by Michele Weiner-Davis
If you've ever thought that a couple's sexual relationship is a barometer of other aspects of their marriage, join the club. And if, because of this belief, your work with distant and warring couples has you shoring up their emotional bond in the hopes that the rest of their marriage--their sex life--will eventually fall into place, you're in good company as well. But there's another, frequently more practical and expedient, way to break through marital gridlock and boost passion. Just do it. I learned this simple lesson from Debra and Tom.
When I met Debra and Tom, they'd been married for 10 years and had two sons, ages 8 and 5. They were strikingly handsome individuals, devoted parents, and were surrounded by loving friends and family. Yet their marriage was precipitously close to ending.
Debra spent much of our time together complaining about Tom. His short temper was like poison to her soul. He snapped at her over the littlest things, and she felt like she was always walking on eggshells. She also complained of his lack of involvement at home. "He never seems to want to do anything as a couple, or even as a family, anymore. He never talks to me or even asks about my day."
Tom had no shortage of negative things to report about their marriage either. He didn't like being around Debra because, regardless of what he was doing, he felt she always found fault with him. He also talked about a deep disappointment in her as a companion. He wistfully recalled their early years of marriage: "She used to be fun to be with. She made me feel like I was the funniest man in the world. Now everything's serious." And after a moment of silence, he added, "We don't have anything in common anymore. She does her thing and I do mine. At this point, I actually prefer it that way."
Over the next several sessions, all my proven solution-based tools--asking about goals, listening carefully to their stories of stuckness, acknowledging their feelings, focusing on exceptions, strengths, and resources--didn't work. Six sessions into treatment, Tom and Debra (and I) were no better off than when we started. Then, not knowing what else to say, I asked them, "What's the glue holding the two of you together?" Tom's response offered the first real inkling of what I now know kept them so stuck. Tom's tone softened considerably as he spoke. "I think I've been holding out hope that some day we'll be able to recreate some of the feelings we had earlier in our marriage." Tom said that when they first married, he was passionately in love with Debra and found her irresistible. Their sex life was wonderful; they made love frequently, and he felt extremely close to her. His ability to satisfy Debra sexually made him feel good about himself as a lover and as her life partner. He recalled how their sexual relationship reverberated throughout the rest of their marriage. They often snuggled on the couch while watching television, held hands when they walked, and kissed each other affectionately. But all that changed after the birth of their first child.
Debra had become extremely focused on her new role as mother, and when she wasn't caring for their baby, she felt fatigued. Sleep--not sex--was the only thing she found herself craving. Tom's need for companionship and intimacy wasn't a priority for her. Tom recognized that the passion so characteristic of early marriage is often short lived, but felt her lack of interest in him went beyond the usual explanations for a drop in libido.
Initially, he spoke to her about his feelings. He told her he didn't feel important anymore. He kept asking, "What's wrong? Did I do something wrong? Do you still think I'm attractive?" Sleep-deprived, hormonally altered, and overworked, Debra found herself having little compassion for her husband's feelings. In fact, she commented, "I couldn't believe he was complaining. I felt like I had two babies, not one."
As the years passed, Debra's repeated rejections of his advances hurt and angered Tom. He refocused his energies on himself, his work, and his friends. And the more he distanced himself, the less inclined Debra felt to be close physically. Now their infrequent sexual encounters, too often tainted by feelings of resentment and hurt, left them both feeling empty. Finally, I understood the roadblocks we encountered in our sessions.
Although Tom and Debra were scheduled to attend their next session together, only Debra showed up. Tom felt that therapy wasn't helping, and he didn't wish to return. She was devastated, very tearful, and eager to hear my suggestions about what to do next.
I told Debra, "The last time Tom was here, he shared how his not feeling close to you sexually made him question whether you love him. My guess is that he probably hasn't felt important to you for very a long time." I wondered whether her being more affectionate and showing interest in sex might satisfy a longing in him and, as a result, prompt him to be kinder and more involved at home. Although Debra understood my logic, she couldn't imagine being physically affectionate, feeling as she did.
Fearful that time was running out, I cautioned her against waiting for him to change first because by then he might be gone. "Why don't you try an experiment?" I asked. "For the next two weeks, even if you're not entirely in the mood, be more attentive to him. Be flirtatious. Initiate sex a few times. Make him feel sexy. Let's see what happens." She agreed. Little did I know at the time that this offhanded, what-do-you-have-to-lose, suggestion would change the way I practiced couples therapy forever.
Debra returned two weeks later. I didn't need a mental health degree to sense instantly that there'd been a marked improvement in their marriage. Debra went on to tell me that although it seemed rather awkward and stilted at first, she began her assignment by giving Tom several prolonged kisses when he came home from work. He seemed surprised. Realizing that comfort rather than fashion had been ruling her life ever since the kids were born, she also made a point of getting out of her sweat suit and getting into a new angora sweater and pair of jeans. Tom commented about her sweater, which pleased her. Debra made more of an effort to be around Tom in the evening, even if it meant just watching television together. He seemed curious about her presence in the family room, but even more curious about Debra's suggestion to head for their bedroom in unison. They proceeded to make love for the first time in months.
Debra's reaction to being sexual with Tom caught her off guard. Feelings of resentment and anger, which had for so long colored every interaction between them, now gave way to feelings of pleasure and connectedness. At one point, Tom gently touched her cheek and looked into her eyes, and she felt closer to him than she had in a very long time.
In the days that followed, she noticed that Tom was noticeably more relaxed and lighthearted at home. He joked with the kids and joined in their activities in the evening. She also happily reported that Tom was more playful with her and seemed more interested in her life. Tom even called her from work periodically just to check in and say "Hi." They were talking more, too. Encouraged, Debra decided to continue with her "experiment." I was relieved to have finally discovered a way to dislodge the logjam that had become their marriage.
Arousal Fuels Desire
I learned several important lessons from Debra and Tom. I'd always assumed that in order to become sexual, one must first feel sexual desire. But this assumption is at odds with other aspects of my practice. For example, because I believe that behavior change often precedes affect or cognitive changes, I often encourage depressed clients to push themselves to become more active, even if they don't feel like it. Getting one's feet moving often helps to relieve depression. Yet prior to Debra and Tom, I'd overlooked this action-oriented perspective in the area of sexuality. Not anymore. Here's why.
Once I began to downplay the importance of one's present mood state when deciding if and when to become sexual, I was amazed at what I was observing in my practice. I wish I had a dollar for every time a person has said to me, "Michele, I wasn't in the mood when we started having sex, but once we got into it, I really enjoyed myself."
This reaction is very much in line with recent research suggesting that countless people don't experience spontaneous sexual thoughts or fantasies. However, when they're receptive to their partners' advances or initiate sexual contact themselves from a neutral state, being physically stimulated often leads to sexual arousal and a strong desire to continue touching. Hence, for many, desire actually follows arousal, a perspective that challenges the conventional model of human sexual response.
There's a distinct benefit to educating clients about this refreshing definition of sexual desire. When people with "low desire" realize that they can and do experience sexual pleasure once they decide to get going, they stop thinking of themselves as "nonsexual" people--a self-concept that tends to perpetuate the problem--and start feeling "sexy" again.
Debra and Tom also challenged another dearly held assumption--that emotional intimacy precedes physical intimacy. At the time, I believed that when distant spouses improve communication and feel more emotionally connected, the rest of their marriage falls into place. But for Debra and Tom, it worked the other way around. Once Debra quit blaming Tom and became more attentive physically, touching unleashed in him a desire to please her and they both felt closer emotionally. I soon figured out that for some couples, touching is the quickest and most effective road back to emotional intimacy, not the other way around.
The Lukewarm Husband
When I discuss this "Nike Solution" in seminars, I sometimes get asked whether the women in my practice object to having to seduce their partners to get their emotional needs met in relationships. This question demonstrates erroneous thinking on two counts. First of all, contrary to popular belief, there are millions of marriages in which the man is lukewarm about sex and it's his wife who longs to be touched. And not surprisingly, the dynamics in those marriages mirror those of Debra and Tom's. Ed and Laura were one such couple.
