Friday, May 28, 2010

The language of relationships

Much of couples therapy focuses on communication skills. A metaphor I use in working in couples therapy is based on language. Undoing the assumption that we all speak the same language is often the first place of intervention. Consider the following examples. English is the predominant language in the United States. “We all speak English” is the assumption. Yet, within the United States, words are used differently and take on special meaning as a result. Travel across the world, and different English speaking countries have different words for the same concept. For example, in the US, we use the word trunk for where we put luggage in a car on a car-trip, while in England they use the word boot. England uses the term lift to talk about elevators. Another example is the significant difference between Latin America Spanish and Castilian Spanish in Spain. Even Arabic has multiple dialects. While there are major commonalities between the dialects, important differences remain that are barriers to communication. Learning to understand and translate these differences can be helpful but difficult.

Applying the metaphor to relationships, it is important to remember that we all have different dialects of communication in relationships. These dialects are informed and shaped by the multiple cultures we belong to (age, race/ethnicity, religion, gender, etc), our family of origin, and our life history. Often there is enough commonality to be able to communicate with a partner. In my work, the majority of relationship problems are about communication problems that show up in the guise of unmet expectations and assumptions, hidden wants and needs, past hurts and pains, and hoped for joys and goals.

A classic example is around fighting. In some families, conflict is forbidden. A partner learns that anger cannot be expressed. Another partner may come from a family where conflict is resolved quickly and respectfully. When two partners come together, the dialect of conflict is an obstacle to be resolved. The resolution is often as simple as teaching each other the respective dialects. We can apply the metaphor to smaller things. The dialect around the level of cleanliness in the house comes to mind. The application of the dialect can be applied to very difficult areas, such as sexual expression, needs and values.

The difficulty in this process is much of our dialect regarding relationships is automatic and habitual. We assume everyone has the same language, mannerisms, assumptions, and expectations in a relationship that is often the source of the relationships problems. Teaching each other your individual dialects, and learning to translate your partner’s dialect is a necessary skill toward powerful and strong relationships.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The power and experience of Sexual Health

A mentor (who I greatly respect) and I have a running debate between the need to learn about sexual health and the need to experience sexual health. While we might argue the nuances, I think we agree that both are important. Much of my work in the writing/blog is about providing basic education regarding sexual health. Recent feedback from a client is that I use too many big words. Rather than interpret her words as an attack, I am impressed with HOW MUCH she wants to get this stuff. Her words brought into clarity the need to help people experience sexual health as much as it is important to educate people about sexual health. Here are some thoughts on how to move forward in your experience of sexual health.

1) I’ve said it before, and it is worth repeating. Give yourself permission to be a sexual being. Sexuality is a normal, vital, and positive aspect of your life. Too many people suffer pain when they think about sexuality.

2) Ask, “Say’s who?” One of the earliest questions a child learns is “why.” Plenty of stories are available where eventually an exhausted parents says, “Because, and eat your carrots!” The question applies to the realm of sexuality. Challenge most, if not all, of the messages you have heard about sexuality. This doesn’t mean you have to discard the beliefs. Instead, understand both the letter and spirit of the messages. The ultimate goal of monogamy isn’t about control as taught in many religions, but rather about a profound love.

3) Sexual Health is a journey. Today’s thoughts are for today. What you like today is for today. What you want is for today. Too often we loose sight of today, and “catastrophize” every sexual experience. We attempt to project into the future today's experience, and often that projection is full of assumptions resulting in a failure of living in the moment. As the 12-step saying goes, "One day at a time."

4) Balance is important in the journey. Too often we look ONLY for perfection, and if perfection is not possible, the experience is BAD, SINFUL, and UNHEALTHY. I place good/bad sexual experiences on a different continuum then the continuum of healthy/unhealthy. You can have a sexual encounter that feels good but is unhealthy (think meth/sex), and a bad experience that is healthy (think too tired to function, but emotional intimacy).

5) Experiment. When you watch a child in a playground, they meander through all of the play areas. They might stop at the swings, or the merry go around. Next the may check out the slide, and perhaps build something in the sand. When they like something, the child stays in the area. If a bully or something is unpleasant, the child moves on. So to is it important to experiment in the realm of sexuality. Check out what you like or don’t like. Enjoy the positive experiences, and let go of the unpleasant experiences.

