ROMANCE IS THE ICING, NOT THE CAKE!

 

Valentine’s Day is a celebration associated with romance, but it is often fraught with anxiety. Why is that? Why is a day that celebrates love sometimes problematic? As a narrative couples therapist, I look to the discourses and stories in the culture that contribute to how things are thought about and defined. When it comes to the discourses about love, I could be unpacking these all day and not even scratch the surface!

The odd thing is that even though love is complicated, it is not nearly as complicated as we make it. The problem is that, culturally, we have taken the icing and made it the cake. What I mean by this is that we have decided that romance, a prominent feature of infatuation (what we call falling “in love”), is the lead actor in the play, rather than an important, but only supporting, character. 

So how do we correct this particular troublesome narrative? We don’t want to get rid of the icing–I like icing! The value of deconstructing a discourse is in concluding that not all of it needs to go. The component parts can be examined and an evaluation made regarding their current value toward living a better life. 

So that’s what I want to do in this essay–examine our current story about romance, its relationship to love, and sift through what is troublesome and what is not. 

ROMANCE IS NOT LOVE: When I was a young man, I lived, like many others, for the thrill of romance. I looked around every corner for this feeling, knowing that an encounter with it would lift my day from the ordinary to the extraordinary. What I did not realize at the time was that I needed romance in order to feel good about myself–that without it I felt more or less flawed and unlovable. 

This was not true of me, of course, any more than it is true for any other person, but this is one of the ways that romance has turned into a “drug” of sorts–making the trip down a difficult path so much easier. The problem is that romance doesn’t really move us down the path. It creates the illusion of movement, but eventually we wake up at the same starting point. 

“Real love” is what gets us down the path of personal development, not romance. Romance is just one of the many doorways into real love. So why do we linger in the doorway instead of going all the way in? Well, because moving toward real love is not always fun–it can require hard work and a degree of vulnerability that feels unfamiliar. The main reason for the strong emphasis on romance in the narrative of love is because it feels so good.

But it is not love. Romance, clinically speaking, is more accurately described as bonding, an important and powerful part of the process of two people coming together, and it often leads to, and is strengthened by, sex. When we meet someone we are attracted to, our brains work overtime to build a connection with them because we are hard-wired to do so. As mammals, we thrive as social creatures who seek the company of others for safety and security, and pair-bonds are one way to not only achieve that, but also a way to build families. Romance is not the only draw toward this goal, but in modern times it has emerged as the dominant motivator. 

(Watch “Your Brain Wants You To Have Sex. Here’s How That Works”)

REAL LOVE IS ABOUT THE PERSON, NOT AN IDEAL: Let’s talk more about real love, shall we? Why should we work hard to achieve it when romance is such a great “quick fix”? Well, as great as romance is, it does not and cannot last. Our bodies could not handle eternal infatuation, because when we are in it our brain is in somewhat of a psychotic state! The chemicals that are required to feel infatuation are not sustainable in the body, in the same way that we would rapidly break down physically if we were angry all the time–the chemical process is meant for short bursts, not long term! 

Additionally, though romance is not love itself, it can be an effect of love. Without love, romance is about the person feeling it, not the person triggering it. Real love, by contrast, is about the person receiving it, and this is why it takes time to develop–we have to know about another’s inner emotional life before we can truly care about them. Real love grows out of empathy for another’s vulnerabilities–that is what connects us to them emotionally, not just physically. This ability to empathize also helps real love last over time, because it can override surface changes in a person that we might not like or agree with.

(Read “Marriage Isn’t For You”.)

Real love is a smooth calm feeling, not anxious or urgent. It is the feeling of caring for someone’s welfare and well-being–we feel sad when they are sad because there is an empathetic connection, not just sexual attraction. Real love takes time because it is sparked by vulnerability and pain–human elements, not ideals, that are not usually shown in the beginning of a dating experience (we only want to show our strengths!). 

REAL LOVE CAN INCLUDE ROMANCE: There is a myth about long-term relationships that romance and sex “die” over time; the day-to-day familiarity of being around each other stamps out the mystery and excitement that are the basis of romantic feelings. While this certainly can happen, it is not a given! Familiarity can interfere with seeing your partner romantically or sexually, but we can choose actions that re-introduce mystery and excitement if that is important to us. 

The problem is that most couples don’t know that it requires choosing these actions. We have been led to believe that “love is enough” and that romance should happen organically and spontaneously, and that if effort is required then it is not longer romantic. I push back against this way of thinking. I often tell couples that what they considered to be spontaneous romance during courtship was in fact the result of hours of preparation!

Anything worth maintaining requires some effort to do so, whether it is your physical fitness, your home, your career, or your friendships. The effort to maintain the things that are important to us is not always “fun”, but it is also not necessarily painful. It is just effort. Sometimes it is as simple as “setting the stage” for romance: dimming the lights, clearing the calendar, putting on soft music, making sure the kids are asleep. Sometimes it means doing little things for each other throughout the day, every day. If scheduling romantic or sexual time feels unnatural to you, then just schedule “time together” and see what happens once you set the stage. That is the organic part, and the preparation makes it possible for “spontaneous” romance to happen within a scheduled time period. 

(Watch “The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship”, by Esther Perel) 

When romance is a part of real love, it has a different quality to it than early infatuation. It is both more secure and more liberating, because there is trust established–something that is still forming in the beginning of a relationship. It can also be more playful and more erotic, because you know enough about each other’s boundaries and triggers that you can experiment with confidence. Most of all, it can feel joyful, more complete, and more creative, because it allows room for both or all partners compared to the individual self-focus of the infatuation stage.  

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Most of us love the excitement of romance–our bodies and brains feel like they are firing all cylinders. In today’s challenging world, who can blame someone for wanting that feeling? My goal in the work I do with individuals and couples is to make sure that the feeling of romance, or the desire to have it, does not end in malnourishment–that an understanding of how romance operates in the brain will open up a more mindful enjoyment of the experience, recognizing that it is the icing, not the cake. 

It can be liberating to know that there are many different ways to “do” a long-term relationship, and that you can both take advantage of the science that is available concerning love, and allow yourself to make it up as you go along. There is much to be said for developing romance without the usual anxiety, so if that is something that you strive for in your relationship, learn what it is, and what it is not. Then go in the kitchen and bake your cake!

CALM DOWN! THE IMPORTANCE OF REGULATION

My previous article talked about the “problems” that show up in relationships and how there is a difference between solvable and unsolvable problems. In both cases, the solution to finding out if the problem is a deal-breaker is to talk through it, with the goal being greater understanding. 

Understanding must come before solutions, because without understanding, problem-solving can miss the mark–addressing only the symptoms but not the cause. This can leave partners feeling resentful toward one another. Successful discussions about problems can eliminate resentments and bring couples closer. Additionally, they make it easier to accept, or learn to live with, differences. 

Why then is it so hard for couples to have these helpful conversations? Why do they more often resort to arguments and fights rather than healthy conflict? In this part two of my articles on problems I want to address what gets in the way of successfully talking through it. 