I clearly remember Ed, a handsome man in his late thirties who was a physical therapist in private practice. He attended sessions alone. His wife, Laura, thirty-something as well, was a top manager for a large company. They argued frequently, causing Ed great unhappiness. At the crux of their disagreements were family-management issues. Because Ed's schedule was more flexible than Laura's, he was the primary caretaker for their four children. Ed attended parent-teacher conferences and doctor appointments solo, made sure there were meals on the table every evening, and looked after the children's emotional needs. He often felt overwhelmed trying to balance his parenting obligations with those of his practice.
Ed told me that Laura resented the fact that she was the primary breadwinner because she wanted to spend more time with the children. Also, she had an underlying physical condition which caused excruciating chronic pain. She thought bed rest would be therapeutic. But for financial reasons, they both agreed that Laura needed to keep working.
Ed complained that when Laura returned home at night, she was irritable and extremely critical of his handling of family matters. Instead of feeling appreciated for the sacrifice he felt he was making, Ed felt ridiculed. After several sessions without much improvement, I asked Ed about their sexual relationship. He replied, "It's nonexistent. When Laura's critical, I want to stay about as far away from her as I can get. I can't even imagine touching her." I asked whether Laura had complained about this and Ed replied, "Oh, all the time." And when she wasn't complaining about the lack of affection, she resorted to angry outbursts about wet towels on the floor, pop cans in the family room, or the occasional work-related call made during "family time," all symptoms of the rawness she felt inside. My advice to Ed echoed my suggestion to Debra--in essence, "Get your feet moving."
Three weeks later, a more relaxed Ed returned, describing how the ice between Laura and him had melted. Ed hugged her affectionately throughout the weeks, initiated lovemaking, and returned to their goodnight/goodbye kiss rituals. Laura was happier, calmer, and gentler with him. Rather than her usual criticisms, she expressed appreciation for his contribution to their family. Because Ed felt valued by Laura, he began to show appreciation for her hard work and became more compassionate about her physical challenges.
What Is Real Giving?
The question about whether women in my practice object to having to seduce their partners to get their emotional needs met is off-base for another reason, too. It reflects a lack of in-depth understanding about the mechanics of all loving marriages. Even when a person isn't the world's most sexual being, rather than objecting to being sexual, he or she might actually derive joy and pleasure from pleasing a more physical spouse. Good marriages are based on mutual caretaking and real giving--but what is real giving?
In most relationships, we tend to give to others in the way we, ourselves, like to receive. If we like our spouses to give us space and privacy when we're down and out, we tend to treat our spouses similarly when they're down in the dumps. If we're extremely sentimental and romantic about holidays and birthdays, we tend to be extravagant gift-givers on special days.
But what if our spouses are "talkers" and prefer sharing feelings rather than being given space when they're upset? Is it really a gift to back off and let them sulk alone? And what if our spouses are less romantic and really prefer that no fuss be made over birthdays and holidays? Is it really a gift to give flashy presents and sappy Hallmark cards? I think not.
When it comes to feeling loved in a marriage, everybody has different requirements. Some people feel loved when their spouses spend time with them. Others feel loved when they've had "good talks." A spouse's kind deeds--pouring a cup of coffee, making a favorite meal, warming up a cold car in advance--can, for some, prompt feelings of love and connection.
But for many, touch says love like nothing else. Making love is love. When you're married to one of those people, try as you may to express love in other ways--by doing kind things, fixing the vacuum cleaner, handling the lion's share of the childcare, paying the bills, being available for heart-to-heart talks, earning lots of money, becoming a gourmet cook, and so on--your words and actions will fall on deaf ears and "deaf hearts." People who feel love through touch accept no substitute. And unless you speak your spouse's language, you aren't doing real giving.
Does this mean that people should have sex anytime their spouses so desire? Absolutely not. But if they care about their marriages, there should be a heck of a lot more yeses than noes. And saying yes doesn't necessarily mean having intercourse (although that should certainly be on the short list of things to do in marriage). There's a whole raft of both subtle and overt behaviors--a flirtatious note left around the house, an x-rated e-mail, regular compliments about appearance, a suggestive comment, touch, or glance--that go a long way toward keeping passion alive and egos intact. People should practice them regularly.
Is It Really That Simple?
As a 26-six-year veteran of marriage to the same man, I can safely say with authority that there's nothing simple about marriage. I know that for many people lacking sexual desire, it's not simply a matter of getting started. Low sexual desire has many varied and often complicated causes, not all of them relational. Hormone fluctuations, underlying physical illnesses, medications (including some antidepressants and even birth control pills), depression, poor self-esteem, prior sexual abuse, and other serious sexual dysfunctions can be, and often are, at the root of a deadening of desire. All the "Just Do-Itism" in the world won't make a dent in cases when other interventions are required.
But having said that, regardless of the causes of low desire, there's no reason that anyone wanting a more robust sex life can't have one, given what we now know about biological, personal, and relationship-oriented therapies. Desire is a decision. People must believe that passion, sexual intimacy, and physical connection are important and when they're missing, decide to do something--get a medical check-up, take testosterone, seek individual or marital therapy, attend a marriage seminar. As therapists, we must remember that while emotional closeness breeds sexual intimacy, it works the other way around, too. Sometimes, all the talking and processing feelings in the world won't break through an impenetrable wall of resistance. Action might.
I now have a homework assignment for self-proclaimed low-desire clients (both male and female) whose spouses are irritable, cranky, or in a cave. I urge them to take "The Great American Sex Challenge," which goes like this: "For the next two weeks, regardless of how you feel, pay more attention to your sexual relationship. Flirt, initiate sex, put energy into your appearance, touch more. And watch your spouse closely for any changes." This works so well that it's become standard fare on many days in my sessions with couples. If you're curious about how this might work with couples in your practice, I say, Just Do It.
Michele Weiner-Davis, M.S.W., is the author of The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couple's Guide to Boosting Their Marriage Libido and the director of The Divorce Busting Center at 100 North Benton, Woodstock IL 60098. E-mails to the author can be sent to Michele@divorcebusting.com. Letters to the Editor about this article may be sent to Letters@psychnetworker.org.
by Esther Perel
A few years ago, I attended a presentation at a national conference, demonstrating work with a couple who had come to therapy in part because of a sharp decline in their sexual activity. Previously, the couple had engaged in light sado-masochism; now, following the birth of their second child, the wife wanted more conventional sex. But the husband was attached to their old style of lovemaking, so they were stuck.
The presenter took the approach that resolving the couple's sexual difficulty first required working through the emotional dynamics of their marriage and new status as parents. But the discussion afterward indicated that the audience was far less interested in the couple's overall relationship than in the issue of sado-masochistic sex. What pathology, several questioners wanted to know, might underlie the man's need to sexually objectify his wife and her desire for bondage in the first place? Perhaps, some people speculated, motherhood had restored her sense of dignity, so that now she refused to be so demeaned. Some suggested the impasse reflected long-standing gender differences: men tended to pursue separateness, power, and control, while women yearned for loving affiliation and connection. Still others were certain that couples like this needed more empathic connection to counteract their tendency to engage in an implicitly abusive, power-driven relationship.
After two hours of talking about sex, the group had not once mentioned the words pleasure or eroticism, so I finally spoke up. Was I alone in my surprise at this omission? I asked. Their form of sex had been entirely consensual, after all. Maybe the woman no longer wanted to be tied up by her husband because she now had a baby constantly attached to her breasts, binding her more effectively than ropes ever could. Didn't people in the audience have their own sexual preferences, preferences they didn't feel the need to interpret or justify? Why automatically assume that there had to be something degrading and pathological about this couple's sex play?
More to the point, I wondered, was a woman's ready participation in S & M too great a challenge for the politically correct? Was it too threatening to conceive of a strong, secure woman enjoying acting out sexual fantasies of submission? Perhaps conference participants were afraid that if women did reveal such desires, they'd somehow sanction male dominance everywhere--in business, professional life, politics, economics? Maybe, in this era, the very ideas of sexual dominance and submission, conquest and subjugation, aggression and surrender (regardless of which partner plays which part) couldn't be squared with the ideals of fairness, compromise, and equality that undergird American marital therapy today.
As an outsider to American society--I grew up in Europe and have lived and worked in many countries--I wondered if the attitudes I saw in this meeting reflected deep cultural differences. I couldn't help wondering whether the clinicians in the room believed that the couple's sexual preferences--even though consensual and completely nonviolent--were too wild and "kinky," therefore inappropriate and irresponsible, for the ponderously serious business of maintaining a marriage and raising a family. It was as if sexual pleasure and eroticism that strayed onto slightly outreÂ´ paths of fantasy and play--particularly games involving aggression and power--must be stricken from the repertoire of responsible adults in intimate, committed relationships.
