The Sexual Relationship With Self

The Sexual Relationship With Self

The sexual relationship with self is a widely experienced part of adolescent and adult development. It’s a simple enough phrase, and people tend to make some instant sense of what it means. It differentiates eroticism/sex between its internal and external nature, simply and quickly. Saying it implies its ‘opposite’ – sexual relationship-with-other(s) (a subject near and dear to psychotherapy.)

An Erotic/ Sexual Battle Royal

Except they’re not true opposites. Yet that’s how some partners, in some relationships, view sex-with-self: as the opposing force to sex-with-others, and meager by comparison. I see sex-with-self as the platform on which sex-with-other(s) is built. It’s a precursor, not a curse. And it’s a lifetime companion and wellspring of imagination for partnered sex.

Eroticism Is Part Of Self

But it’s more than that, because it’s part of self. Often enough, people want to occupy personal/private sexuality, sometimes to re-energize their sex-with-other(s). But for many, a partner’s sex-with-self is a betrayal, cause for suspicion, even a sign that the sex connection has died.

It’s Ours And We’ll Protect It

The relationship-with-self can be altered by sexual coercion, deception, abuse or violence. Even if undisturbed these ways, it’s still a psychologically, emotionally and physically turbulent place. But it’s ours, and it grows –  like any part of us that is subjected to both indulgence and frustration. This is an early personal/private crucible of psycho-sexual development. And we will protect it, if we can, from shame.

Ongoing Experience of Sexuality

The basic concept is unremarkable. Many people maintain (usually from adolescence on) a conscious intermittent awareness of sex and desire, regardless of happiness or fulfillment. It’s also well established that people, through masturbation, can have a sexual experience and erotic identity, sans partner(s). But socially, it’s shamed.

Even with eroticized cultures, and gender re-definition, most of us developed during adolescence an internal sexual world. The challenge is to take whatever level of ‘fullness’ and integration, and extend it out – to develop it well with other(s).

sexual-fantasies

Map Of A Journey Of Love

It reflects how we were loved, nurtured, and injured. We journey (if safely enough), and start to draw a ‘map’ and an ‘arousal template’. These are used to increase our chances for pleasure, by playing out ways to decrease (usually) our specific anxieties. For some, this can mean mastering anxiety by re-enacting it in a controlled way (BDSM).

Since the erotic map can also lead us in a spiritual direction, it grows with us as we age. This is adult eroticism.

Doesn’t Play Well With Others?

Yet the elementary construct, sex-with-self, does not have an ‘easy relationship’ with its counterpart – sexual relationship(s) with others. )

Other variations include: people struggling to actually do what they privately fantasize about (with any partner, though usually a primary); the idea of observing partner masturbation (to heighten & share pleasure); partners who can only orgasm when masturbating, either before, during or after partner sex, privately or not; and last but not least, taking a partner’s use of pornography personally.

The Self Is A Safe Place

I’ve met a good number of men who ejaculate faster than they want during partner sex. They have the problem much less often during sex-with-themselves (self-stimulation). There is something soothing about being in the safe place of one’s imagination, even with repetitive fantasies. It allows for kinky play, on the erotic map, using various templates. It’s true that a good number of porn users choose fantasy over the challenges of bringing them into reality.

Breach Of Agreement?

But does sex-with-self’s existence, beyond some bare minimum, also violate a prior and superior commitment – to the relationship-with-other? That relationship, in monogamous terms at least, usualy requires an exclusive contract for sexual engagement.

Threat Posed By The Inferior

In many committed relationships, the relationship-with-self is presumed (not openly, usually) to take an inferior or secondary status to the relationship-with-other. If the relationship-with-self occupies increasing amounts of time or interest, it becomes a threat to the prevailing sexual order. A relationship-with-self is by definition self-involved; and, that’s compounded when it’s hidden or shamed.

[Yes, I’ve also worked with folks who have passionate relationships with both self and other(s). And who see the two relationships in a constant alliance throughout adulthood. That helps define ‘sex-positive‘]

An Adolescent Regression

If anything, sex-with-self is seen as a regression, back to adolescent fantasies of compliant/kinky figurines that make no demands. It comes across as a failure to fully engage in committed relationship or “true monogamy.” And a vague sense of betrayal, that a partner has checked out from the once mutual journey.

Development Not Seen

The erotic/sexual relationship-with-self is rarely seen in a developmental way, as the result of a crucible – of self, personality, culture – seeking aliveness. And evidently, a source of safety which allows pleasure. And therefore containing the seeds of renewal into the relationship-with-other.

Individuality & Togetherness

So sex-with-self has a big picture, about the tension between individuality (sense of self) and connection to others (togetherness), expressed erotically & sexually. Both are core elements of individuality-seeking-aliveness. This view fits within a developmental (non-pathologic) view of human sexuality.