What I notice is that it is not lack of caring or desire that keep us from wanting to understand each other, instead it is our brain’s natural defenses. When our partner is upset with us, the brain senses a threat and reacts by limiting blood flow to the rational brain, or left brain; the result can be amygdala hijacking. We become less able to listen, learn, or care–focused instead on protecting ourselves from harm.  

This is on major reason why it is hard to have conversations around greater understanding. But all is not lost–the trick is to learn how to hijack the hijacking! Below I lay out what happens when our brains sense a threat from our partners, and how to reverse the process so that we can lean in and listen. 

TWO TYPES OF DYSREGULATION: What is dysregulation? Basically it is when your left brain, or rational brain, is deprived of oxygen and shut down, leaving your right brain, or emotional brain, to react and run the show. Dysregulation can go one of two directions–either up or down. When our response escalates quickly into agitation it is called hyper-arousal, and when it shuts down into numbness it is called hypo-arousal. You can think of it as your brain either stepping on the gas, or stepping on the brake, respectively.

It is not necessary to memorize these emotional states, but it is important to be able to recognize when they are happening in you or in your partner. This is because in either state, talking and listening cannot happen! When the left brain is shut down, we cannot listen, learn, or care about another–our main objective is to care about how we are being treated in the moment

Why do we become dysregulated? Though it can cause problems today, we would not have survived without this process. Dysregulation happens when our brain senses a threat, either real or imagined. Our left brain is “slower” than our right, and that is why we evolved to shut it down, because historically when facing danger, we had to act fast! Commonly known as our “freeze, fight, or flee” response, our amygdala evaluates the threat and decides in a split second which course of action is best for our survival. 

So how do we control this process in our relationships?

SELF-REGULATION: Although many of our brain processes are automatic, we do have some ability to control and influence them. The whole Mindfulness movement is one approach to doing this–and even Buddhist philosophy (from which Mindfulness emerged) talks about how we cannot control what happens, only our response to it

Modern life works against mindfulness by offering endless distractions to what is happening in the moment with us and in our environment. No wonder we feel more reactive than responsive! Responsiveness only happens when we are present in our bodies and in the moment–a skill that takes practice and intention. Responsiveness is the act of choosing what our brain does with what is happening, not just reacting to it. 

Responsiveness in relationships is practiced through regular self-regulation–being aware of what your brain is sensing and using your left brain to influence that interpretation to match reality. Self-regulation is difficult, but not impossible. It involves a few key steps:

  • recognizing when we are either up-regulating or down-regulating by noticing what happens in our bodies (increased heart rate, hot face, shaking, numbness)
  • using our mindfulness tools to interrupt the process and keep our left brain “online”: taking deep, slow breaths; grounding ourselves, drinking some water or chewing something, doing something with our hands
  • using the left brain to make a choice about how we are thinking about what is happening (responsiveness rather than reactivity)

Trauma can interfere with self-regulation because it can result in stuck painful memories that keep us in a heightened state of arousal, even when there is no current threat. If you suffer from trauma, there are several approaches that can help to process it so that painful events remain in your past and not in your present. 

Fortunately, we do not have to always self-regulate ourselves completely–we can ask for help. 

CO-REGULATION: You are 100% responsible for your actions and your reactions. This can be a difficult idea to accept, because it suggests that others have no responsibility for upsetting us, but the truth is that they don’t! They do, however, trigger us and our vulnerabilities, so they are not off the hook for their behavior, just our for our reaction. We are the ones who choose our response, based on how we think about what has happened. In other words, while the pain is inevitable, our suffering is optional because suffering is based on our interpretations, perceptions, and how we make meaning of things. 

Co-regulation is when another person helps you bring your left brain back online so that you can talk or be comforted. The challenge for many is that one of the best candidates for co-regulating us is the person who upset us in the first place. This is because co-regulating actions can be reparative, and also a “corrective experience” that is different from what we have received before. As a therapist, I often use co-regulation in the room to give clients an experience of caring that is new to them. This can be very healing!

Co-regulation is also an example of accountability–acknowledging that you played a role in what the other person is feeling. Remember that even though you didn’t cause it, you did trigger it! Often the triggering is unintentional–it is just partners being themselves. This is why it is so important to be curious about the other’s past hurts, soft spots, and vulnerabilities, because with this information you are less likely to trip on those trigger wires. Co-regulation lets someone know that you care about them and how they are affected by you. 

GOAL: THE WINDOW OF TOLERANCE: I mention above that regulation involves bringing the left brain back online. What does that mean? Our left brain (pre-frontal cortex) is the seat of rational thought, while our right brain (limbic system) is the source of our emotions. The left brain is “slower” than the right because it deals with interpretations while the right brain focuses on reactions, so when we get upset, our left brain is deprived of oxygen so that we can respond quickly and protect ourselves. 

This is great if we are facing a tiger in the woods, but not so great if we are facing an upset partner who needs to be responded to! In order to have healthy conflict we have to be able to keep both our right and left brains online so that they can work together. This does not mean that we have to be calm as a cucumber, instead we need to be able to feel what we feel and still talk about it. This is called the Window of Tolerance, and the size of the window is based on our past experiences. Trauma can shrink it and make it harder to stay regulated, but a caring response can enlarge the window

When we are able to talk to, and respond to, each other from within our respective windows of tolerance, then conflict can bring us closer by making the relationship safe for vulnerability.

HOW TO GET THERE AND STAY THERE: Getting to regulation takes work, but what kind of work? Ultimately if you want to get somewhere new you first have to first know where you are. This is where mindfulness comes in–it is the ability to have awareness of our emotional life so that we can be in relationship with it and exert influence when needed. 

Remember that dysregulation is the brain/body responding to a real or imagined threat, so it is up to our rational brain to distinguish between the two. The left brain can be thought of as the “navigator” of our emotions–the right brain chooses a course and the left brain decides if that is a good course to pursue. But we can’t access the aid of the left brain if the blood supply is cut off from it! Mindfulness of what we are feeling in our body can help us to notice if we are moving toward dysregulation–and then interrupt it if we don’t really need that level of response.

Many experts recommend meditation as a way to increase mindfulness, but we can also work on it by minimizing distractions, slowing down our conversations, using breathwork, and “unplugging” at the end of the day.  In relationships, we can ask our partner to help us out, by allowing them to comment when they notice us getting dysregulated. This can be as simple as agreeing on a “code word” or hand gesture, so that the comment itself does not trigger greater upset. 

Once you have experienced choosing your response, and the connection it fosters, it is hard to go back to reactivity! Fortunately, doing this work regularly also lessens the need to become dysregulated during conflict–we are strengthening the safety of our relationship, and our brain recognizes this. A safe and trusting relationship gives your brain the message that it does not need to “panic” when there is conflict.

