“I love her very much, we have a lot of fun. But the sex is gone”
“I’m not attracted to him anymore.”
“It’s like the more someone rejects me, the more I want them. This guy likes me very much and he’s very sweet but the desire is just not there because I know he would never reject me.”
“We want what we can’t have I guess. When she told me she was leaving me, all of a sudden I wanted her more. We had the best sex we had had in years.”
“This happens to me every time. I’m fine for the first year or so and then the desire just dies. Am I choosing the wrong people for me?”
We’ve all heard the story. At first you can’t get enough of each other. At first, you can’t wait to have hot, steamy sex over and over again. All the time. But then your need for security, routine and intimacy kicks in and you want to get closer and closer. As the intimacy increases, the sex slowly dies. A sexless relationship is more common than you think, just not talked about. More often than not, “the relationship is not about sex anymore, it’s grown into a more mature, seasoned, meaningful commitment.” And you tell yourself this is what is supposed to happen. You may even tell yourself it’s a good thing. Until you become bored and unhappy.
Recently, I have had time to ponder on my current relationship and past ones trying to figure out what went wrong and what is working. One thing is for sure, independence and separateness definitely fuels my desire. Smothering and total enmeshment on the other hand are great for a safe attachment but they kill the fire. Quickly. It turns out, I’m not the only one. I have talked about independence and separateness in relationships here before in two different posts. Spending time alone when you are in a relationship seems counter intuitive. Why should you? Isn’t companionship what we crave the most?
I’ve been reading Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity. She suggests that “our ability to tolerate our separateness-and the fundamental insecurity it engenders-is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship.” Couples who love each other very much may find themselves in a sexless relationship. This happens because the relationship is too intimate. “Love enjoys knowing everything about you, desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it.” The ways she puts it, the relationship has become a flannel nightgown – it’s cozy, warm, comfortable. You want to cuddle or sleep in it but it doesn’t inspire much eroticism. In fact, the more someone loves you the more they become asexual to you. The more someone needs for you to take care of them the less attractive they become.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t get close, have intimacy or rely on each other. We just need to make sure there is a healthy balance between that and cultivating separateness or nurturing a sense of selfhood – The quality that constitutes one’s individuality; the state of having an individual identity. Just like we need to nurture a relationship, we need to nurture ourselves, our hobbies, our friendships, our need for lonesome excitement, adventure and new experiences. We need to nurture our beliefs, values, lifestyle choices, self-care habits, weird quirks, passions, dreams, etc and hope they don’t clash with our partner’s.
Independence is sexy. Confidence is sexy.
Nurture your selfhood. Hold on to yourself. Be comfortable doing things alone, spending time alone. Your relationship will be much better off for it.
What do we need to be happy? What are the fundamentals of health, vitality, energy, sanity, happiness? What do we need to fulfill our human potential?
I have searched the answer to this for my own sake and for the sake of being an excellent therapist. Never in a million years would I have imagined to find the answers in a diet book (that is not really a diet book). In The 80/10/10 Diet, Dr. Douglas Graham presents the fundamental elements of health. This is the most comprehensive list to date. Rate yourself from zero to ten on each of the following areas:
____ 1. Clean, fresh air
____ 2. Pure Water
____ 3. Foods for which we are biologically designed (whole, fresh, ripe, organic raw fruits and vegetables)
____ 4. Sufficient sleep
____ 5. Rest and Relaxation
____ 6. Vigorous activity
____ 7. Emotional poise and stability
____ 8. Sunshine and natural light
____ 9. Comfortable temperature
____ 10. Peace, harmony, serenity and tranquility
____ 11. Human touch
____ 12. Thought, cognition and meditation
____ 13. Friendship and companionship
____ 14. Gregariousness (social relationships, community)
____ 15. Love and appreciation
____ 16. Play and recreation
____ 17. Pleasant environment
____ 18. Amusement and entertainment
____ 19. Sense of humor
____ 20. Security of life and it’s means
____ 21. Inspiration, motivation, purpose and commitment
____ 22. Creative, useful work
____ 23. Self-control and self-mastery
____ 24. Individual sovereignty
____ 25. Expression of reproductive instincts
____ 26. Satisfaction of the aesthetic taste
____ 27. Self-confidence
____ 28. Positive self-image and sense of self-worth
____ 29. Internal and external cleanliness
____ 30. Smiles
____ 31. Music and all other arts
____ 32. Biophilia (love of nature)
How did you rate? What’s missing in your life and what are you grateful for? What would you add to the this list?
Often times people will come to therapy knowing exactly what the issues are but not really wanting to talk about them. They will hint at those issues, tip toe around them to see if it’s even safe to bring those things up. If the therapist gets the hint and probes deeper, the person may shut down, back away, deny and often get frustrated with the therapist. If the therapist doesn’t get the hint, the person may shut down, back away, deny (in silence) and get angry and frustrated with the therapist.