After the conference, I engaged in many intense conversations with other European friends and therapists, as well as Brazilian and Israeli colleagues who'd been at the meeting. We realized that we all felt somewhat out of step with the sexual attitudes of our American colleagues. From these conversations, it became clear that putting our finger on what was culturally different wasn't easy. On a subject as laden with taboos as the expression of sexuality,Â each of us is inevitably thrown back on our own experiences.
What struck most of the non-Americans I talked with was that America, in matters of sex as in much else, was a goal-oriented society that preferred explicit meanings, candor, and "plain speech" to ambiguity and allusion. In America, this predilection for clarity and unvarnished directness, often associated with honesty and openness, is encouraged by many therapists in their patients: "If you want to make love to your wife/ husband, why don't you say it clearly? . . . And tell him/her exactly what you want." But I often suggest an alternative with my clients: "There's so much direct talk already in the everyday conversations couples have with each other," I tell them. "If you want to create more passion in your relationship, why don't you play a little more with the natural ambiguity of gesture and words, and the rich nuances inherent in communication."
Growing up in Belgium, a traditionally Roman Catholic society that carries a mixture of Germanic and Latin traditions and influences, I gravitated toward the warmth and spontaneity of the Latin features of the culture. I came here to further my education, and never used my return ticket.
Ironically, some of America's best features--the belief in democracy, equality, consensus-building, compromise, fairness, and mutual tolerance--can, when carried too punctiliously into the bedroom, result in very boring sex. Sexual desire doesn't play by the same rules of good citizenship that maintain peace and contentment in the social relations between partners. Sexual excitement is politically incorrect, often thriving on power plays, role reversals, unfair advantages, imperious demands, seductive manipulations, and subtle cruelties. American couples therapists, shaped by the legacy of egalitarian ideals, often find themselves challenged by these contradictions.
What I'd characterize as a European emphasis on complementarity--the appeal of difference--rather than strict gender equality has, it seems to me, made women on the other side of the Atlantic feel less conflict between being smart and being sexy. In Europe, to sexualize a woman doesn't mean to denigrate her intelligence or competence or authority. Women, therefore, can enjoy expressing their sexuality and being objects of desire, can enjoy their sexual power, even in the workplace, without feeling they're forfeiting their right to be taken seriously as professionals and workers.
Susanna, for example, is a Spanish patient who has a high-level position with an international company in New York. She sees no contradiction between her job and her desire to express her sexual power--even among her colleagues. As she puts it, "I expect to be complimented on my looks and my efforts to look good. If compliments are given graciously, they don't offend, but make clear that we're still men and women who are attracted to one another, and not worker-robots. If a man indicates he likes the way I look, I don't feel he thinks anything less of my professional abilities because of it, any more than I think less of him because I find him handsome."
Of course, American feminists achieved momentous improvements in all aspects of women's lives. Yet without denigrating those historically significant achievements, I do believe that the emphasis on egalitarian and respectful sex--purged of any expressions of power, aggression, and transgression--is antithetical to erotic desire, for men and women alike. I'm well aware of the widespread sexual abuse of women and children. I don't mean to offer the faintest sanction to any coercive behavior. Everything I suggest here depends on receiving clear consent and respecting the other's humanity.
The writer Daphne Merkin writes: "No bill of sexual rights can hold its own against the lawless, untamable landscape of the erotic imagination." Or as Luis Bunuel put it more bluntly: "Sex without sin is like an egg without salt."
The Lure of Fantasy
Many in our field assume that the intense fantasy life that shapes the early stages of erotically charged romantic love is a form of temporary insanity, destined to fade under the rigors of marriage. Might not fantasy, though, and particularly sexual fantasy, actually enhance and animate the reality of married life? Clinicians often interpret the lust for sexual adventure and the desire to cross traditional sexual boundaries--ranging from simple flirting to infatuation, from maintaining contact with previous lovers to cross-dressing, threesomes, and fetishes--as fears of commitment and infantile fantasies. Sexual fantasies about one's partner, particularly if they involve intense role-playing or scenarios of dominance and submission, are often regarded as symptoms of neuroses or immaturity, erotically tinged romantic idealization that blinds one to a partner's true identity. Our therapeutic culture "solves" the conflict between the drabness of the familiar and the excitement of the unknown by advising patients to renounce their fantasies in favor of more rational and "adult" sexual agendas. Therapists typically encourage patients to "really get to know'' their partners. But I often tell my patients that "knowing isn't everything." Eroticism can draw its powerful pleasure from fascination with the hidden, the mysterious, the suggestive.
Terry had been in therapy for a year, trying to come to terms with the shock he'd experienced in the transition from a two- to a four-person household, from being one half of a couple involved erotically to being one quarter of a family with two children and no eroticism at all. He began one session by announcing: "All right, you want to hear a real midlife story? You're going to get one. My wife and I recently hired this young German au pair to work for us during vacation. It's ended up that every morning, she and I take care of my daughters together. She's lovely--so natural, full of vitality and youth--and I've developed this amazing crush on her. You know how I've been talking about this feeling of deadness, my energy dropping, my body getting heavier? Well, her energy has wakened me up. I want to sleep with her and I wonder why I don't. I'm scared to do it and scared not to. I feel foolish, guilty, and I can't stop thinking about her."
As I listened to him, I thought that what was happening to him was an awakening of his dormant senses. The question was how could he relish this experience without allowing the momentary and exhilarating intoxication to endanger his marriage?
I didn't discourage Terry from his "immature" wishes or lecture him. I didn't try to talk reason into him. I didn't try to "explore" the emotional dynamics beneath this presumably "adolescent" desire. I simply valued his experience. He was looking at something beautiful; he was fantasizing. I marveled with him at the allure and beauty of the fantasy, while also calling it by its true name: a fantasy.
"How beautiful and how pathetic," I said. "It's great to know you still can come to life like that. And you know that you can never compare this state of inebriation with life at home, because home is about something else. Home is safe. Here, you're trembling, you're on shaky ground. You like it, but you're also afraid that it can take you too far away from home. I think that you probably don't let your wife evoke such tremors in you." As he left, I told him to keep that thought in mind over the next week.
A few days later, he was having lunch in a restaurant with his wife and she was telling him of her previous boyfriend. "I'd been thinking hard about what we talked about," he told me. "And, while we were sitting at the table, I had this switch. Normally, I don't like hearing these stories of hers--they make me jealous and irritated. But this time, I just let myself listen and found myself getting very turned on. So did she. In fact, we were so excited we had to look for a bathroom where we could be alone."
I suggested that perhaps the experience of listening to a fresh young woman was what enabled him now to listen to his wife differently--as a sexual woman in possession of her desirability. He was viewing his familiar wife from a new distance. I invited Terry to permit himself the erotic intensity of the illicit with his wife: "This could be a beginning of bringing lust home," I said. "These small transgressions are acceptable; they offer you the latitude to experience new desire without having to throw everything away."
Reviving Sexual Imagination
It always amazes me how much people are willing to experiment sexually outside their relationships, yet how tame and puritanical they are at home with their partners. Many of my patients have, by their own account, domestic sex lives devoid of excitement and eroticism, yet are consumed and aroused by a richly imaginative sexual life beyond domesticity--affairs, pornography, prostitutes, cybersex, or feverish daydreams. Having denied themselves freedom and freedom of imagination in their relationships, they go outside, to reimagine themselves with dangerous strangers.
Yet the commodification of sex--the enormous sex industry--actually hinders our potentially infinite capacity for fantasy, restraining and contaminating our sexual imagination. The explicitness of sexual products undermines the power of mystery, the voyeuristic pleasures of the hidden. Where nothing is forbidden, nothing is erotic. Furthermore, pornography and cybersex are ultimately isolating, disconnected from relations with a real, live, other person.
A fundamental conundrum in marriage, it seems to me, is that we seek a steady, reliable anchor in our partner, and a transcendent experience that allows us to soar beyond the boundaries and limitations of our ordinary lives. The challenge, then, for couples and therapists, is to reconcile the need for what's safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what's exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring. That challenge is further complicated when the partners are on opposite sides of this divide.