Maintaining our emotional regulation requires good self-care and supportive relationships. But you also have to want it. If you feel that your life and relationship(s) would benefit from a calmer response, if you think that by being present you could make choices that lead you to the life you want to live, then set your goal on regulation as a step in that direction. Living your life means feeling it, not letting it drag you around. Being regulated shows that you are ready to do that as a functional, responsive adult!

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

 

What is it about problems in relationships? And why do they tend to show up after we have already become attached and committed to the other? Is the universe out to get us after all? Is there any way around them? What can we do about them? When do we know if they are “deal-breakers”?

These are just some of the questions that come up, not only in my office, but also among my friends. After all, it does seem like a cruel joke at times–we meet someone who seems perfect, until they aren’t. Sadly, I see people making inaccurate and painful conclusions about themselves when this happens, such as “I always choose poorly”, or worse, “I am such a loser”.

Negative conclusions like these are inaccurate because they don’t describe what is really going on when two people have been together for a while.  While it’s true that sometimes we choose partners poorly, it is not because we are broken in the choosing department. Additionally, these conclusions about ourselves often keep us from staying in a relationship where we can actually heal interpersonal wounds; we end up breaking up when we don’t need to.

So what do we do about problems when they show up? How do we know when to walk, and when to stay and work on them? To answer this, we need to first understand what they are and what they are not…

WHAT THEY ARE–DIFFERENCES: John and Julie Gottman’s extensive research on couples has shown that, shockingly, 67% of problems in relationships are perpetual, or “unsolvable”. And yet despite this, many relationships do just fine! So what is an unsolvable problem? In the simplest terms, unsolvable problems are differences between two people that most likely will not change. For example, when one likes to sleep in until noon while the other rises at the crack of dawn.

Just because a problem is unsolvable does not mean that couples can’t find a way to live with it. Acceptance is the marker of real love, where two people are able to be both members of a couple and individuals while remaining connected. Acceptance is also a signal that you have healthy boundaries, where you are not expecting the other to be responsible for how you feel about their differences.

Accepting another’s differences does not mean we agree with them or even like it, just that we acknowledge that they are there because our partner is a separate person from us. They are not us! This can be a difficult transition to move into if you started your relationship in a strong state of symbiosis, or infatuation, since during this time our partner seems perfect to us. But it is also a necessary part of moving toward real love, the kind of love that sustains good times and gets you through bad times.

A problem that arises from “differences” is not the same as a problem that results from unloving, dismissive, or disrespectful behavior. The latter cannot be chalked up to differences because they are behavioral choices.  Those are “solvable problems” because they can be eliminated if the couple is able to talk about them constructively. They only become “unsolvable” if partners refuse to change, and are unwilling to accept things as they are.

The challenge is telling the difference between these two types of problems because each needs to be responded to differently. Too many couples lump differences in with bad behavior, and this is why there are unnecessary breakups. Curiosity in each other is the tool that helps you to tell the difference between what is solvable and what is unsolvable.

WHAT THEY ARE NOT–DEAL BREAKERS:  I have written about deal-breakers before, and when you know that you need to leave a relationship. The good news is that most problems, both solvable and unsolvable, are not deal-breakers! As mentioned in the previous section, they only become deal breakers if you are not able to talk about them or come to understand differences so that you can accept it and live with it.

Living with a difference does not mean lowering one’s standards, rather it means deciding to see someone as a separate individual, different than you, in a realistic light. It is bringing the standard down to a realistic level, instead of expecting that our partner meet our every need and never disappoint us. Just because I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t thoroughly enjoy Christmas! In the same way, accepting differences can allow you to enjoy your relationship in a more adult manner while also practicing self-care that is your responsibility.

When I hear about marriages breaking up over “irreconcilable differences”, it makes me sad, because the divorce is likely unnecessary. I often suspect that the couple just didn’t know how to talk about differences.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM: You will notice this article focusing on differences, and you may be asking yourself, “Wasn’t he going to write about problems?” Yes, I was, and yes, I am. The point I hope to make is that too many couples try to change unsolvable problems while ignoring solvable problems. This makes sense because it is easier to imagine changing a difference than talking about a real problem. Talking about problems works, but it is not easy, as it requires trust, safety, and vulnerability. Differences usually just trigger misunderstanding and fear, while a real problem brings up more difficult emotions: feelings of sadness, abandonment, betrayal, and disrespect.

If you want the simple blueprint on how to improve your experience with your partner, I suggest the following:

  • Decide what is solvable and what is unsolvable.
  • Get curious about the unsolvable so that you can better understand the difference and respond more mindfully and intentionally.
  • Talk about the solvable problems by telling your partner how you feel when the problem happens–don’t criticize! You can also show some curiosity as to the purpose of their behavior. Make a request of your partner if you need to.
  • Explore healthy compromise around unsolvable problems, where you work as a team to find a middle ground that both of you can live with and accept.

The above guidelines may require the help of a qualified couples therapist, but if done well, you will get the information you need to make decisions about the future of the relationship. You will either stay together because you are a good match, or you will break up because you have identified something that you just cannot live with. Either way, your decision will be an informed one.

THE MAGIC PILL: ACTION

When I think of how to describe the times we are currently living in, I let my clients guide me. And what I am hearing these days is that, when looking around, it is like looking through a clear pane of glass: you see “everyone else”, but you also see yourself reflected. This description resonates with me because the key distinction in whether or not one is able to create change in their life is whether or not they are willing to see the world through a pane of glass, or more specifically, how they look in the world.

12-Step meetings have long had attendees recite the following after every meeting:

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Why is this mantra repeated time and time again by those who seek change in their own lives? Because in those few lines are the exact instructions of how to change! They also let us know what does not create change, and moving from one state to the other is the point of this article.

How do we change the world? How do we change our world, our relationships, ourselves? Does change require that everyone change? What if I am the only one who changes?

Let’s dive in…

WHAT YOU CAN’T CONTROL: Without exception, couples come into my office pointing the finger at one another, inviting me to side with them and agree that the other is the problem. “If only my partner would change, things would be better!” In order to connect the couple, I first need to see if they are willing to be a team, working against the problem instead of each other.

I start with this task because I have learned that we cannot make anyone change, we can only influence them to change. The other side of that is coin is allowing ourselves to be influenced to change by our partners. Both of these ideas help us with the first part of the serenity mantra: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.

This is easier said than done! But it is doable, and is the only way I know of to move your life and relationships from where they is to where you want them to be.

Why are we so committed to trying to change what we cannot control? Because it feels easier than taking a good hard look at ourselves, and our contribution to the problem(s). I remember years ago when I wanted to move out of Los Angeles because I thought that everyone here was horrible, and my best friend had the courage to ask me, “What if it is you?” I was furious with him at the time, but soon realized that while it was not only me, it was certainly partly me that was making my time here so difficult. Over time I succeeded in changing the way I respond to and think about the city (both under my control), and my outward experience of it changed for the better. I focused on what I had the power to control.

WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL: What we can control is a lot, truthfully, but it does take work. You know this if you have ever fallen for an easy weight loss system–the ones that promise that you can “eat like normal” on their program and still lose weight. While you may lose some pounds, they rarely stay off after stopping the program because what has not changed is how you eat and why you eat, which are key determinants of our weight.

It is much harder to look at the underlying negative thoughts that fuel our need to comfort ourselves with food, because this may mean facing problematic and painful relationships from our past. However, doing this work with a caring witness (such as a therapist), can result in lasting change and freedom from negative thinking. These things are under our control.

In short, we have control over our responses. This aligns with the second part of the serenity mantra: “the courage to change the things I can”. It does take courage to do this, because it can be painful and frightening, but the reward can be worth it. Taking control over our responses includes changing the way we interpret and think about things, which in turn affects how we feel about things. In other words, our response to what is happening. And when we change our response, we then have the power to influence others to change.

This is the magic pill. 

THE MAGIC PILL: The third part of the serenity mantra asks for “the wisdom to know the difference”, and that is no small ask! Knowing the difference between what we can and can’t control is not only the magic pill for change, but also the key to avoiding suffering. Focusing on what we can control can interrupt complaining and give us the power to take action, and action is what brings about change. This change does not always happen to everyone involved. I tell my couples clients that if you change as an individual in relationship, one of two things will happen: either your partner will adjust to the change or they will leave you. Either way, movement has occurred, which is often better than remaining stuck in a painful rut!

The bad news about action is that it difficult to do something different, and there are no guarantees that the outcome will match your preferences. The good news is that we can still choose to take it, even if it is hard, and be open to the result, knowing that we can always choose again. Sometimes, we might need a little extra support with this, either from others or even from medication, especially if we are strongly affected by either depression or anxiety (both can lead to inaction).

Action can take two forms: external or internal, and both are valid. External action is when we make adjustments to our behavior or response, or when we stop accepting invitations to fights or dysfunctional patterns. Internal action is when we change how we think about what is going on, often allowing us to move from victim to survivor (responsive rather than reactive). Victor Frankel writes about this in his important book, Man’s Search For Meaning, where changing his mind, or internal action, literally saved his life.

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A body in motion wants to stay in motion, while a body at rest wants to stay at rest. In other words, taking action from a state of inaction is difficult–but it is not impossible–it just takes a force to get it going. As a culture, many have become very comfortable, which is not a bad thing, but it has deterred us at times from taking necessary risks or making uncomfortable choices. Just because action is a magic pill does not mean it is easy to swallow. What helps it go down is support from others, and having a clear idea of who we would rather be in relationship to the ourselves and others.

With individuals, therapy can help to identify and confront ways of thinking that contribute to unhealthy choices. Changing the way you think can positively shift the way you experience what is going on around you. With couples, I encourage them to support each other by sharing the changes they are embracing themselves while acknowledging and appreciating the changes we see in the other. This is what working as a team looks like, and it can change your relationship into a refuge rather than a battleground. I know of no other way that gets you closer to a life of peace and love.

ROMANCE THAT WORKS

February is a month that one either dreads or dreads more, from what I hear–and yet it does not have to be so! I notice that the dread affects both those who are in relationships and those who are not–with just slight differences:

    • dread for those in relationship can include anxiety
    • dread for those who are single can include depression

The source of this dread just one day in the month–you guessed it–February 14th, Valentine’s Day. What is currently an opportunity to celebrate love and romance has turned into a day where love is often tested and romance is bought.

But it does not have to be this way.

The power we have as humans is the ability to make choices that align with our values–regardless of what others are doing! This includes our choices about love, sex, dating, and romance.

In this Special February Issue, we will take a look specifically at romance, and how to make choices about it that work–meaning less dread, anxiety, and depression–leaving you to experience more fun and love.

THE BITTER TRUTH ABOUT ROMANCE: Here is what needs to be understood about romance: it was never intended to be mixed up with love. There are many theories of where romantic love began. In Medieval times, for example, it was something of a social ritual that bolstered the public status of those involved–who most often were not in an actual relationship with each other! Romantic love was more of an ideal to pursue for personal and social gain, not something to actually achieve–it was a motivational tool of sorts!

Over time, as marriage became an act of choice for many, “dating” began and romance became the primary fuel for relationship building. This would have been fine except for one problematic influence from previous times: people equated feelings of romance with actual love. Rather than differentiating passion, or sexual chemistry, from real love, modern dating culture fused them, resulting in a misunderstanding of what we feel towards our object(s) of desire.

THE BIGGEST MISTAKE: Have you ever eaten a slice of chocolate cake? If you have, and you liked it, then you will remember how you were able to enjoy it even while knowing that it had nearly zero nutritional value. And yet despite this ability to reason intelligently about what we enjoy, we regularly abandon reason to experience infatuation with someone, thinking we are “in love”. Just as chocolate cake is not broccoli, infatuation is not love!

The distinction between initial passion and time-developed love does not have to be bad news. Just as you can enjoy chocolate cake while recognizing it has zero nutritional value, you can enjoy infatuation (and the romantic feelings that come with it) without thinking that it is love (yet). In fact, if you do so, you may enjoy it more because there will be less anxiety about it.

So why isn’t romance love? Because it is based on an ideal rather than a reality. Romance is about the one feeling it–how it makes them feel interesting, sexy, young, and alive. It is about perfection and fantasy. It is not about the other person–the other is just the catalyst for feelings that make us feel better about ourselves.

On the other hand, real love is about the other person, not about you! Romance during infatuation is about bonding and attachment–real processes that brings people together–but they are not love. Love takes time to form because it cannot happen until there is an empathetic and caring understanding of the other person and an interest in their inner emotional world.

The biggest mistake one can make when seeking love is to assume that if you feel romantic toward someone, you are “in” love. This assumption will actually prevent you from moving toward real love, because romance has you see the other as you want them to be, instead of as they are. Preferably, romance is an ingredient of loving relationships, not the container. So how do you make it work well?

HOW TO MAKE ROMANCE WORK: Let’s go back to the chocolate cake for a minute. Remember that there is nothing wrong with enjoying cake, as long as you don’t kid yourself into thinking you are eating broccoli. This is how you make romance work for your relationships. You enjoy it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t. 

Many people think that romance is something you either feel or don’t feel–but actually it is something that we can (and often do) choose to feel toward another. Just because you choose to feel it does not mean that it is not authentic. And in relationships of a year or more, choosing romance is a smart decision because the closer you get intimately, the less romantic you may feel towards each other–the elements that fuel intimacy and romance are oppositional.

So you make romance work by choosing it and then allowing the brain and body to follow your intention. Why do so many suggestions for building romance include soft lighting, sexy music, and candles? Because that helps put us in a romantic mood–you are setting the stage for romance! This seemed to be the idea behind Valentine’s Day at one time, but somewhere along the way romance became an expectation of love rather than a desired and chosen effect of it.  Romance is an element of love, not the proof of love.