So, why would then someone come to therapy in the first place?
Because therapists ARE supposed to hear what’s not being said, unfold the story that’s not being told.
Here are some of the “don’t want to talk about it” issues people are secretly dying to talk about:
1. Addictions (alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, overspending, sex)
2. Social anxiety & Introversion
3. Unrecognized grief (you don’t get a sympathy card for this one)
4. Money problems
5. Sexual problems
7. Depression (mostly in men)
8. Love (or lack there of)
If you can relate to any of this, you probably have learned that talking about these issues is not safe. Safety is one of the most important basic needs we have as humans. And I’m not just talking about physical safety. We need emotional safety to thrive. Many people in our lives are unsafe for us, often this includes loved ones, parents, partners, etc. This makes it hard to go to them for help when you really need it. Safety is established when you know you will be loved and accepted even after you disclose intimate things about yourself. Safety means you will not be rejected, shunned, criticized and punished for who you are. The need for safety is a powerful driving force. So pay attention to it. Get better at identifying unsafe people or unsafe topics to discuss with particular people.
Because the only thing worse than not talking about it, is talking about it with an unsafe person.
OK, but even if I find a safe person to talk to about my issues, does that mean I will feel better?
Good question. I believe that real change and transformation often can not even be conceived without the talking part. This is particularly true for addictions especially in the early stages of change which are characterized by ambivalence (conflict between the desire to continue behavior/drug and necessity/desire to stop). Talking is also very beneficial for processing certain emotions such as sadness and can significantly alleviate depression and feelings of loneliness. Talking can greatly help in the cases of trauma or childhood wounding. On the other hand, I think some things you just have to do and not talk too much about. Talking sometimes can be a form of rumination which is a symptom of depression and anxiety. I like to call that unproductive talking. Talking is not particularly helpful for emotions like anger, anxiety or fears. People who worry love to talk about what worries them. That does not mean they feel better afterwards. In fact, they may even feel worse. In these cases therapy needs to be more contained, oriented and structured. Also, in these cases the real “therapy” happens between sessions so homework is essential.
It’s always rewarding to see that my clients are making progress and feeling better. It’s wonderful to hear praise from them, to know that the work we’re doing has had a significant, long-lasting impact on their lives. I always joke around and say “I’m THAT good.” The truth is, I can’t possibly take all the credit. They are getting better because they are TALKING about something they did not want to talk about. They are getting better because they are DOING their homework.
I read a wonderfully honest and touching blog today titled “The disease called “Perfection”” by Single Dad Laughing which surprisingly is not about being a perfectionist. I’s about being fake, dishonest, disconnected with yourself, pretending everything is fine when it’s not. I have talked about authenticity here before. And the topic haunts me. There is something beautifully disarming about one’s ability to admit they are falling apart, they need help, they are human, they are imperfect.
Maybe I’m just over-analyzing.
Maybe I expect too much of myself and others.
Regardless, I think a lot of people fake life. And they fake it well.
I grew up in a culture that puts other people’s opinion first, above everything else. When something went wrong we would ask “What will people say?” What a shame! How will we deal with the shame? How will we possibly face the gossip? When I was 10, my best friend told me in passing that my parents were divorced. I lived with both of them, everything was FINE. You can imagine my shock. My friend had to be crazy! I confronted my mother who had no choice but to admit to me that it was true. My parents divorced when I was 2 and got back together a year later. I never knew. Most likely, I would have never found out. I never got the real reason for their divorce either. Not until a LOT later. My parents lived together all my life but they were legally divorced. We rarely talked about it. Everything was fine. We were NOT, under any circumstances, to disclose the hardship our family went through to the world. We WERE to PRETEND that everything was fine.
Everything is fine. Until it’s not.
My parents thought I was fine when I was falling apart inside. I learned very early on that putting on a happy face for the world was crucial to survival. That and lying. I never asked for help. I was fiercely independent yet painfully lonely. Underneath the school smarts, the apparent popularity, the sarcasm, the tough, quiet exterior, the relentless smartass attitude, there was a scared, perpetually depressed, lonely, tormented little girl. But we don’t talk about that in my family. Everything is fine. It just HAS to be. So I don’t say what I want to say. And I don’t mean what I say.
“You can’t handle the truth.” is one of my favorite movie quotes. Ever.
Is the truth overrated? I don’t believe so. Also, truth is subjective to one’s perception. So let’s not get caught up in it. But there is something to be said about the power of one’s ability and freedom to truly, fully, courageously, shamelessly be their true self and be accepted and loved for it, unconditionally. I wrote a paper on unconditional love in college and used my own upbringing as an example. My professor was visibly uncomfortable with my over sharing. I’m sure some of my classmates were as well. I learned it was best to NEVER, ever do that again.