When Mitch complains about the sexual boredom in his marriage, he points at Laura's lack of imagination. "She always does the same thing. It's so predictable, it doesn't even really arouse me. She doesn't kiss me, she has so little imagination. She doesn't know that the mind is the most important sexual organ."
"So what do you do with your mind?" I ask. "Do you go off into the imaginary when you're with your wife?"
"You mean think about other women?" he asked.
"That," I said, "or it could be about yourself when you were younger, or any other places you may go."
"No," he declared, "that would be accepting that she's not enough and that I need to compensate."
"You're talking about reality. I'm talking about fantasy. Fantasies open up the erotic realm. You complain that she's passive, but you're passive, too. You can be wherever you want in your own head, your wife is whoever you perceive her to be. The preservation of autonomy and mystery allows both of you to be apart in your fantasies, and together in your bodily experiences. It's your ability to go off on your own that enables both of you to maintain your interest in each other."
What I was saying to Mitch is that separateness is a precondition for connection. Sex is vulnerable and risky; in this sense, there's no "safe sex." There's a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favor the predictable over the unpredictable. Erotic passion is defiant and unpredictable, unruly and undependable--which leaves many people feeling separate and vulnerable. As Stephen Mitchell, a New York analyst, used to say, "It is not that romance fades over time. It becomes riskier."
Challenging the idea that security is inside the relationship and adventure outside means pointing out that theÂ familiarity we seek to impose on the other kills desire. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to see our partner from a distance, with a wide-angle lens instead of a zoom? Of course, that distance isn't without risk: it also means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and being more alone. Maybe the real paradox is that this fundamental insecurity is a precondition for maintaining interest, desire, and intimacy in a relationship--bringing adventure home.
The irony is that even the predictability in the marriages of the dullest couples is an illusion. As Mitchell says, "Safety is presumed, not a given, but a construction." The conviction that one's partner is both safe and dull is an invention that both have tacitly agreed to and that give a false sense of security. People often end up in affairs to break from what they imagine is predictable boredom. Often, when the "dull partner" ends up having an affair, the other is surprised. This is because the supposedly familiar partner is in fact mysterious and unknown.
The ongoing challenge for the therapist is to help couples find ways to experience small transgressions, illicit strivings, and passionate idealizations in the midst of their predictable, safe lives. Adam Philips, an English analyst, underscores the point in his book Monogamy: "If it is the forbidden that is exciting . . . then the monogamous . . . have to work, if only to keep what is always too available sufficiently illicit to be interesting."
More Intimacy, Less Sex
It's often assumed that intimacy and trust must exist before sex can be enjoyed, but for many men and, yes, even women, intimacy actually sabotages sexual desire. When the loved one is invested with the fruits of intimacy, such as security and stability, he/she can become desexualized, no longer evoking the desire to pursue the fruits of passion.
Martha and Philip are trying to rekindle that spark they once had. When they met, Martha was the winning prize for Philip. "She was smart, beautiful, sexy. I couldn't believe she was interested in me. I coveted her and we had a strong sexual connection--until I was introduced to her family, that is," he recalls. "Something changed when I became accepted. I didn't tell her about this. In fact, I tried to deny to myself that anything was different. But pretty soon, I couldn't really get turned on by her and I immersed myself in anonymous bar-sex, masturbation, and porn." Needless to say, Martha was very disturbed by the loss of heat in their sex life, and she blamed it mostly on herself. Never very confident about her own sexuality, she, too, had been amazed by Philip's attraction for her, and now assumed he'd simply lost interest in her.
When I ask Philip for a sexual image that includes Martha, he conjures a picture of the two of them kissing romantically in the sunset. He adds that he has difficulty imagining her in a passionate, erotic way. He tells her openly, "I just can't see you in my mind anymore as a sexual object, and I feel bad about it, but it's just the truth."
To understand Philip's sexuality, one has to follow the direct link to his father, whose multiple sexual adventures hurt everyone in the family. "My father pursued pleasure without regard to others. It made me feel that life was out of control and not safe. My mother needed me for emotional support, and in order not to upset her any further, I became an asexual wunderkind. I was intensely moralistic and judgmental, but, somehow, that actually seemed to fuel my obsession with pornography and the urge to break the rules of what's considered proper. Sex, objectification, and transgression became as one for me."
Martha plays her part in the construction of this crucible. She avoids expressing sexual desire for fear of embarrassment and rejection. While Philip seeks affirmation on the outside, Martha's self-affirmation rests solely upon him and his response to her. Martha highlights a common way women order their sexuality, in that she makes him--and his desire for her--the centerpiece of her erotic and sexual identity.
When Martha does get up the courage to make advances to Philip, he feels pressure to be responsive and to take care of her. He fears the aggression in his desire, is ashamed of his need for anonymous, objectified sex, and feels guilty that he can't be more emotionally and erotically involved with his wife. It's his caring for Martha that stands in the way of his sexual desire for her. In the distancing and objectification, Philip seeks to create a separation between woman and mother, the erotic and the familial. After all, who wants to have sex within the family?
I point out the narrowness of their sex lives, combined with Philip's sexual adventures outside their relationship. I ask, "How about if you could bring some of the transgression and objectification into your erotic life at home?" They look shocked--they didn't expect this from a marriage therapist! "Martha, can you open yourself up to the eyes of other men, so that Philip isn't the sole source of your sexual validation?"
I suggest that they begin an e-mail correspondence to each other about their sexuality--their thoughts, conflicts, memories, fantasies, and seductions. This can elicit curiosity, intrigue, and a kind of wholesome anxiety. The built-in distance of e-mail allows space for fantasy and anonymity--a glimpse into the possibility of bringing adventure and unpredictability into the home.
Martha begins to practice seductiveness. She's playful and funny, not only with Philip, but with other men. Philip is intrigued by the new way she talks to him, "her new voice," a voice that sexualizes her in his eyes.
Martha starts off the next session by telling me, "Your urging me to get a sense of myself from other men besides Philip has been very good for me. I've started doing things with other men--going to concerts and galleries with male friends, and generally been more flirtatious. Nothing big, you know, but it's been fun to engage in these harmless encounters. And now, Philip's every word or look is no longer the most important thing in my life."
Martha also talked about her extremely conflicted feelings about Philip's extramarital sex life. "I was really hurt and angry about it, for sure," she said, "angry at him and angry at me. But at the same time, I also have to admit that when he had the affairs, I lusted after him more, because he wasn't necessarily mine. The anger at what he did and the fact that I know I could leave him--even though I don't want to--gives me more freedom and confidence. When I initiate sex now, I can feel almost brazen--and I like that. You want this, Philip? Take it! It doesn't have to be romantic or even particularly personal. I feel free, knowing that I choose to stay with him and, yes, knowing that he could leave me, too. That has freed us up."
Sex in Transition and Motherhood
Susan and Jenny came to see me about their sexual relationship. Susan, a longtime lesbian, set out to seduce Jenny right after she met her. Jenny responded, though it was her first lesbian relationship. They moved in together just as Susan was waiting for the arrival of a baby she was adopting. As soon as they were a threesome, Jenny thought they were a wonderful family, but completely lost any sexual interest in Susan. For this couple, sex was too weighted with meaning; eroticism and sexuality had been undermined by the need to build a safe, secure family unit that would endure. Jenny, already in some conflict about her lesbianism, couldn't be a second "mom" to the new baby, family builder, companionate spouse, and passionate lover all at once.
I said, "If you can divorce the fate of your relationship from having sex, then you may actually be able to have enjoyable sex, which will improve your relationship. Both of you are now mothers for the first time--Jenny is also a mother to Susan's child--and both of you are trying to be sexual with a partner who's a mother. And you're both trying, for the first time, to have sex with a mother as a mother.
"The transition to motherhood can have a desexualizing effect on women," I added. "The mother isn't an erotic image in our culture. 'Mom' is supposed to be caring, nurturing, loving, but, frankly, rather asexual--she's certainly not supposed to be overtly arousing. She represents the reproductive nature of sexuality, not the pleasure principle of eroticism.
"Being new parents can be pretty overwhelming. But can you try to add making love to the list of all the other things you enjoy doing together to unwind and relax?" I asked. "The idea is to make each other feel good. That's an offer you can't refuse."
