, I deliver presentations in the community related to marriage.  I have noticed that a common question comes up repeatedly from the married males in my audiences.  I am asked this question often enough that I am choosing to address it in a blog post.

Before I address the specific question, I want to be clear that I believe these inquiries are coming from individuals in relatively low to moderately-distressed marriages.  Many people in my audiences are feeling well in their marriages and are looking for improving upon what is already a solid foundation.  I’m making that clear because I realize that this point of view isn’t representative of many other marriages which are experiencing more disconnection and outright criticism from their partners.

The question I am asked routinely by men is, “How can I make my wife believe that I really think she is beautiful and I am happy with the way she looks?”  The question is usually followed up by an explanation that the female partner talks regularly about not measuring up when it comes to physical appearance, and expresses a lack of confidence in body image.  Overall, men routinely report diminished quality in physical and emotional intimacy as a result.

This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it can actually be an enormous barrier to connection in marriage.  When husbands try to compliment or reassure their wives about their physical appearances and it is dismissed, this is actually a form of rejection.  Not only that, but many women tend to self-monitor during physical intimacy, because it feels vulnerable, so this is when many of them focus on their appearances instead of on their partners, and they generate a huge disconnect.  This behavior also reduces their own sexual satisfaction.  If the husband has a history of viewing pornography, there is often increased vulnerability and fear around measuring up to some kind of media-generated, false standard.  In those cases, healing the injury related to porn use may be necessary before developing any kind of real closeness.

In short, I try to explain to men that our culture is particularly toxic to women when it comes to accepted standards of beauty, and it is so pervasive that it is very common for women to worry that they don’t look good enough—especially for those who have experienced permanent alterations with some pregnancy and childbirth experiences.  Then, in the brief period of time I have to address the question, I try to explain to men how they can communicate to their wives how this negative self-talk affects them and keeps them from being able to get close, e.g. “When I tell you I like the way you look and you say, ‘I don’t believe you,’ it leaves me with no way to get closer to you, which feels lonely somehow,” (or something similar—if I have time, I will find out specifically from the husband how it impacts him and help him find language for that).

With the negative messages women receive about body image, it’s actually amazing that any of us has a shred of confidence with a body that hasn’t had cosmetic surgical intervention.  As a mother of 7 children and who hasn’t had cosmetic surgery procedures, I completely understand.  However, I want to be a voice for how damaging it can be to our marriages when we allow ourselves to be victimized by the dominant negative messages about appearance.

Women are not completely powerless.  Here are a few things to do prevent negative body image talk from disrupting marriage.