***

Just as you would never dream of eating only chocolate cake (or would you?), you would not want a relationship to only be romance–that won’t get you very far. At some point, all our partners will “let us down”–they’ll get sick or have a blemish, they get impatient with us or become depressed. This is all part of life, and it is not very romantic. But as a team you can both choose romance whenever you want to experience it together, in the same way you can choose to have a slice of cake when you desire something sweet.

It’s great when romance comes “naturally”, but when it doesn’t, chosen romance is still romantic. Why not take advantage of both options?

MAKING MONOGAMY WORK

When the holiday bustle ends, there can be a feeling of “letdown” that follows as we return to our “regular lives”. This is not the only option for us, however. We can look at the beginning of the year as a time to “clean house” in our lives and relationships–we can toss out what does not serve us anymore and dust off what does.

One issue that can gather quite a bit of dust is the topic of monogamy. It is possibly no coincidence that it sounds so much like the word “monotony”–because for many couples, that is exactly what monogamy feels like! I like to invite couples who are invested in monogamy to thicken it, so to speak. Most of us are raised with a “thin” story of monogamy: we will be attracted to and have sex with one chosen partner for the rest of our lives, AMEN! That is like tofu–sounds good in theory, but not very appealing in reality unless you “spice it up”.

In order to make monogamy work, it can be helpful to adjust our approach to it as well as our perspective. Instead of feeling like a jail cell, it can feel like a protective fence around your relationship. But how? In order to make modern monogamy work, I had to look back about 250 years for inspiration…

KANT’S PHILOSOPHY: The appeal of philosophy for me is that it is not simple–it deals with the complex reality of human behavior and thinking in a way that modern self-help books do not. The former is concerned with understanding as a way to live better, the latter more often concerned with easy fixes that neglect underlying conflicts. Philosophy can help me to understand modern issues in relationship because we still have the same core needs.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a philosopher who was interested in an approach to “goodness” that did not rely on religious stories–he was interested in a way of living that was motivated from within because he suspected that such a morality would be unflappable. He came up with something called the Categorical Imperative.

Regarding monogamy, I want to refer to the second section of his philosophy, which is called the Formula of Humanity, and it simply states:

“Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

What this means to me is that it is best to go into relationships with others using “respect” as your behavioral guide, something I wrote about in my last post. When you respect someone, you won’t try to “use” them to get something (unless they agree to this). You won’t see them as a means. Why is it disrespectful to see someone as a means? Well, because it is treating another person in a way that you would not treat yourself, in essence placing their value as less than yours.

APPLYING KANT TO MONOGAMY: If you are wondering how this applies to modern monogamy, bear with me! Monogamy today is treated as an end rather than a means, and this is, in my observation, one big reason why it so often fails. Monogamy, rather than being a chosen active approach to a couple’s sexual relationship, is being used to symbolize commitment. It is dead in the water. You want to know what I notice? The majority of people who cheat on their partners love them very much–commitment is not the issue!

When monogamy is used as an end rather than a means, then our partners are reduced to being a measure of our virtue and sex becomes a proving ground. Not fun! We have used monogamy as a gauge for virtuous commitment: to ourselves, our partners, and in the eyes of others. This in turn makes our partners a tool for our own reward. Another way of putting it is that we have turned our partners into a means for us to feel good about monogamy.

What if we instead used monogamy (means) to feel good about our sex life with the partner we are committed to (end)?

When we treat monogamy as a means to something positive in our relationship, it can open up all kinds of delicious fun in bed! This is because when monogamy is a means, it changes from being a descriptor of commitment into being an instrument for commitment–one that is used willingly and joyfully. It is acting on this premise:

“I choose to have sex only with you, because that is respectful to me, to you, and to our current relationship agreements, and it strengthens our commitment to remain interested in each other over time.”

Chosen monogamy (means) is very different than imposed monogamy (end). Chosen monogamy requires mindfulness, because if you decide that you want to be with just one person sexually for any reason (and there are some good reasons to do so!), then you will benefit by making it interesting. Monogamy does not equal monotony if you choose it mindfully.

So how do we do that?

THICKEN IT! Mindful relationships are the goal of couples therapy. A mindful relationship means that two people see each other as not only a partner, but also as an individual with differences. Do you think you can meet every need that your partner has? Good luck! But you might find that you can meet many more needs than you thought possible, merely by:

    • finding out what they are
    • deciding if that is a need you want to fulfill
    • being willing to move outside your comfort zone at times

With sex, we often fall into a very thin understanding of our partner’s needs based on “what worked” at the beginning of the relationship. When this limited repertoire becomes boring, that is usually the time when eyes wander to others. What if, instead, we could see our commitment to monogamy as a means, with our and our partner’s sustained sexual interest as the end? How might that influence how we approach each other? How might it influence how much we reveal to each other or ask? How might it influence our own sexual development, and our interest in our partner’s sexual development? How might it influence how much effort we put into keeping things interesting and fresh?

***

One downside of living in an advanced society is that we sometimes think that everything should be “easy”. This can work against us. Some things require effort, regardless of how advanced our technology is! Having a satisfying, long term, monogamous relationship requires effort no matter how much you love each other, but effort that is applied in the right areas can pay off handsomely.

By treating monogamy as a means, rather than an end, I am suggesting that you put effort into defining monogamy for yourself and for each other–thickening it so that it fits your relationship rather than your parents’, and allowing you to see a rich sex life with your partner as a wonderful end goal rather than a way for you to feel good about values that may never have been  yours in the first place!

You want monogamy to work in your relationship? Put in the effort to bring it alive, and clearly define where you hope it will lead you. Treat it as a means to the preferred end!

 

THE BEST GIFTS YOU CAN GIVE

During the holidays, it is typical to give gifts to people we love. This can include partners in an intimate relationship or marriage, of course. Many times I have heard clients say to me, “I don’t know what to give my wife/husband/partner!” This statement always makes me sad, because I wonder why we don’t know what gift(s) our partner would love to get! How can we not know what makes one another feel joy?

This being said, I also understand the amount of pressure that many feel to “get it right” when it comes to gifts. Rather than being an expression of generosity and love, gifts sometimes are a testing ground for the level of commitment one has in the relationship. Good grief! No wonder anxiety, for many people, spikes during the holidays!

This is why I wanted to write about gifts that rarely disappoint–gifts that offer what is universally desired and wanted, regardless of culture, age, or race. They are gifts that can ensure that all other presents are received with gratitude and appreciation, because the act of gift-giving will no longer be a litmus test for how well one is loved or known.

What are these gifts? Read on…

THE GIFTS THAT NEED NO WRAPPING PAPER: Despite our technological advancement, we are still mammals who require caring in order to thrive. Unfortunately, we live in an economy that convinces us we only need products. If that were true, why is anxiety at such high levels, given that many of us can get any product we want at any time?

What I notice is that many people use products to counteract isolation, loneliness, insecurity, and stress. This works in the short run, but rarely has a lasting effect. But I can understand the appeal when person-to-person caring is either not available or not offered, even when one is in a relationship.