At the next session, Jenny reported: "That really loosened us up. We can talk about it, laugh and not be instantly scared." Susan added: "I actually felt excited for the first time in a long time." As the session neared its end, I quoted a passage from Adam Philips's book and asked that they reflect on it together: "A sexual relationship is like learning a script neither of you has read. But you only notice this when one of you forgets your lines. And then, in the panic, you desperately try and remember something that you haven't really forgotten. You hope the other person will prompt you. You start to hear voices offstage. You bring on another character."
A Second Language
Physical pleasure offers a unique haven for many men and women; the soothing powers of the body make it the place for freedom of expression. It's only during sex that they're able to escape their anxieties and obsessive ruminations. The physical pleasure tunes out the numbing stress of the everyday. It provides solace and self-revelation, along with a sense of connection.
Returning to Mitch and Laura and their sexual boredom, I see all the drawbacks of their timid sexual imagination. Both describe their own and each other's sexual selves in stereotypical language. Mitch sees himself, and is seen by Laura, as the classic sex-obsessed man, demanding his rights regardless of how she feels. Laura, who is strong-willed and sometimes domineering in their everyday interactions, sees herself, and is seen by Mitch, as a sexually shy, inhibited woman, repeatedly rejecting his advances from some unfathomable feelings of disgust or contempt.
For Laura, sex is the sum of all the personal, cultural, and familial taboos, restrictions, and inhibitions she absorbed as a child. Her mother repeatedly warned her that sex wasn't for "nice girls." And the only comments about her body she remembers from her father were about her developing breasts. As an adult, she wears concealing clothes, including turtlenecks in the summer. Compliments or comments on her sensuality feel demeaning. Sexuality evokes fear in her; she's never been able to enjoy the pleasures of her body.
For Mitch, on the other hand, sex was always the place where he could feel utterly free, uninhibited, at peace. But in his marriage, he's come to feel awful about something he'd always experienced with confidence and pleasure. Meanwhile, Laura has come to feel completely deficient, ungenerous, and guilty.
In couples therapy, Mitch hears her story and understands for the first time that her alienation from her own body, her own pleasure, has nothing to do with him. This eases his sense of rejection, his anguish about being unable to please her. For her part, Laura learns something equally crucial about Mitch--that when the language of words fails him, as it invariably does in the realm of emotion, he communicates with his body. Mitch needs physicality to voice his vulnerability and delight, his yearning to connect; only in sex can he feel emotionally safe.
Laura, as she hears him, begins to realize, for the first time, how important the body can be as a medium for free, creative, and deeply personal expression. She'd always felt that Mitch's desire for sex had little to do with her; it was just crude physical release for him. For instance, when I ask him to say what he'd like and he says, "I want to sit on the edge of a hot tub and have Laura suck me," she recoils. "It's too raw, too coarse," she says. "It has nothing to do with me ." I remind her that it's her he wants to do it with--only her--and it's, for him, a very intimate act. "He's never gone anywhere else; it's you he wants."
By permitting him to speak only in her nonphysical language, rather than in his sensual language, Laura has blocked not only his ability to really "speak" to her, but her own view of her husband as he really is. She can see only the bully, not the yearning lover. And every time he opens his mouth, that bully reinforces her fears. He's reduced to his second, far less fluent, language of words. Meanwhile, her experience has robbed her of the capacity to speak and understand the body's language. For every person, the physical language is the original mother tongue.
As Laura tries to grasp Mitch's erotic fantasies, I try to steer her attention to herself. What are her erotic choices? Can she let her body communicate its wants to Mitch? Can she dare break through the vigilance, the guilt, and the disavowal that surround her sexual desires and the ideas and feelings associated with pleasing her own body? Can she look her mother straight in the eye and still maintain a sense of her sexual self, indulge in her own experience of eroticism without sacrificing her self-image as a "nice" or "respectable" girl?
Like many women, Laura battles the age-old repressions of female sexuality that have trapped a woman into passivity and dependence on men to seduce and initiate her into sexuality, to intuit what she likes and to bring her to fulfillment. Economic and professional independence not withstanding, Laura remains sexually dependent.
Together, Laura and I expose the tortuous conflicts between desire and denial, wanting and not having, fulfillment and repression. I invite her to engage with her fantasies, to own her wanting, and to take responsibility for her sexual fulfillment. I remind her that sex often evokes unreasoning obsessions rather than clear judgment, selfish desires rather than thoughtful consideration.
I suggest to Mitch and Laura that they're trapped in a language with too little imagination, a language too limited to contain their erotic life. Mitch bursts into tears. "I'm not angry," he says of all the times that his frustration has led to mean, hurtful words. "I'm heartbroken." I ask Laura to just hold him and I leave the room for a few minutes to give them the chance to connect through the pure language of physical touch. I think of my two boys, and how often they want me to hold them. No words can match touch; a hug can melt away many ill chosen words.
Laura's challenge--and that of many women--is to be able to eroticize and desire a man who's present, reliable, and needs her. The vulnerability and dependency that she accepts in her children have a desexualizing effect for her in Mitch. She associates potency and sexuality with the strong, aloof, unavailable man/father. Paradoxically, the erotic realm offers Mitch--and many men--a restorative experience of his softer, more dependent, side.
For Mitch and Laura, the issues that generate conflict in their relationship--control, power, dependency, and vulnerability--can yield sexual desire and mutual pleasure when eroticized. Mitch often resents Laura's overpowering personality in daily life, but would like very much to see its erotic expression. Laura, angered by Mitch's apparent "insensitivity," his power ploys, can find this sexuality erotically appealing when she realizes that sex is a language he wants to speak only with her--that it's she who touches him most deeply and personally.
So many of the couples who come to therapy imagine that they know everything there is to know about their mate. In large part, I see my job as trying to highlight for them how little they've seen, urging them to recover their curiosity and catch a glimpse behind the walls that encircle the other. Eroticism is the fuel for that curiosity, the experience of desire transfigured by the imagination.
As Mexican essayist Octavio Paz has written, eroticism is "the poetry of the body, the testimony of the senses. Like a poem, it is not linear, it meanders and twists back on itself, shows us what we do not see with our eyes, but in the eyes of our spirit. Eroticism reveals to us another world, inside this world. The senses become servants of the imagination, and let us see the invisible and hear the inaudible."
Esther Perel, M.A., is on the faculties of the New York Medical Center, Department of Psychiatry, and the International Trauma Studies Program, New York University. She is visiting faculty at the Minuchin Center for the Family and is in private practice in New York. Address: 307 West Broadway, Suite 5E, New York, NY 10013. E-mails to the author may be sent to email@example.com. Letters to the Editor about this article may be sent to Letters@psychnetworker.org.
Barbach, Lonnie. For Yourself: The Fulfillment of Female Sexuality. New York: Signet, 2000. A key reference on female sexuality.
For Each Other: Sharing Sexual Intimacy. New York: Signet, 2001.
Badinter, Elisabeth. XY, on Masculine Identity. Trans. Lydia Davis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. This and Barbach's For Each Other are excellent books on the complementarity between the sexes and the exploration of male andÂ Â female identity.
Friday, Nancy. Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Sexual Fantasies. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991. A look at women's erotic choices by a leading figure in the field.
Giddens, Anthony. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. A clear, concise, historical account of male and female sexual development and perspectives, sexual addictions, and contemporary relational alternatives.
Gilmore, David D. Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.
Paz, Octavio. The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism. Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995. Illuminating and provocative essays on the connection between love, sex, and eroticism by the 1990 Nobel Laureate for literature.
Phillips, Adam. Monogamy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. Witty, brief reflections on the nature of erotic desire, trust, and transgression.
by Richard Schwartz
Mark and Stacey, an attractive couple in their early thirties, have only been married two years and they're already knotted in conflict. In our first session, Mark, an intense, athletically built man, gets to the point, "I hate it that we're such a stereotype, but it's the typical scenario of me wanting more sex than she does. We're down to once every two weeks--if I'm lucky--and it's driving me crazy. I have a strong sex drive, so if it were up to me, we'd do it every day, the way we used to when we were dating. Now, not only do I not get my sexual needs met, but I feel rejected because most of the time I get shot down when I initiate."