If unconditional love were the norm, we would have very little mental illness. I believe that if love were the norm we would have very little judgment and shaming. And I would probably go out of business. Love is a powerful force. The selfless one is very hard to find. I was blessed AND cursed with the ability to love unconditionally people who have ended up hurting me. People, whom by other people’s standards, are unworthy of love or MY love specifically. But I would not have it any other way. And I love them all. Still. Always.
The truth is, I’m not perfect.
Even when everything is OK, I still have that stubborn, subtle, cellular level memory of things going terribly wrong. Of me being completely turned inside out.
I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning and not want to get out of bed.
I know what it feels like to be so scared you can hardly breathe.
I know what loss feels like.
I know what it’s like to start over. From nothing.
I know what it’s like to miss someone terribly, endlessly, hopelessly.
I know loneliness.
I know what it’s like to be painfully shy. Or lost.
I know how much courage it takes to ask for help.
I know what it’s like to feel homeless.
I know regret. And irreversible damage.
I know what addiction does to families.
I know death. And trauma.
I know failure. Very well.
The truth is, we all do. On some level. Whether we like to admit it or not. Talk about it or keep quiet.
The truth is, I also know incredible love, joy, happiness, enlightenment, success, human kindness, friendship, authenticity, true connection, inspiration, spirituality, generosity, health, wealth, privilege, luck, gratitude.
It’s part of being alive.
The truth is, we connect via our humanity. So let your true self shine. Be real. Be honest. At least with yourself. It’s OK. Don’t live your life for other people. Ultimately we are alone in our pain and joy equally. No matter the faking. All we can do is try and let people in and share our humanity with them.
I was watching Extreme Weight Loss and Chris Powell said something a lot of my clients have heard me say one time or another “You have to run towards your fear not away from it.” Yes, it sounds cliche but I fully believe it. In fact, I have lived most of my life applying this principal on a regular basis. Amazingly, hearing this tonight helped me resolve a recent dilemma I have been struggling with and I think it can help you make important change in your life too.
Your worst enemy is fear.
Fear will keep you stuck because it creates avoidance so you never get a chance to prove yourself wrong. I have always been afraid of snakes so I avoided them which wasn’t hard to do. But now that I’m hiking more I see them on the trail all the time and I think they are afraid of me too. Avoidance is very hard to change because it’s comfortable. That’s why most people don’t change unless they are somewhat forced to.
Unless you learn to befriend your fear.
You can befriend your fear by talking about it. Visualizing it. Giving it a face or an image. But ultimately, the only thing that will help is stopping your avoidance. And that requires doing something new or eliminating an existing behavior. Behavior being the key word. And this happens outside of therapy, in the “real” world, where you may find you are on your own. By avoiding your fear and never trying something new you don’t learn that you can actually do it. This is very important. It is crucial in developing a sense of confidence, esteem and self-efficacy. Which leads me to my next point.
You can do it. You just don’t know it yet.
Most likely, you have very little prior evidence to support this. You also may mistakenly interpret avoidance as lack of ability. You can’t accurately judge whether you are capable of change if you haven’t tried. Numerous times. It’s possible that you will fail. It’s also almost certain that you will make mistakes. But I bet you haven’t considered the possibility that it may be easier than you think and that you might just succeed. Change is hard. But not impossible. Don’t give up.
You need the right tools.
Think of this as developing your own change tool box/kit. The first item in that kit should be information. You can’t change blind. You have to be able to see where you are going. Learn about yourself as much as you possibly can. You will need honesty and courage for this. And leave your Ego out. You won’t need it. Learn about what your challenge really is but also learn about your strengths and skills, successes you’ve had in the past, no matter how small. They have made you who you are. Learn about what scares you. When it faces you, don’t look away. You might find it’s not that scary after all. Ask for help. Seek out support from people who have gone through what you are going through. Make a realistic plan and stick to it. Celebrate accomplishing every single step by setting goals and rewards. Be patient. Practice frustration tolerance. Tell yourself you are OK. Tell yourself you can do it.
Remember to breathe.
I read a blog today on PsychCentral.com on a book titled “The Happiness Choice: The Five Decisions that Take You From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be” by Marilyn Tam. It states:
“There are five decisions we make every day to bring us either more happiness: what we choose to do with, and how we treat our:
- Spiritual life
It got me thinking.
I haven’t written in a while. Partly because I have felt uninspired. Not sure why, couldn’t put my finger on it. Until today. The truth is, I love what I do but I have been acutely aware of my limitations lately. You see, we (meaning therapists) like to believe that everything is up to the individual. “You can accomplish anything you put your mind to it” we say and many of us believe it. Generally I would agree.
