Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Relationship parallels for sexual health

My last two posts focused on sexual functioning issues, and unlinking sexual behavior and drug use. The feedback from clients has been positive. A colleague adapted the material to also talk about relationship development. I'm pleased to add Dr. Shannon Garrity as a guest author for this post.

Relationship parallels for sexual health
Shannon Garrity, Psy.D, LP

You have admitted you want a relationship, which is an important first step. As you progress in finding your *perfect* partner, consider the process it took to even admit or realize you want a relationship. We have mastered the art of skipping over the tough, ambiguous parts of life – now we are learning to navigate the unknown, vulnerable, exhilarating process of life. Consider the guide below as you put yourself out into the dating world (a relational parallel for de-linking sex and drugs):

1. Looking. Physical attraction or that “something” about the other person is often what first sparks interest, but to what else are you attracted? How important is it that your partner demonstrates values consistent with yours? Do you want someone with whom you can laugh? Is intellectual stimulation important to you? What about openness? Is it important to have a partner who is friendly, polite, compassionate, and/or sincere? Consider other general characteristics that you wish to have in a partner. It may also be helpful to consider to what extent do you demonstrate these?

If you need to, set rules for yourself. Some rules may be: no naked times until at least 3 months have passed, no overnight dates until at least 2-3 months, no sex until you really know (and still like) the person. Also consider your non-negotiables: he/she must be gay/bi/etc. and un-partnered and out, he/she must have xyz length of sobriety and/or not use, he/she must demonstrate general levels of respect, social decorum, etc. What have you struggled with in the past and what are you intent on changing?

2. Chatting/Flirting. In the early stages of dating or getting to know someone, you are doing just that – getting to know a person. You are getting to know him and how you are or how you feel when you are with him. Does he/she interest you? Does he/she laugh with you (or do your jokes fall on seemingly deaf ears or does he make fun of people rather than use humor in a non destructive way)? When you are in the chatting stage, you are at the beginning stages of getting to know someone. Generally, topics of conversation involve current events, pop culture, likes and dislikes, general relationship histories or life lessons; consider the idea of playing and having fun. This is the “hanging out” period. Face to face contact is probably once per week and maybe a chat or two during the week. Notice and heed to what is comfortable for you. Try dating – remember you are dating and getting to know the person, you aren’t married yet ☺

3. Spending more time together. As you get to know each other, you increase the frequency and time you spend together. If things are going well, this is when you usually might start thinking: will we want dogs or cats, does he want kids, or where will the honeymoon be? Resist judging the fantasies as good or bad, or trying to “figure out” if he likes you as much. Just note that they are fantasies and reconnect with the moment and stage of the relationship. If you were dating others when you met, you are likely both still dating other people; but you may begin to notice that you are particularly fond of this one.

4. Emotional touching. When you begin to notice you are really happy when he/she texts or calls or you feel noticeably excited to see him, you have progressed to the “emotional touching” phase. You likely exchange confessions of “I like you,” “you’re cool,” etc. You begin to experiment with the idea of progressing to a true, “I’m interested in you” dating relationship. Questions of “where is this going” or questions of a celestial nature are answered in the interaction itself. If you are wondering how he/she feels about you, consider his actions: does he seem happy to see you, do you talk, is the interaction balanced? Trusting yourself is key and takes practice. Notice the state of your anxiety level – this may be when you typically would have either bolted or started really worrying about whether “he/she likes you” or started covertly criticizing him/her. Pause, regroup and stay focused on yourself (yes, attend to the interaction, but remember it is not just about him/her – if he/she doesn’t call you back for 5 days, fine – this is about you practicing being grounded and authentic). Check in with yourself, how do you feel with him/her? Do you feel good and energized? Do you feel uncharacteristically dominate or uncharacteristically submissive or uncharacteristically somewhere in the middle? Periodically ask yourself these questions.