Stacey, slim, darkhaired, sits rigidly in her chair. "I know we don't have sex as much as Mark likes," she says, with an edge in her voice, "but for me to want to make love, I have to feel emotionally connected to him and, to be honest, most of the time, I just don't. He seems so obsessed about this issue. I constantly feel pressure to satisfy him. It's like raw sex is the only thing he wants from me. It's gotten to the point where any time he touches me I freeze up--I'm afraid to respond even affectionately because if I do, he thinks it's an invitation to sex."
"Yeah, in some ways that's the hardest part of it for me," Mark interrupts, "the way she sees me now. She looks at me like I'm one of those guys on The Sopranos. I like sex, but I'm no drooling animal. I can be romantic and I do try to help her feel close, but whatever I do does no good," he says despondently. "No matter how sensitive I try to be, it's like she has this view of me as a sex-crazed gorilla."
I ask each of them to describe what typically happens when they do have sex. Stacey says, "After some time goes by when we haven't had sex, Mark gets more and more sulky, and I begin to feel I'm like a bad, unloving wife. So I hug him or pat his shoulder or maybe just smile at him or something and, oh boy! That's all it takes--he's off to the races. I feel I can't say no again, and so we'll get in bed and start kissing. I try to be as warm as I can get myself to be; I don't want to just lie there like a dead fish. And, usually, at a certain point, I can work myself up so that I'm into it, sort of. Afterwards, I feel relieved because I know he feels happier and not so angry at me and, also, he'll back off and I won't have to do it for a while."
Mark seems not to have heard the many negative qualifiers in Stacey's description of their sex life. "That's what I don't get," he exclaims with exasperation. "In the middle of it, she comes alive and seems to like what I'm doing, but the next day she's uninterested again. If you like it, why not want more? Also, I don't enjoy the beginnings that much because I want to feel wanted by her, not like I have to kick start her engine every time. I'm not one of these guys who just wants to satisfy himself. I'm good at foreplay and I've learned what she likes."
Mark and Stacey are caught in a classic struggle, and most couples therapists have responded with a now-classic technique: get him to back off by issuing a moratorium on sex and assigning exercises that allow them to show affection to each other without any sexual expectation. Trained as a problem-solving, strategic therapist, I used to give that directive to couples and often found that it had the desired effect. It probably would've worked with Mark and Stacey, too. As he contained himself so she felt less under seige and more cared for, eventually they could've found a frequency that felt okay to each, checked off this particular glitch on their list of relationship issues, and left therapy reasonably satisfied.
I once felt an outcome like that meant I'd done my job. Not anymore. Through the years, I've come to see that this kind of technical fix, however immediately useful, is unequal to the inner complexity of people and their potential to know each other intimately.
Know Your Selves
No other area of a couple's life holds as much promise for achieving intimacy as sex. Indeed, the promise of intimacy may be as important as lust for drawing human beings toward sex in the first place. My goal now is to help partners reach the kind of soul-deep connectedness in their sexual encounters that can transform their lives and their relationship with each other.
The Latin adjective intimus means "inmost, deepest." So real intimacy means, first of all, that both partners listen deep inside--i.e., get to know their inner worlds of emotion, desire, and vulnerability--and then reveal what they've learned to each other in an atmosphere of loving acceptance. The couples I've helped reach that level of resonance report tremendous rewards for themselves and their relationships. However, as rewarding as that state is, it's also quite rare--both because of the risks involved in being that vulnerable and because knowing yourself isn't a simple task.
When people listen deeply inside, they encounter a host of feelings, fantasies, thoughts, impulses, and sensations that comprise that background noise of our everyday experience of being in the world. When they remain focused on and ask questions of one of those inner experiences, they find that it's more than merely a transient thought or emotion. Within each of us is a complex family of subpersonalities, which is why we can have so many contradictory and confusing needs simultaneously, especially around sex. American poet Walt Whitman got it right in "Song of Myself": "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" So do we all contain multitudes.
Thus, the Oracle of Delphi's admonition to "know thyself" should really have been to "know your selves." I call these subpersonalities "parts" because, when I first started doing this kind of work, that's how my clients referred to them. "Part of me wants to stay married and faithful, but another part wants to be free to get laid every night of the week with a different woman," a client might say. "I know I'm successful at my job, but there's a part of me that says it's only a matter of time until everybody else finds out how stupid and incompetent I really am," another would report. While people like parts of themselves that make them feel powerful, competent, and in control, they tend to dislike and even despise what they feel are their less attractive, more troublesome, parts. In one session, Stacey said spontaneously "I hate the part of me that's so scared to have sex with Mark." But hating and trying to get rid of parts that we don't like doesn't work. We only feel more polarized inside, and the despised part gets stronger.
Getting to know ourselves in all our multiplicity isn't an easy stroll through a familiar neighborhood. When our inner parts meet our partner's parts, the complexity is compounded, which is why couples therapy can be so difficult. Despite the fact that, like Mark and Stacey, most partners want me to get the other to change, I try to help each listen inside to discover why they respond to their mates in such extreme, and often damaging, ways.
I've found that, if I establish a safe, accepting atmosphere in our sessions, clients can have inner discussions with their parts. In a trancelike state of internal focus, they can dialogue with their parts about what motivates them to react in irrational or self-defeating ways. In listening to their parts' stories, their behaviors or beliefs become comprehensible.
As clients learn to separate from their extreme emotions and thoughts (their parts) in this way, I find that they spontaneously tap into a calm, centered state that I call their Self. When this happens in a session, it feels as if the very molecules in the atmosphere have radically shifted. My clients' faces and voices grow softer and more tranquil; they become more open and tender, able to explore their parts without anger, defensiveness, or dislike. When accessing this state of Self, clients are tapping into something deeper than all these conflicting inner warriors, something that spiritual traditions call "soul."
Now imagine what it can mean for a relationship when each partner connects to such a Self. If intimacy means being able to truly know and reveal all our parts to a beloved other, then the presence of Self makes doing so possible. When they make a Self-to-Self connection, people sense at a very deep level that they aren't alone and that even their most shameful facets are loved. When, during sex, each partner can dive beneath the surface where their contending parts are creating stormy waves and into the calm depths of Self-to-Self connectedness, their bodies and souls meet and sense a oneness that's delicious and profoundly satisfying. For me, then, intimacy has two components: the knowing and revealing of one's secret parts and also the sense of awe and belonging that comes with Self-to-Self connectedness.
The first step toward that kind of intimacy involves helping each partner get to know the parts that are triggered by their problems. Because Mark and Stacey were polarized around their sexual relationship, I thought they'd feel safer doing this exploration in private. I suggested that I meet with each of them separately for a session or two. To help people find their parts, I usually begin by asking them what they think or feel about the problem they bring me. When I saw Stacey individually, for example, I asked her what she said to herself when Mark approached her for sex. "Oh no, here we go again!" she replied contemptuously. "I feel angry and helpless and just yuck! But then, I tell myself, 'God, I suppose I've got to do it or he'll make me pay.'"
I then asked her to focus on the disdainful voice. She said she sensed it in the back of her head. As she focused there, I suggested she ask it why it felt such revulsion for Mark and for sex? Putting her hands up as if to push the entire subject away, she said the voice was really disgusted by the whole thing--sweaty, naked bodies, ugly, hairy genitals, revolting fluids, and ridiculous animal noises. Stacey's face was scrunched up in a look of loathing as she spoke, when suddenly she stopped cold and put her hands over her eyes."Oh my God, it's my mother!" she cried out. "It's my mother's voice in me!"
As we explored this revelation, Stacey recalled that her mother had conveyed her own deep revulsion with all things having to do with the body and sexuality. Some schools of therapy consider a voice like that a "parental introject" or a "schema" of learned cognitions (i.e., the internalized attitudes of Stacey's mother), and would encourage Stacey to ignore or argue with it. While there's no doubt that this part absorbed aspects of Stacey's mother, I find that such parts intend to protect rather than torment. These aversive, controlling voices belong to a category of parts I call the Managers, which act to protect people from hurt and trauma suffered in the past--usually when they were very young and unable to defend themselves emotionally or even physically. There are all kinds of Managers. Some are inner critics who drive people to perform perfectly so they'll never reexperience old feelings of failure and inadequacy. Other managers, like Stacey's, are early-warning systems that operate to prevent the person from even getting near an experience that might cause harm. Sex is perhaps the area of life most prone to the meddling of overzealous managers.