But what happens when your body, money, relationships, community, etc are largely out of your control? When we talk about individual decisions, are we assuming that problems in each area automatically mean there is something wrong with the individual? Are we carelessly insinuating that unhappy people are inherently broken?
What is the payoff AND cost of such individualistic, narrow-minded, pathologizing point of view?
The pay off is easy to see. It allows us to avoid the heavy burden of thinking about and addressing individual issues systemically. It’s too overwhelming to think about community as everyone’s responsibility. I have met so many perfectly normal, well-adjusted young people who are severely isolated because of the state of our individualistic, extrovert-focused, technology-driven culture. And they all think they are broken.
What happens when your body aches, is malnourished, stagnant, or just simply ignored? Sometimes we do it to ourselves. And we have no one else to blame. But often, the body is simply a powerless victim of our food culture, ignorance, inadequate healthcare, accidents, sedentary work/life environments, etc.
Sometimes seemingly wise money decisions conflict with relationship decisions, or decisions about community and spirituality. What is the impact of financial issues on relationships?
Is it easier to define addiction as an individual problem and avoid the context in which it develops? Is it really surprising that we are largely addicted to prescription pain pills? Our doctors are legal drug dealers who have no consequences for their decisions. Is sex addiction really just an individual issue? Separate from the technological advances it feeds on and the current state of the marriage institution?
And don’t even get me started on the issue of spirituality!
The cost of blaming individuals for system failures is high. It makes people feel broken. And that is a horrible way to feel.
I’m not saying you are powerless and you can’t make decisions about your body, relationships, money, spirituality and community. You can and you should. In fact, given the right support and guidance you can make incredible changes and dramatically improve your life. I am a witness to this everyday. But I strongly believe that things don’t happen in vacuum. I believe that everything effects everything and we are all connected.
You are not more broken than the system is. Sometimes you can’t change the context in which your problem developed. Sometimes you can. And when you can, you should. I recently found myself coming to the conclusion that advocating for introverts is as important as trying to teach them “social skills”. Making sense of your reality in all its complexity is sometimes the most important step to change. Acceptance is easiest to achieve when you have knowledge, understanding and empathy.
Sometimes therapy can’t change your reality but it will help you come to a gentle acceptance. You have all the wisdom and the strength you need. But it helps to not be alone.
I’ve been thinking lately.
About holding on to oneself. When everything around you seems to spin, how can you possibly hold your ground? It turns out, David Schnarch was right on when he concluded that the four points of balance in a relationship come down to this: holding on to yourself. But aren’t we supposed to seek out our object of attachment, our partners to soothe and comfort us in trying times? Well maybe, just maybe, all we need is to hold on to ourselves and repeat the mantra “this too shall pass.”
I hear a lot of my clients talk about codependency, identify themselves as codependent on their partner and ask “Am I supposed to be with this person? We can’t possibly be right for each other, can we?” I tell them, they are asking the wrong question all along. The question should be “Can I grow through this relationship? Can I hold on and learn to soothe myself? Can I grow with this person and become better for me, them and everyone else?”
I’ve been thinking lately.
The root to most addictions is the opposite of holding on to oneself. Addictions may look different but they are all equivalent to finding a “filler” between now and death. Addictions, may they be to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, relationships, shopping, food, they serve as fillers for loneliness, substitute for real or desired relationships, default to being alone, bored, insignificant, an antidote to our persistent, underlying sense of mortality.
I’ve been thinking lately.
The only way to be in relationships is to learn how to be alone. The only way to find meaning is by knowing loss and befriending the perpetual feeling of meaninglessness that comes with being a limited, imperfect human being.
I’ve been thinking lately.
The only way to survive is to learn to soothe oneself in a way that does not involve fillers, addictions, or mediocre relationships. In the modern age we live in, the only way to survive the privileged loneliness, nagging boredom and painful emptiness is to give to people less fortunate than us (or procreate), realize that self-reflection (including therapy) has it’s own limitations, acknowledge and accept our own mortality and insignificance and give of ourselves as much as we can to the little/big people and little/big causes we love. Otherwise, we are bound to become a socialized mess of self-centered human beings who are only concerned with soothing basic, mundane needs through “fillers”, bad relationships and addictions of all shapes and forms.
I asked my client today if they could think of one single thing they did ALONE that excited them, made their heart jump, made them feel alive and happy. They couldn’t think of one thing. That was me once. That’s still me on some level. I’ve come a long way. But I have a long ways to go. After all this time, I can honestly say I have not one, or two, or three things I do alone that raise me up. I have a whole list. I’ve traveled far but I have a long ways ahead. As I hike foreign woods, near bodies of water and get lost and found in hiking trails listening to my favorite tunes, I’m exhilarated in my lonesomeness. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.