If genuine caring is what we really need to thrive, then what are the key elements? Let’s look at four that are important in any loving relationship.

NURTURING: Nurturing is easier than most of us think. It requires more that we simply show up and less that we try to do something.  If you think that nurturing means “making someone feel better”, then allow me to suggest an alternative meaning. When we are upset, it is often very hard to feel better, and thinking that we should feel better can make it even worse. Nurturing is not about making someone feel better. Rather, it can be thought of as a way of being present with someone in pain. Not doing anything, just being there. And when someone is in pain, usually the most helpful way to be there is to say, “I am here with you.” 

This five-word phrase is what we most want and need to hear when we are hurting and feeling all alone and misunderstood, because it does not require that we be or do anything in return. It does not force us to justify our pain or take care of someone who is caring for us; instead it just lets us know that we are not alone in our pain, and that can be very comforting. It is a way to show your trust in another’s emotional intelligence, while showing them that they can trust you to handle what they are feeling. Nurturing is comfort, in the form of presence. “I am here.” 

EMPATHY/UNDERSTANDING: Empathy is related to nurturing, but it is not the same thing. It is part of the process though, in that it is what can come from being with someone in their pain–empathy is the experience of feeling, on some level, what the other is feeling. Not just understanding it, but actually feeling it, and holding it. It is the process of seeing the problem from the others’ perspective so that we can understand why they are in pain. This understanding gives us the best chance of responding in a way that actually does relieve pain.

I have seen countless couples upset with one another because well-meaning efforts to comfort their partner and respond to their pain land with a thud. This is not because they don’t love their partner, but because they don’t fully understand what the pain is about–in order to relieve hurting we have to know how and why someone is hurting! The how is found out through an empathetic connection, and the why is uncovered by the understanding that comes from empathy. To be on the receiving end of this is nothing short of the greatest experience of being loved.

INTEREST: The type of interest I am talking about is not the kind you get from your bank, where you get a return on your investment. It is instead the opposite kind of interest–it is a way to invest in your relationship in order to get a return. What is that return? It can be boundless regarding what you get from your partner and what they get from you. The power of interest is that it is the action-based expression of love. It is well and good to tell someone that you love them, but it is an entirely different thing to show it in such a way that they feel loved. 

Many couples talk about their “love languages“, and certainly these are good to know about in yourself and in each other.  But the truth is that we don’t always express or respond to just one love language, so even if you know them you can miss the mark with your partner–this is where interest fills in the gaps! Interest is fueled by your genuine and caring curiosity about your partner: what makes them tick? What brings joy to their lives? What upsets them? What is their favorite and worst part of themselves? What are their vulnerabilities?

Interest is the means to this end: making sure that your partner feels truly loved by you, not just for what you like or what you see, but for who they are. (To read my previous full post about Interest, please click HERE.)

RESPECT: I saved this one for last, because it is possibly the most important element in caring–you could say that it is the tent-pole element under which all other elements fall–if you respect your partner and their inner world, then nurturing, empathy, understanding,  and interest will more naturally follow.

What is respect? In the simplest terms, it is act of honoring another’s differences as valid. Respect does not require that we agree with or even like another’s differences, but it does require that we recognize and appreciate them as part of our beloved. Why would we do this? Because this is what real love is–caring about another’s well-being not because they are exactly like us or because they make us feel good or sexy, but because their well-being is important to us! This process is ignited by the initial bonding process, but it is cemented into being over time, as the bonding becomes attune-ment.

Respect leads you to real love.. It is not co-dependent to feel joy when you make your partner truly happy, and sometimes this requires catering to differences we don’t easily understand. Interest can help foster respect for the ways you and your partner diverge. We often find that the differences are not so different at all–that they are tied to shared needs and values. Certainly there are real and perceived threats that work against this understanding, but if partners allow their interactions, responses, and agreements to be guided by respect, then those threats will not present any real challenge to the relationship.

Respect, in action, will discourage sarcasm, needling, taking things personally, and misunderstanding, and will mutually encourage and strengthen all the elements of caring.

***

The elements described above need to be intentional choices, because our brain is wired to be biased toward suspicion and threats (even if they are not real), and this is where couples often need help in choosing. As a couples therapist, I help couples (and individuals) understand the benefits of taking a stand against threats. It can be very hard to set aside our self-protection in relationship, but by regularly making this choice, and having a partner who can then respond accordingly, we can choose nurturing, empathy/understanding, interest, and respect more often. It becomes easier, the threats feel less threatening, the connection becomes stronger, and the rewards become greater!

These are the best expressions of love we can give to one another during the holidays, and all throughout the year, and they don’t require any wrapping. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that couples therapy is the wrapping paper for these gifts. This is the best gift you can give to one another–it is a way to say this relationship matters to me, it matters enough to work on, and I want to work on it with you.

Who wouldn’t want to receive that gift?

 

ULTIMATUMS DON’T WORK–DO THIS INSTEAD

You’ll know you are doing it right if you get a smile!

As a general rule, we don’t like uncertainties–they challenge our sense of security. But uncertainties are a part of life, so the more we try to avoid them, the less prepared we are for when they inevitably show up. In the martial arts, practice is done with the hope that the skills will never have to be used; it is the knowledge that you have the skills and are prepared to use them that help you to face the world and its various threats with confidence instead of fear.

What this means regarding relationships is that it is more effective to concentrate on our response to people than to focus on changing them–the former is within your power while the latter is not. And if you have the skills for responding well to others, then you might just see any potential threat as less of one.

One of these skills is knowing what to do instead of giving ultimatums, because ultimatums never work! At least they never do if you want to get closer to the person you are giving them to–in fact they result in the opposite of closeness. Yet I notice that people love giving them, and they still expect them to work. Why is this? Why do we love ultimatums? And if they don’t work, what should we do instead?

WHAT IS AN ULTIMATUM, REALLY? Let’s look at what an ultimatum is. I define ultimatums using what I have learned and read combined with my experience, and what it comes down to is this: an ultimatum is a demand for behavioral change. If you have been reading my posts regularly or are a client of mine, you will remember that demands never work! They don’t work because they are forcing someone to do something against their will–so while you might get compliance in the short term, you will get rebellion and resentment in the long term.

Examples of ultimatums are:

  1. Don’t EVER do that again!
  2. You better stop doing that!
  3. I will leave you if you do that to me again!

If you have ever said anything similar to the above examples, or heard them from your partner, it can be an indication of a lack of differentiation, or a lack of self-defining in the relationship, according to Dr. Ellyn Bader, co-founder of The Couples Institute. While this sounds serious, it is fairly common in that our needs as individuals are often not attended to during key developmental stages. Many times clients will not even be able to tell me what they want! When this happens, how can we even access our needs to communicate them? This often causes ultimatums to become the default response when we feel distressed in our relationship.