Enjoy your journey in sexual health. My hope is that you have great experiences along the way. Sometimes the only way we know what is sweet is because we can compare it to what is sour.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to post or email.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Pain of Sexuality

I am keenly reminded of the pain many people experience in the realm of sexuality. This pain is from a variety of sources including the typical sources of abuse, shame, and guilt. But, the sources of pain can include social, familial, cultural or religious messages. A major concern is when the external messages become internalized and the individual replicates and reinforces the painful messages in a tighter and tighter circle within him or her self. Once this pattern begins, the pain takes on a life of its own, leading to feelings of hopelessness, desperation and profound isolation. For me, this is perhaps the saddest part of the pain.

The process of healing this pain is beyond the scope of a simple blog entry. The short summary is the process requires much work, and support. My clinical work, and blog writing is about helping people in the healing process. To highlight three starting points, I would encourage you to:

1) Give yourself permission to be a sexual being. Sexuality is a normal, vital, and positive aspect of your life. Having an experience of sexual health is remarkably liberating and affirming.

2) Reach out for support. Using your support network best facilitates the process. The network can include friends, family or professionals such as your therapist, spiritual guide, or other providers.

3) Feel the pain. You cannot avoid the pain; this only intensifies the pain. Paradoxically, the only way to resolve the pain is to go through the pain. A recent encounter involved working with someone in the healing process. At one point, the release of the pain resulted in surprisingly intense sobbing session. The level of wailing can best be described by imagining a 4-year-old toddler who wails after his/her finger has been accidentally slammed in a car door. Witnessing this from a normally stoic grown adult highlights the profound pain.

There is a saying in the workout/gym/weightlifting community: No pain, no gain. Not so surprisingly, this platitude applies to healing the pain of sexuality. When this process is complete, you can experience peace and acceptance. And, you have the potential for great love.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I need help with my luggage. Another scandal

In the last few days, another scandal broke regarding homosexuality and the Christian right. In short, George Rekers, a Baptist minister who provided testimony against gays, served on the Board of NARTH (National Association of Rehabilitation and Treatment of Homosexuality), and on the board of a predecessor to Focus on the Family was seen with a sex worker who advertised on RENTBOY.COM. The unfolding discussion can easily be Googled on the net.

The focus of my blog is on three parts.

First I feel anger and frustration at the ongoing hypocrisy of members in the Christian Right. A long laundry list is found here. Sadly, the frustration is often expressed through the comment “here’s another one.”

Second, I do have compassion for Dr. Rekers. Here is a man who has denied a major part of his identity for all of his life, only to have the issue exposed in a scandal. Dr. Rekers' behavior can easily be understood as a form of psychological defense: reaction formation --attack the parts of my life that I hate. His stance against homosexuality over his lifetime takes on a new understanding in light of the scandal. It is easy to see how his avoidance grows over time.

Third, I want to use Dr. Rekers’ experience to highlight the need for personal sexual health in the treatment of sexual compulsivity. (While I don't label Dr. Reker's behavior as sexually compulsivity, I do want to acknowledge how this defense is sometimes present in individuals who do struggle with sexual compulsivity.) A component of sexual health is to be able to talk about all aspects of your sexuality. The conversation doesn’t need to occur in the national press, but I stress the importance of talking about sexuality with your support network. Needless to say, sexual health implies the congruence between your identity and behavior. Please review the recent conversations on integrity. In promoting sexual health, my hope is that you can find that congruence. If it isn’t there, please seek help and support.

I found the euphemism on Andrew Sullivan’s Blog “The Daily Dish.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The power of story

When we think about who we are, we essentially come up with a story. When you string enough of the stories together, you develop a sense of self. Some of our stories have a profound role in shaping our identity; other stories have a minimal impact. Sometimes there is a story we deny, avoid or otherwise minimize. Sometimes we simply forget our stories. In a few cases, we’ve never thought about a particular story line. When prompted, however, thinking about the story can lead to profound change.

I encourage you to think of all of the stories about yourself and others. One place to look at is phrase that comes after because. “I do that because….. I’m that way because…… This is important because….. “ These are the stories that shape your life.

As you will find, some of the stories may be helpful or unhelpful. Some stories may suggest topics to review with your support network or therapist. A few of the stories may be a source of profound joy or emotional pain. As you understand the stories, there is no right or wrong story. What is important is that this is your story.

Believe it or not, it is possible to change the story. This is a process of growth and development. Taking a new perspective on a story can lead to new insights. Gaining additional information changes the content of the story. Feedback from peers can facilitate a reframe of the story. This process of change requires us to know and understand the stories in our life.