  • Recognize the negative impact the media and broad culture have on appearance and body image (with no sign of retreat). In short, we are in a consumer culture.  Most of the time, people are selling something, and it is basically their job to make you feel like you are lacking.  One of the easiest ways to do this is by preying on outward appearance.  I cannot approach any makeup counter in a major department store without someone tsk-tsking about the crow’s feet developing around my eyes, or some other visible “flaw,” etc., because they want to upsell me some kind of anti-aging miracle cream.  They want me to feel bad about how I look so I will buy more product.  I have been tempted at times to say, “No thank you—I would like to develop as many wrinkles as possible, and I’m afraid that cream will interfere with the process,” just to see what kind of reaction I would get. Pease recognize that you are so much more than your appearance.
  • Have the courage to challenge the false messages of the toxic culture. Prevailing messages often, if not always, have nothing to do with truth.  However, when we are constantly wading through them, we accept them as fact and don’t bother challenging them.  Physical beauty and attraction in marriage is actually influenced by many variables.  So-called objective standards of beauty are not enough to maintain a long-term relationship, and partners can become more or less attractive to each other based on their accumulation of experiences together.
  • Recognize the false messages that the culture teaches about men. Personally, I experience my male clients as far more complex and deep than the media would have us believe.  In popular television shows, movies, etc., men are presented as emotionally dull, unavailable, simple, and almost always hypersexual.  This is insulting to both genders.  It is normative for men to express the desires they have to be close to their wives physically because they feel acceptance and love from their wives in those moments; they do have a harder time becoming emotionally vulnerable, because, quite frankly, our culture socializes (beats) it out of them (I addressed this in an earlier post entitled, “In Defense of Men,” that you can access here).  Men don’t always have the higher sex drive, but when they do, I believe it’s about more than just testosterone levels–men are socialized to seek connection through physical means–it’s a societal norm.  Men are seeking deeper connection with their wives far more than they are given credit for.  Many men have explained to me that if their wives aren’t willing partners, they would rather not be physically close at all, because of the way it makes them feel emotionally to have a disengaged partner.  In the words of more than one husband, “I don’t want to feel like a rapist.  I want to connect with my wife.  I want her to want to be with me.”
  • Recognize the benefits of a close physical relationship. One of our drives as human beings is to have sex, and it’s not gender-specific.  However, men are generally expected to be sexual, and women are expected to be desired.  Women have very limited societal role models for healthy sexuality.  Instead, they are presented with polar opposites of prudes or prostitutes, with no happy medium.  This is unfortunate, since sex is a bonding behavior and can increase overall closeness in a long-term couple relationship.  If women had permission to be sexual, they would likely be more invested in nurturing close physical relationships, despite body type and perceived flaws.
  • Try attuning to your partner instead of self-monitoring in vulnerable moments. When people focus on their own body flaws in intimate moments, they aren’t available to focus on their partners.  This practice of focusing inward is referred to as “spectatoring.”  Non-verbal attunement, which makes up a great deal of physical intimacy, is disrupted.  If tempted to ruminate on that extra ten pounds or the leftover stretch marks, try purposefully attuning to your partner as well as to experienced sensation.  I recommend author Barry McCarthy for books related to physical intimacy.
  • Use mindfulness to shift out of negative self-talk/thoughts. In simplest terms, focus on breathing, and if your mind is wandering to your flaws, notice that you have shifted (which might also mean you are becoming more fearful), and refocus yourself back to your breathing.  Try to stay present and engaged.
  • Ask your partner what they like about your body, and what they like about you besides your body, and then risk believing them. Most of us do not have what is sold to us as the ideal body type—that’s one of the ways that a consumer culture can perpetuate constant insecurities and reap financial benefits from them.  People become cherished and special to us through a variety of experiences and means.  Yes, it is possible that even though you wish you were 4 inches taller, and had a smaller waist, your husband likes you just the way you are, because you are his partner, and you are the one with whom he wants to bond.

In short, risk believing that you can actually be enough.  If you can never be enough, you are in a constant state of victimization, and it generates a state bereft of contentment and joy.  If you can see yourself for the complex individual you are, complete with talents, a personality, and character, instead of just a body type, you can also reach out and help others feel more acceptance and peace.

As long as we feel insecure in how we look, and don’t believe our husbands when they try to tell us they are attracted to us, we are allowing faceless entities to disrupt our marriages.  We are in essence denying ourselves potential connection and happiness.

References:

Ackard, D. M., Kearney-Cooke, A., & Peterson, C. B. (2000). Effect of body image and self-image on women’s sexual behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders,28(4), 422-429.

Pujols, Y., Meston, C. M. & Seal, B. N. (2010). The association between sexual satisfaction and body image in women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(2pt.2), 905-916.

 

Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

In Defense of Men

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 and women in long-term committed relationships.

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge that any time gender differences are addressed, we are speaking in terms of a statistical group; there are more within-gender differences than between genders.  However, as a couples therapist as well as a mother of five sons, I want to point out some common issues related to gender socialization which have me concerned, because I think they create barriers in couples therapy and in heterosexual romantic relationships in general.

Our culture often shames and blames men in ways that are counterproductive and unhelpful.  In short, our culture socializes them out of developing skills in emotional intelligence and relationship processes, and then turns around and beats them up for “failing,” to navigate those skills when they are adults.

This socialization process is visible everywhere.   Visit any elementary school and observe a boy who cries being ridiculed by his classmates.  Parents who are frightened that their kids will be teased if they operate outside social norms reinforce these practices at home.  Boys are told to “toughen up,” so they won’t be perceived as weak.