5. Emotional Petting. Ok, so you really like each other. You really like him/her. Notice the stirrings you feel. Remember to take care of yourself during this time. Keep working, keep spending time with your other friends and family. Yes, feel excited about your new guy/gal, but continue to attend to yourself. As you continue to get to know the relationship, ask yourself if you would be proud to introduce him/her to your friends and family? Have you met his/her friends and family? If you have done this already, how did it go? If you haven’t done this and have wanted to, consider what is happening (e.g., are you nervous or noticing “red flags”)? Do you feel comfortable having a conversation about this?

6. Full heart touching. As the relationship progresses, you will feel more of a connection. You will share more of your histories, etc. Be mindful when sharing your story. You are not “hiding” parts of yourself or your past. This is not about shame or keeping secrets; rather, you are learning about, setting, and experiencing your emotional and psychological boundaries. Do not assert more vulnerability than you are willing to lose. For example, if you feel a rush to disclose something or anxious to inquire about his/her response to more details of your history, notice what happens (your internal dialogue) or what you are thinking about before you take the plunge (this is not to say, “don’t do it,” just have a sense of your goals or hopes in doing it).

Be equally mindful when hearing his/her story. Is he/she going too fast for you? What is he/she “pulling from” or touching in you? For example, does he/she talk in detail about how much he/se has been hurt and you feel the need to take care of him, or does he/she assert anger about someone to the point where you start to feel nervous? Does he/she “push” you or ask you questions you are not ready to answer? Does he/she respect your boundaries when you set them? Notice what is happening within yourself: is it feeling too close? Are you changing yourself in some way? How can you correct this?

7. True Vulnerability. You have decided it is the two of you and things are going well. You know the other person as a separate being. You get who he/she is, quirks and all; and he/she gets you, quirks and all. The intimacy progresses to different levels, you feel like you have a close friend/partner with the other person. You are your best self.

8. Mutual Expression. You can talk with each other about everything: values, spirituality, family, work, friends, sex, likes and dislikes, open or not open relationship and related expectations. Although the connectedness and openness is there, you are still psychologically and emotionally autonomous. You have your bad days still but you know your partner is not responsible for not anticipating your every need. You still take care of yourself but you have a supportive partner.

9. No more fantasy land. Believe it or not, part of healthy relationships includes conflict at times. This is not about “I want Thai and he wants Burger King,” this is a fight where you might hurt each others feelings, say things you shouldn’t, etc. When you take time to look at the conflict notice how you experience it: do you feel victimized, do you feel he was “totally” in the wrong, are you thinking of ending it? What is happening in your world? Consider how the fight emerged, what happened? What was it about? Did it involve others? Were you starting to feel anxious and restless? Did you “pick” the fight? Did he /she“pick” the fight? Was there a need that hadn’t been met or stated? Consider the content of the fight and the process of the fight. You have been disappointed and have disappointed. You are both totally human. How will the relationship tolerate this?

10. Break-through (first kiss and make up). How did you resolve the conflict? Resolution takes time – re-attuning with your partner is something of a process, depending on the nature, intensity and frequency of the conflict. Do you feel good about how the resolution occurred? Did you both consider each others’ feelings and person? Did you just feel blamed? Were you really blamed or was that a voice and were you able to discuss that with your partner? Did you feel you both worked at it and met in the middle?

Often, a conflict of sorts brings couples closer, provided the conflict is “fair.” In working through the conflict, you both describe only your own positions (no one is the victim and no one is the abuser). This means you are grounded in your own experience. If you have a guess as to the other person’s reality, then ask, but you cannot read the other person’s mind – he is doing what makes sense to him and you are doing what makes sense to you. What can you learn from the conflict? For example, if one person was starting to feel resentful about something, where was the point for assertiveness? At the same time, where was the other person and did he know? Now repeat steps 1-10 multiple times.

11. Transformation. You have the house in the Hamptons and a pet tiger (now keep repeating steps 1-11 in no particular order…and remember to keep playing and having fun).

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