Managers like Stacey's bring new meaning to the phrase "safe sex." They have to be in control of the action. They see spontaneous expression as dangerous. They don't want anyone to know about, much less witness, certain parts of you. They also don't want you to be rejected or exploited, so they keep your heart closed to others. Managers monitor the passion, affection, play, and spontaneity you express in sex. If you begin to get carried away, they might interrupt the action with distracting thoughts, suddenly erase sensation or inject pain, or make you tense and uncooperative. Managers are the ultimate control freaks.
The Return of the Exiles
If you think of Stacey's voice as an introject or a cluster of thoughts, it makes sense to try to get her to challenge or eliminate it. If, in contrast, you view it as an inner personality, you get curious about why it's in the role of puritanical mother. Rather than try to shut down this "manager-mother," I wanted to know why she had this role in Stacey's inner drama. I've found that when we approach our Managers with respect, instead of resentment and dislike, they often have good reasons for what they do. I asked Stacey to sit quietly, breathe evenly, and go inside. "Ask the mother part what it's afraid will happen if it doesn't keep you so repulsed by sex," I said.
After a moment, Stacey had a vivid image of herself as a 6-year-old girl in the bathroom. Her father was helping her undress to take a bath, and as she watched the scene play out, she could see something wrong about it. Her father was looking at her in a funny way, once she was naked, his voice sounded different, and he trembled slightly. She sensed again the fear and confusion she'd felt then--the feeling that something bad was happening, and that it had something to do with her being naked.
The 6-year-old was one of Stacey's Exiles. Exiles are often childlike parts of ourselves that carry the memories and sensations from times when we were hurt, terrified, abandoned, or shamed. Because we want to forget those experiences, we exile these parts, and our Managers do their best to keep them from ever being triggered. Whenever Mark became amorous, it began to scare Stacey's little girl, so her manager-mother went into action, damping down any sexual feelings. Unfortunately, by keeping the Exile deep underground, Stacey not only missed unpleasant memories and sensations, she also missed the most sensitive, innocent, and open aspects of herself. If Exiles carry our most rending pain, they also can give us our capacity for joy, love, passion, creativity, imagination, playfulness, and sheer zest for life. If we shut away the Exiles, we also shut away much of what gives sex, and life in general, pleasure and adventure and meaning.
Mark, too, had parts that influenced the patterns between him and Stacey. When I saw him alone, I asked him to relax and focus on the feeling of frustration he felt whenever Stacey "shot him down." He closed his eyes and said he noticed a voice saying that he needed and deserved lots of sex. I told him to ask the voice about itself. Mark smiled and said that that voice called itself "The Stud," and it looked like a very buff, very macho, very tan version of himself. Mark said The Stud bombarded him with images of himself having sex in numerous hot and ingenious ways with his wife and other women, who panted and moaned in lusty abandon. Mark said he liked The Stud and that it had a powerful influence on him. He basically agreed with The Stud that his life should be more like those images. Many men have parts like Mark's stud, but not many are so open about it so early in therapy.
"Ask The Stud," I said, "what it's afraid would happen if you don't get to have sex all the time." He soon became quiet. After a long silence during which his face betrayed intense emotion, Mark said he'd felt waves of shame as he watched an image of himself as a 13-year-old in the boys' locker room. Talking in a bare whisper, he said that, at that age, he'd had small protuberances at his nipples. The other boys had ridiculed him mercilessly, calling him "Tits," asking him when he was going to buy a bra, and telling him he was really a girl. At such a vulnerable age, this kind of abuse was deeply traumatic to a young boy's developing sense of his own manhood. It was then that The Stud stepped into its role and the devastated 13-year-old was exiled. Never again, vowed The Stud, would he let anybody doubt Mark's masculinity, and it pushed him to seduce as many girls as he could.
Since he'd married Stacey, The Stud constantly pressured him to have affairs, especially after Stacey started rejecting him. So far, he'd resisted--he loved Stacey and wanted their marriage to succeed--but he was afraid that, if their sex life didn't improve, he'd succumb.
Firefighters to the Rescue
Mark's stud is characteristic of a third category of parts that I call the firefighters.
Like the Managers, the Firefighters want to protect the Exiles, but where Managers are cautious and often very rational in their attempts to protect Exiles, Firefighters leap into action after the Exile's feelings have been triggered. Firefighters are emergency responders who come out, hoses on full blast, when we feel so bad we have to drown the flames of emotion before they destroy us. These Firefighter parts manifest as urges to binge on food, alcohol, drugs, sex, work, or anything else that offers quick relief from pain.
Firefighter sex is one way to stave off intolerable feelings. Only while having or fantasizing about sex can people like Mark feel they have value, strength, or personal agency. Furthermore, a sexual Firefighter's obsession with power, dominance, and high-voltage sensation, can make us oblivious to the human being we're having sex with. Indeed, Stacey complained that she felt that Mark wasn't really there with her during sex; he didn't seem to care who was there, as long as a compliant body shared his bed. As is true for most Firefighter activity, the irony is that this part's efforts to help the exiled 13-year-old didn't work: ultimately they backfired. Stacey repeatedly rejected Mark for his sexual boorishness, only making Mark's exiled teen more ashamed and his stud more desperate.
When we uncover the dance of parts within and between members of a couple, we see many vicious cycles. The aggressiveness of Mark's stud triggered Stacey's Manager, which further triggered his stud, and so on, with disastrous results for their sex life. An Indian proverb says when the water buffalo battle in the marsh, it's the frogs who suffer. As Mark and Stacey's protective parts became increasingly extreme, the Exiles in each of them were increasingly wounded. My experience is that until each partner can care for and heal their own Exiles, these battles will continue. So I asked Mark how he felt about his young teen, and Stacey about her 6-year-old girl. Predictably, Mark was ashamed of the boy and didn't want to remember what he'd felt like. "That was all a long time ago," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand, "and I can't see any point in talking about that now." Similarly, Stacey was irrationally critical of the little girl. "She must've done something to make my father change like that," she said stubbornly.
It's very common for people to fear or dislike their Exiles initially. So I ask a client to find the rejecting or fearful voice that dislikes the Exile and politely ask it to just step back or relax for a bit. Sometimes it takes several requests for it to step back, but when it happens, the client's feelings toward the Exiles change dramatically from disdain and anger to curiosity or compassion, from fear to a sense of peace and confidence. When I ask clients what this calm, compassionate part is, they often reply withÂ something like, "This isn't a part like those other voices. This feels more like who I really am, like my real self." It seems that as people separate from their parts, their Self spontaneously emerges.
Once a client shows more qualities of Self, I ask him or her to enter the scene that an Exile is stuck in. "Can you go into that locker room and be there in the way that boy needed someone to be there at the time?" I asked Mark. Even after 20 years of doing this kind of work, I'm still awed by the way people unerringly know just what to do to heal these wounded inner parts. Mark said that as he approached the 13-year-old, the boy looked up with fear and embarrassment, thinking that this strong, athletic man would also make fun of him. Instead, as Mark played the scene, he sat down on the bench a few feet from the boy. He gently told the boy that there was nothing wrong with him or his body, that the appearance of his breasts was due to hormonal changes and they'd soon look perfectly normal. Other boys were also insecure about their bodies, Mark pointed out. "And anyway, I love you," he said to the boy. At this, the boy dropped his guard and burst into tears. Mark put his arm around the boy and took him out of the locker room, to a safe and pleasant place in the present--Mark visualized taking the boy canoeing on a nearby lake that he and Stacey often visited.
Meanwhile, Stacey went through a similar process. She helped the little girl out of the tub, carefully folded her in a fluffy, warm towel, and, embracing the girl, told her that she'd done nothing wrong. Whatever happened was her father's problem, not hers. Stacey, too, brought the girl into a safe and comfortable setting--to the living room couch--where she folded her arms around the little girl as she read her a story, while the sun streamed through the window.
