Saturday, May 23, 2009

Types of Relationships

Culture is very powerful in shaping our view of what is a healthy relationship. Our current culture emphasizes that sexual behavior should occur within a monogamous relationship, and that only monogamous relationships are healthy. How much do you agree with this expectation? In fact, there are a multitude of different types of relationships. Sexual health requires that you clarify the type of relationship you want. This is a controversial opinion where other clinicians may legitimately differ. The primary approach taken in this book is that you have the responsibility to choose the type of life you want to live regarding sexual expression.

As a summary, I highlight three types of sexual relationships:

Celibacy is a choice to not engage in any sexual contact with anyone. How people define celibacy varies. There are opinions saying that any sexual expression including masturbation, fantasy and use of sexually explicit material would be unhealthy. Other opinions focus celibacy as not allowing any genital contact with another person. Some religious traditions impose celibacy as the only form of sexual expression for groups of people (usually LGBT individuals or non-married straight couples). Also, some religious traditions impose celibacy as a discipline in order to for a person to qualify to be a minister in that tradition.

Rightfully understood, however, celibacy is less about telling yourself “you can’t do that” and instead emphasizing something greater in a person’s life. Celibacy allows a greater commitment to the major focus in a person’s life. In this approach, celibacy is believed to facilitate other types of intimate relationships. Many religious traditions have identified celibacy as a “gift of the Spirit” referring to it as a gift from God. In my opinion, a healthy expression of celibacy is possible. It does take a bit of work and self-understanding. And celibacy doesn’t “turn-off” the sexual energy within a person. If you choose this, you must find healthy ways to channel your sexual energy. It is very important for celibacy to be chosen for the right reason. In my experience, I’ve run into many individuals who “choose” celibacy out of fear, a history of abuse, or low self-esteem. If these are the motivating factors for choosing celibacy, it is only a matter of time that any commitment to or vow of celibacy will be broken.

Most of this workbook is built on the assumption of monogamy that is typically defined as sexual contact exclusively between two individuals within some type of committed relationship. Even this definition has different interpretations resulting in confusion and conflict. For some people, monogamy is expanded to prevent any emotional relationships with anyone but the primary partner. Some opinions of monogamy also see any use of sexually explicit material as a violation of the monogamy rule. As expected, in these examples monogamy is less about an expression of love but an expression of fear and attempts to control the partner. There is a decided lack of trust.

Healthy monogamy, in my opinion, is about trust and commitment. It’s working with your partner to put the other first. And paradoxically, in putting the other first, your needs are simultaneously met (partially because the other is putting you first). Monogamy isn’t passive, but requires tremendous amounts of work. The workbook is designed to start the necessary conversations regarding healthy monogamy.

Open Relationships
A final type of relationship discussed here is open relationships (typically defined as a relationship where there exists a primary sexual and emotional partner followed by a secondary partner or partners). Even within this concept there is a variety of definitions and expressions. If you choose an open relationship it is important for you and your primary partner to clarify ground rules and expectations. When, where, with whom and how often are all topics to be addressed. What are the plans for communicating and coping with fear, jealousy and insecurity? What are the safer-sex rules?
If you want an open relationship, examine what unmet needs (if any) exist within your primary relationship. Significant reflection should occur within your support network to clarify the reasons you want an open relationship. In particular, be careful that you are not simply trying to get out of the primary relationship. If the primary relationship is not healthy, it is important to address the issues first. If it should end, do this with integrity instead of forcing a rift that ends the relationship. One requirement is that all partners be open and honest in the conversation. Both partners must agree with a sense of internal integrity with any decision. It might be better to end a relationship than agree to a type of relationship that is inconsistent with your values.
Sexual satisfaction is a major component of overall relationship satisfaction. Research has repeatedly stressed overall health is connected to relationship satisfaction. If you continue to struggle in this area, I strongly recommend seeking additional help from a qualified professional.

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