By adolescence, the socialization process becomes even more pronounced.  Young men are validated, if not encouraged, for their sexual feelings and expressions while they continue to be mocked for expressing emotional vulnerability, or even displaying empathy.  Eventually, sexuality often becomes entwined with emotional need.  They are praised for autonomy and considered spineless for displaying any dependency.  As a result, even when they are victimized, they lack broad social support.  The expectations are narrow and rigid.

Girls are generally afforded more gender flexibility.  When I showed up to my first grade Halloween parade dressed as Spiderman, completely unfazed by the sea of pink princesses surrounding me, no one batted an eye.  Every time it was my turn to “play house,” in Kindergarten and I would approach the teacher for permission to visit the book corner instead, I was praised for my intellectual curiosity.  When I regularly participated in pick-up football games with the neighborhood boys, people encouraged my athleticism.  I was able to explore and expand various facets of my personality and feel comfortable with a broad and flexible range of emotional and relational expression. In contrast, boys are constricted to a narrower range of acceptable behaviors.

By adulthood, after a lifetime of socialization out of vulnerable emotional expression, men are expected to navigate complex heterosexual relationships.  They are often absolutely confounded by perceived high levels of emotion in female partners.  Many of my male clients describe being disoriented in the emotional processing which comes so naturally to females.  For many men, just having a wife start crying is a very shaming experience.  It is experienced as, “What kind of loser am I that my wife is so unhappy?”  Men often take it very personally, and when they don’t know how to respond, or they manage their own emotions with withdrawal, they are criticized and blamed.  It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “He’s a robot,” or “He’s a narcissist.”

Over time, they become expert at sensing when the emotional temperature in the relationship is going up, which is identified as a “no win,” situation, and they prepare for the onslaught, often shutting down completely.  I can’t count how many times I have heard a man say, “If I say anything, it will be wrong, but if I say nothing, eventually she will give up and go away.”  It’s not because they are selfish, bad or mean.  They have been socialized out of speaking that language.  The emotions just don’t “make sense,” which is why husbands will often state some version of, “I think she’s Borderline,” or “I can’t handle her emotions.”  They look impassive and uncaring when in fact they have been so deeply wounded by repeatedly disappointing their partners that they tend to disconnect from feeling anything.  Men consistently report “numbing out,” which only becomes necessary when interactions have been painful to bear.

The socialization around sexuality creates another possible minefield in heterosexual relationships.  Not every male has higher sexual desire than his female partner, but because of stereotypes, if he doesn’t have high desire, he may feel ashamed or damaged, and often will not seek help but will suffer in silence.

Because men have been socialized to not be emotionally vulnerable, but encouraged in their sexuality, reaching for a partner in a sexual way is often fused with emotion.  It can literally be the only way they know to get comfort and reassurance from an attachment partner in a vulnerable way.  They can be misconstrued in their sexual reaching out, as illustrated in the oft recited, “Sex is all he cares about.”  I have had countless men explain to me through tears that their wives don’t understand that it’s not just the sex….it’s the connection with their close female partners that they seek.  It’s how they know they are still wanted and loved.  I believe them.

If that connection is repeatedly withheld, it can leave them completely lonely, and they sometimes medicate their loneliness and shame with pornography or other substances, or withdrawal, which just intensifies the disconnecting cycle.  I also acknowledge that there are many variations on this theme, and that having satisfying sex lives with their partners doesn’t always preclude pornography use.  In general, however, my experience is that men want emotionally connected sexual relationships in many of the same ways that women do.

I’m writing this in hopes that we will prepare our boys to more effectively identify and express emotional need in a way that is safe, so the emotional world won’t be so confusing.  I’m also hoping we can be a little less blaming toward men and a little more patient in our most intimate relationships.  For more reading about this issue, here are four books I recommend:

Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping our Boys Cope with  Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World  by Rosalind Wiseman, 2013.

The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance, and Direction in Their Lives by Michael Gurian, 2010.

Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, 2000.

Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood  by William Pollack, 1999.

photo credit: @davestone via photopin cc