WHY DON’T THEY WORK? Ultimatums are a shortcut to getting what you need, without actually asking for what you need. This is why they don’t work–the receiver doesn’t know what you really want, they just know what behavior you want them to stop without knowing why. This information alone is rarely enough motivation to change our behavior. The best motivation to change behavior is having an empathic connection to the person who is upset–an emotional understanding of what gets triggered in them when you behave that way or say those words.

It isn’t the behavior that is necessarily wrong, in fact most of the time it is not done with bad intentions, it is just what the person is doing. The problem happens when their partner feels triggered by that behavior–but this is only a problem if neither partner knows what to do in this situation. The natural reaction is to protect oneself–but that results in disconnection. What works is counter-intuitive, but it results in connection, understanding, and closeness.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: If ultimatums don’t work, what does? It is important to remember that we cannot actually change anyone, but we can influence them! So talking about how you feel followed by what you need works because it has the best chance of influencing the listener by engaging their empathy for your distress.

Let’s use the previous three examples and change them from ultimatums to empathy-generating statements:

  1. Don’t EVER do that again! becomes: When you do that, I no longer feel safe in this relationship and that makes me feel sad and also angry at you.
  2. You better stop doing that! becomes: I cannot live with this behavior because of how triggered I get. Will you please to stop doing that? (This example includes a request–a tool that also works when in conflict)
  3. I will leave you if you do that to me again! becomes: If this happens again, I will have to re-think being in this relationship because it is makes me feel badly about both you and me.

The third example shows what a boundary looks like. A boundary is different than an ultimatum in that a boundary is about you, whereas an ultimatum is about the other. Letting someone know what you can and cannot live with is important information for them to know (and for you to know as well!). A boundary draws a line and then lets the chips fall where they may–leaving the other the willful choice to adjust their behavior or not–this is also information you need to know in order to make decisions about the relationship!

So what works instead of ultimatums is to:

  • Notice what feeling or threat the others’ behavior is triggering in us
  • Letting the other know this information without being critical of their behavior
  • Making a request for them to stop the threatening behavior after clarifying why it feels threatening.

***
The reason we give ultimatums is often because we don’t trust that others care enough for us to adjust their behavior. This distrust can be rooted in past betrayals and abandonments, but it surfaces in our current relationships, even when the triggering behavior is the opposite of betrayal or abandonment! This is why it is critical to know your trigger points–these can be identified and explored in individual work. With this knowledge, you have a better chance to regulate yourself down when you get triggered and communicate what you need–recognizing that what you are feeling is more about you than about what the other is doing.

The takeaways on this topic can be summarized in the statements below. Feel free to put them on an index card or in your phone to refer to when needed:

  1. Our partners do not cause feelings in us, they can only trigger them.
  2. We cannot change our partners, but we can influence them.
  3. It is always better to respond than it is to react. (Response requires both the right AND left brains, while reactions come primarily from the right brain.)

In my practice I help couples practice these new skills, because they are the opposite of what we want to do and have learned to do. Many good relationships are ended unnecessarily because the partners don’t have these skills to use during conflict. If you have trouble implementing them yourself, a trained couples therapist can help you out.

WHEN IS ANGER OKAY?

We turn away to protect ourselves

It’s not a surprise that many of the couples I see in my practice come in angry with each other. I am always glad they they came in, because anger, if not properly expressed, can ruin a relationship. My job is to reach the feelings underneath the anger, and help each partner be vulnerable enough to share these with the other, giving them an opportunity to respond in a way that connects them.

This is not easy. However, it is the best way I know to avoid ending a relationship that does not need to end–a relationship that may have several wonderful things going for it!

Let’s face it–we all get angry at times. Anger is not the enemy, but the reality I see is that few people actually feel genuine anger and express it at the time they are feeling it. Instead, they find themselves acting out of aggression or rage, both of which are behaviors and not feelings, according to Anita Avedian, LMFT, author of Anger Management Essentials. These behaviors are also, unfortunately, destructive and sometimes deadly.

So what do we do? Well, the first step is recognizing what anger is, and what it isn’t, and looking at which you are doing in your relationship(s). The next step is learning and practicing expressing healthy anger, while acting to stop aggression and rage before they ever get going. This can take weeks of work, but I am happy to share the basics with you in this article. So when is anger okay?

THIS IS NOT ANGER: Anger is an emotion that is not valued properly. Healthy anger is basically about letting someone know that something is not right, because you are feeling upset with them. For the receiver, this is good to know! But what often happens is that we equate anger with aggression, which is not a feeling at all, as I mentioned above, but instead a behavior.

Avedian writes that aggression is “an abusive was of behaving verbally, emotionally or physically”. Sound familiar? I see this in the world and in relationships everyday. The reason this is not anger is because anger’s intention is to let someone know important information about your boundaries and triggers. Aggression, however, has no intention of letting anyone know anything–the goal of aggression is to hurt the other person.

Rage is another behavior that can, according to Avedian, result even in death. “Rage”, she writes, “is a response to a threat to pride, status, or dignity.” Its intention is to “control or silence the other”. When you read about a murder/suicide, it is most likely the result of rage. Both aggression and rage occur because we are too often discouraged from feeling anger, as though the feeling itself is the problem instead of what triggered it.

THIS IS ANGER: So how do we feel and express anger in way that is healthy to both us and the receiver? First of all, we have to even know that it is there–we need to be tuned in to our emotional world enough to know when we are feeling upset about something. Our bodies help us to do this. When I get upset, I notice my heart rate increasing, my face getting flushed, my attention sharpening. Noticing what happens in your body will help you to recognize anger before it turns into aggression or rage. As Avedian says, anger is “a signal, or alarm, that something is not right, that we don’t feel okay about what we’re observing.”

When you notice feeling upset about something that someone is doing, the best way to express this upset is to use an emotion tied to a person and an event. It might look like this: “I am hurt that you didn’t return my phone call for two days.” Why is this okay? Because there is no judgement in the statement about what the other person was thinking or doing–the statement just includes what happened (the call was not returned for two days). While this approach won’t guarantee that the receiver won’t get defensive, it has the best chance of being responded to in a caring way. That is healthy anger, and when expressed well it can lead to positive change.

***

We get angry at people we love–it is part of being human and in relationship. In my experience working with couples and individuals, I observe that most anger comes from feeling not understood, disrespected, or not cared about. Anger in these cases is a notice to the other that something is lacking, NOT a notice that they are necessarily doing anything wrong. Most couples never intend to hurt their partners, but sometimes we do. If the hurt is expressed in a healthy way, we can respond to it in a way that increases connection, safety, and trust. This is why anger is not a bad thing.

If you want to practice this in your relationships, use these tips:

  1. Start paying attention to the messages your body sends you when you get upset.
  2. Address the anger as soon as possible instead of letting it smolder.
  3. Talk about what you are feeling, not what you think the other is feeling.
  4. Turn any statement you have about the other into a question for them to answer.
  5. Show curiosity about their intentions instead of assuming that you know what they are.