After people compassionately witness their past in this way and retrieve the Exiles that are frozen there, they feel far less vulnerable. Consequently, the parts that guarded those Exiles are freed from their protective roles. The inner, reactive voices--explosive anger, self-hatred, anxious vigilance, compulsive behavior--transform into valuable helpers. A chronically suspicious, distrustful inner voice, for example, becomes an accurate intuition, helping the person sense who's safe to open up to, but no longer automatically closing off to everyone or keeping him in a fog of paranoia. A carping inner critic becomes a supportive voice urging the person to keep trying rather than constantly beating her down. After rescuing his 13-year-old, Mark focused back on The Stud, who was relaxed and smaller, less musclebound. Similarly, when Stacey returned to her manager-mother, the part was willing to reconsider the beliefs it had taken on from her mother, now that it didn't need to keep the little girl safe. These are the beginning steps in the process of transforming inner parts.
The Exiles of both Stacey and Mark carried feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing, and believed that they were fundamentally flawed and unlovable. Stacey's little girl craved the tender affection and protection that a father is supposed to provide--and, in fact, that's what she wanted from sex with Mark. She was drawn to him in the first place because of his strength, competence, and apparent self-confidence--his take-charge personality seemed to promise perpetual safety. Stacey's Exiles would only let her enjoy sex that was cozy, warm, adoring, and not terribly erotic; they were frightened by insensitivity, crudeness, or, often, even unashamed lust.
Mark's Exiles, meanwhile, couldn't at first believe that a woman as pretty and vivacious as Stacey would find him--a weak, "effeminate," 13-year-old--attractive. Because of the Exiles' own fears and anxieties about his manhood, he only let another person have access to him through sex--but sex was also the way he reassured himself that he was really a man. As a result, men like Mark become highly attached to and possessive of their current lover while constantly looking around for another. Since Mark and Stacey had Exiles that were extremely needy and full of impossible expectations of the other, and Managers and Firefighters that strongly provoked the other's protectors, their sex life was doomed from the start.
After Mark and Stacey made peace with their inner exiles in private sessions and, consequently, were each less vulnerable and reactive to the other, I brought them together for a joint session. I told Mark and Stacey, "No wonder you feel so hopeless. You never had a chance for real intimacy. As you heal these parts we've found, you'll finally have a chance."
In the joint session, my role is to help them remain Self-led as they speak to each other. When I notice that either of them has been hijacked by a part, I encourage them to focus inside briefly and then come back and speak for their parts rather than from them. When a partner speaks from the Self about its parts, the other partner is less likely to be triggered and more likely to hear the message.
Mark and Stacey nervously shared with each other what they'd learned in individual sessions. It was extraordinarily touching--as it often is when embattled couples begin to thaw out--to see Stacey tell Mark with unfeigned emotion how sad she felt for that young boy who had been so cruelly humiliated. "I can understand now why you feel so driven, and why my rejection hurts you so much," she said, looking him deeply in the eyes. Mark said he'd never known about the old incident with her father, and now it made complete sense that she'd cringe when he pursued her. He knew what it felt like to be hounded. The quality of the conversation between the two of them was soft and hesitant, but direct.
Stacey asked Mark if he was willing to be patient around sex while she continued to work with her own inner parts--several other Managers had surfaced in therapy. Mark said that he'd really try to let her be in control of that arena, which would be easier now that he knew himself and his stud better. Both sighed as they began to understand that this was only the beginning of a long process. This was different from any conversation they'd ever had. They'd felt closer and more real to each other than any other time during their marriage.
Once couples get a taste of what real Self-to-Self connection feels like, they're eager to keep going, particularly when they see the barriers to their own freedom fall away. Over the course of a year, working with their parts, sometimes individually, more often in front of each other, Mark and Stacey reported continuing changes in their sexual and nonsexual lives together. Each was becoming a different person with the other; in fact, they were becoming a lot of different people with each other in ways that increasingly energized, touched, and delighted them both.
As the polarization between parts diminishes within a person, so it diminishes between partners. Stacey was no longer afraid of Mark's stud. In fact, she was surprised to discover a formerly hidden "hot babe" part of herself that could sometimes meet or even exceed the energy of Mark's stud. Mark said that whereas all his previous sexual experience had been dominated by his stud's frenzied aggressiveness, now he'd come to also enjoy the softer, slower kind of sex that Stacey preferred. His stud was less agitated and more sensual. It no longer hijacked him and took him away into fantasy worlds, so he was more responsive to Stacey's moods.
What most surprised this couple was discovering how moving and powerful sex was when they allowed their more vulnerable parts to be present--those parts that they'd previously barricaded behind various protectors. No longer terrified, wounded victims, the Exiles began to exhibit their capacity for openness, innocence, sensitivity, and childlike pleasure. "You know," Mark said, "sometimes when Stacey and I are together, I feel like that embarrassed 13-year-old kid I used to be. I even let myself act as if I'm more like I'm 8 or 10, or even younger--all bouncy and eager the way I was then." To his wonder, when he let himself feel young, vulnerable, and a little awkward, rather than cleaving to the old image of a technically perfect sexual operator--Stacey responded with loving warmth and laughter, kissing and stroking him as if he were her beloved child. While feeling highly charged sexually, he also felt, for the first time in his life, utterly cherished and nurtured.
It took longer for Stacey to let herself feel that vulnerable--her distrust was very intense. Eventually, however, she could let the little girl out in a nonsexual context during sessions, becoming playful in a funny, slightly silly, way. Later, the little girl began to spontaneously show up in their bed. As the little girl took part in sex, Stacey said she felt the same kind of total love and acceptance from Mark that he'd reported from her when his boy was present. They both found humor and playfulness moving seamlessly from their nonsexual to sexual lives and back again. They teased each other during the day, which often became a prelude to sex.
One of the enormous advantages of this kind of free-flowing give-and-take of parts between a couple is the variety and richness it brings to their lives. Stacey remarked one day toward the end of therapy that what she loved most about their new sexuality was the unpredictability of it. For the first time in her life, she was no longer trying to control every aspect of their sexual encounters and, instead, could let any part of herself spontaneously emerge in her body during their lovemaking. The appearance of a part in her often elicited a new part in Mark, so sex, which had been a predictable deployment of stereotyped parts, became an improvised and often astonishing dance in which neither one knew in advance who would show up. This meant for Stacey that she'd suddenly find herself moving in ways she'd never moved before and saying words she'd never said, and all the different parts seemed to find great joy in finally expressing themselves as openly and physically as they wanted. She constantly expected to berate herself for acting so brazenly, but the torrent of criticism from her Managers seemed to have dried up. She still occasionally felt embarrassed the morning after, but that didn't last long, since Mark seemed so happy about it all.
Mark and Stacey were also experiencing more and more Self-to-Self intimacy, although they'd have been puzzled by what I meant, if I'd told them this. I don't talk very much about the Self with clients; before they've done much work with their parts, it might sound incomprehensible to them. Afterward, they know and experience Self-to-Self connection without having to name it. Clients still in thrall to their parts, manifesting in extreme and polarized form, or couples who mostly see only angry, resentful, dependent, jealous, self-pitying parts in each other, may not know there's anything like a Self within them. But the simple process of learning to help a part "step back" before they talk to each other allows the couple to experience a few minutes of agenda-free, open-hearted curiosity about the other. Fleeting as they are, such moments inevitably create an almost palpable sense of connection that wasn't there before and can carry them through ensuing "parts wars."
Enough of these moments and a couple begins to know that, whatever stormy melodrama roils the waters of their relationship, it cannot interrupt a deeper, more enduring current flowing between them. When your partners hold Self-to-Self connection, parts can come and go spontaneously within both, without eliciting the old fears, angers and misunderstandings, because each of them senses the calm, abiding presence of an essential "I" in the storm. That connection forms a loving backdrop to a couple's sexual experience that makes it safe and wonderful for any part to come out. It's the safety of the Self-to-Self connection that allows the delicious surrender to the sexual process.
Once a couple has tasted Self-to-Self intimacy, they know that whatever tempests they find themselves in aren't the essential reality of their connection. No matter what the parts are saying during these inevitably rough times, the couple knows that sooner or later they'll again speak to each other in their true voices. And when that happens, each loses a sense of lonely separateness, and, at some level, experiences a state of union and oneness. They sense that both of them are part of the deep ocean, not the isolated waves. Both are home.
Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Self Leadership (website: selfleadership.org). He is the originator of the Internal Family Systems Model and author or coauthor of five books, including Internal Family Systems Therapy . Address: 217 North Lombard Street, Oak Park, IL 60302; e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters to the Editor about this article may be sent to Letters@psychnetworker.org.