If you are mindful to practice the above steps, you may see a shift in how you feel about both conflict and your loved ones. You will learn that at times, anger is okay!

HOW TO KEEP SEX GREAT

It starts before you get into bed.

I admit I may be “biting off more than I can chew” with a short article on this topic, but I feel that it needs to be addressed because it comes up so often in my practice. Everyone loves “great sex”, and everyone wants to have it (well, almost everyone)! Nothing wrong with that, but it is important to first explore what makes sex “great” for each individual–you may find out that it is different for others than it is for you!

Great sex is whatever YOU and your partner(s) want it to be. For some, that does not always equal “feeling good”–sometimes it equals “pain” (with consent, of course!)–but no matter how we experience pleasure, most want their sexual activity to bring them closer their partner, most want to feel cared about, most want to feel better about themselves as a result. Does this happen automatically? Not necessarily. Some effort is required to keep sex delivering the rewards we enjoy and desire.

Notice I said “effort” and not “work”. Few people like to think of “work” and “sex” in the same context, and yet for many that is exactly what it feels like more often than not. Some clients tell me that sex feels like a job to them. That is fine if you love your job, but if not, something needs to change! In this article I intend to give you some ideas of where to direct that change, so that you don’t end up where you started.

BE INTERESTED IN YOURSELF: What does it mean to be interested in yourself? Isn’t that being “self-involved”? Yes and no. There is a difference between grandiosity and curiosity when it comes to the self. Rather than thinking you know everything about yourself, I suggest being curious about yourself as a sexual being and a sexual body, because believe it or not, you change over time. What pleases you? What excites you? What scares you (just a little bit)? What turns you on now? What no longer turns you on?

One of the easiest ways to explore your sexuality is with self-pleasure. This in itself can inform many things just in the way we think about it–do we see it as harmless fun, a weakness, or a “sin”? Do we feel shameful or celebratory about it? Do we feel that it is something that should be “controlled” so that we don’t do it too often? Are there fantasies that we feel we should not be thinking about when self-pleasuring? Are there parts of your body that you don’t like to explore for pleasure?

It can be very useful to take some time discovering your own body and mind, allowing yourself to freely notice what feels good, without judging it. When we know our own bodies, we can approach sex with more confidence, guiding our lovers to things that please us. Additionally, getting interested in your own pleasure can inform how you please others, since we all have biological similarities.

Who are you now? What makes you feel vulnerable/powerful/sexy/loving? Do you like to laugh during sex or cry? Do you want to be looked at, or do the looking? What are your fantasies? Is sex a release or an exercise in control for you? We are always changing throughout our lives–being curious about who you are now can reflect in others being interested in you as well. If you feel you are genuinely interesting (meaning: interested), that is how you will likely be seen.

Speaking of which…

BE INTERESTED IN YOUR PARTNER: Sex today has become, sadly, like commodity trading. We look for what we want, and offer what we are willing to give. If there is a match, a good time can be had, in that our needs get met, but what is missing? Discovery and connection.

Treating sex as a trade-off isn’t bad, per say, but it diminishes it somewhat from what it can be, which is a way to connect, build trust, transform, and express love. There is no way we “should” have sex, but why diminish it unnecessarily? I see this happening mostly because some people are afraid of closeness and vulnerability–it is too risky. I get that, but if you are reading this article, then I suspect that is not you, or if it is you, that you want to change.

So if you want to connect with your partner(s), get interested in them. Sex is a great opportunity to get interested in them, but you don’t have to wait until the big moment. Our partners are sharing information with us all the time, and if we pay attention, we will learn a lot about what they like and don’t like. But showing interest means going further than just paying attention–it means asking questions–questions that come from your curiosity about how they are unique and different from you.

You like your neck to be kissed? Maybe they don’t! It helps to ask about that–but you don’t have to ask a yes or no question (Do you like your neck kissed?), you can instead ask open-ended questions: “Where do you like to be kissed?”, or “Do you like it when I touch you there?” Remember that questions, and answers, can be communicated nonverbally, and they can be presented both in and out of the bedroom. Who is your partner now? Finding out can be erotic for both of you.

In my work with couples, I often assign what is known as sensate focus exercises. These exercises allow a couple to take orgasm and penetration off the table to make room for exploration and discovery of each other’s bodies apart from the genitals. It can be a wonderful and fun way to get interested in not only what arouses your partner, but what arouses you to do to them! Ideally, getting interested in your partner is also going to give you information about yourself that you may not have been aware of.

MAKE SPACE: Sex takes time. The average sex act lasts anywhere from four to nine minutes, but even so there is time needed to get ready, make sure the kids are sleeping, shower, etc. Couples with small children have an especially challenging time fitting sex into their marriages/relationships, but I notice that even single folks struggle with scheduling free time.

In my practice, I tell couples that in a marriage with kids, the marriage “comes first”, but in a divorce, the children do. This does not mean that you leave the kids on the back porch while you do it in the bedroom, it just means that a healthy and satisfying marriage benefits the children–who often pick up on any anger and tension in the household and internalize it. Children also benefit from seeing appropriate and healthy expressions of physical affection between their parents. You don’t have to delay affectionate foreplay until you are behind closed doors!

Good sex does not take hours, but it does often require mutual intention and planning. Couples will tell me that they want sex to be “hot and spontaneous” like when they were dating, and I then ask them how long they spent “getting ready” for those dates? An hour? Were they not consciously or unconsciously getting ready for the possibility of sex? What made it feel exciting was the anticipation and the sense of risk–elements that Esther Perel has famously talked about as two of the key components in passionate sex. These made fade a bit as time together goes on, but they don’t have to disappear, and this is one way to make sure that you are not only making time for sex, but wanting to.

It is up to you to decide if making space for sex in your relationship or marriage is important, but if it is, being intentional about it is critical–just as you make time to eat, shower, or sleep. It might require that you lessen the time you spend on your devices by fifteen minutes, but when you weight the benefits, you might find it worth it, as NO device satisfies our need to connect and bond with another person quite like sex does. Scheduling sex can be sexy if you want it to be, especially when it results in you have more sex!

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It used to be that sex was a leisure/pleasure activity, but in today’s fast world, it seems to be just another pressure-associated task to complete or avoid. You can bring it back to its roots with a little bit of mutual intention and effort, and perhaps some healthy boundary-setting with children in the house. It IS okay to close or lock the bedroom door (depending on the age of the children and if they need to be looked after) while you connect with your partner in sensual and erotic ways.

Just remember that in order to be interested in anything, you have to find it interesting! Our long-term partners are no exception. If you pay attention to each other and get curious, you may find that they are just as mysterious and exciting as when you first were dating them. The added bonus is that if you have spent time building trust and security, this can be a great place from which to take risks with each other. If you don’t have that secure base, couples therapy can help you build and strengthen it together.

Sex in long-term relationships can continue to be great in ways that are far more satisfying than consensual hookups, but you have a role if making it great. That is good news, as long as you are willing to get interested in each other and in yourself. So what are you waiting for?