Safe To Explore

Ideally, our sexuality begins with imaginative self-exploration. It’s the default safe place (or at least should be) for the birth of the sexual self.

sexual relationship cradle

It’s mutually reinforced, or not, in the body.  It seeks fundamental aliveness, sustained with meaning and pleasure – with other(s). This is eros – attraction. And it begins with a maturity process: self-love & acceptance empowering love towards others. Eros “bridges” our complex internal, private world with those of others, in the matter of experiencing and generating pleasure, meaning and bonding. [Many view eros as the bridge to deep attachment. As in, wanting-before-choosing]

Unusual Even-Handedness

The relationship with self is not better or worse than the one(s) with other(s). They co-exist, typically in the back and forth/ebb and flow that marks all development processes. The ongoing experience of sex-with-self and with others mutually enriches and heals both. It may lead to greater courage in being truly intimate.

Unless it doesn’t. It can become stuck like any other development process.

Therapy Thoughts

Stuck Either Way

Anxiety can get fixated on partner sex, or on sex-with-self. I’ve worked with relationships that have gone in either direction. Repetitive/compulsive behaviors reflect self-involvement over growth. I try to see why.

You can say sex with-other is normal and with-self is not, but I don’t think that will help. Problems with integrity are often about people trading it away, for the (relative) safety of minimizing shame.

When it’s well out of balance, it usually means basic or standard difficulties in personal and relational differentiation. This helps the couple develop greater immunity to anxiety, and promotes collaborating in a non-pathologic frame.

The Impact On Relationship

We are not just talking about the impact of a self-involved sexuality on a relationship. How many times have you heard that a partner seeks refuge from the constant advances of the other partner? How they want “alone time”? The problem can distance partners that way, or through a sexual self that is too private/protected.

Integrity, Empathy, Anxiety

Issues of integrity often assert themselves, making new positions or stances harder to establish. Empathy, and the hope needed to heal the relationship, can seem in short supply. Sexuality is a very effective delivery mechanism for anxiety, and its powerful subsidiary, shame.

Self-Involvement

The truth is that self-involvement can directly impact relational life. It’s hard to bear that a partner withheld connection, preferring to self-pleasure, and is/was willing to hide it away indefinitely. This strikes at the heart of desire, and at the vulnerability of monogamy. I could say ‘fragility’ too, as in, how the more ‘normal’ sex-with-others referred to above is hyper-sensitive to how lowly/immoral sex-with-self seems subversive.

Grieving & Self-Soothing

Sexuality is for many people a drive wheel of the relationship, even if they’ve not paid much attention to it. But a first step in healing this must be to recognize the hurt and pain in the relationship.

What We Might Talk About: Therapeutic Dialogues

 Therapeutic Dialogues

(A bit of a break since the last post. I’ve been relying far too much on feeding @SeattleShrink! While Twitter allows me to draw on many sources, the blog is where some of those inputs can synthesize into information that is helpful to you – the ultimate test.)

The blog is also meant to give an ongoing picture about my practice, and the person leading it. Blogging about therapeutic dialogue(s) seems to fit that well.

I Talk To Clients About…

….Wanting and Choosing

Wanting is the verb of desire. Choosing is the act of commitment.

Wanting v. Choosing, a tension to manage. We get better at it as we age. This tension can create remarkable, resilient, self-aware decent people.

.desirecommitment

The Commitment Anchor

Choosing is how the world gets built – it’s fundamental, essential, powerful.  So, most people lean toward mastering the relative certainty of commitment over the more fluid, variable, playful desire.

The Tide Of Desire

Wanting must be constantly nurtured (by the imagination) and generally defended, as a priority in relational life. It’s highly perishable, needy. Yet desire problems drive so much breakup and divorce, mono and poly.

Who Wants to Be Seen & Known?

That’s understandable since most adults know that wanting powerfully reveals the self. Our sexual development is influenced by the fear of being seen and known, by intimacy we have to tolerate.

…Immunity

immunity

The term immunity comes from the study of biological life and health, of which psychology is but a subset. Immunity presumes exposure – to everything. To learn how to protect, it must fail often enough. But it copes well with each loss – it’s rarely fooled again by identical bacteria or virals. Think of how that might hold equally true for your emotional life, and your relationship(s). As long as you are vulnerable enough to connect with your feelings, yet with a solid sense of self, you will learn much about who you are. (Attachment-centered therapists may see this model as an invite to an “auto-immune disorder”. I don’t.)

… Differentiation

together and separate

The pursuit of a self, guided by thoughtfulness about intimacy and privacy (self-intimacy). Intimacy that’s understood to be both indulged (wanted) and tolerated (frustrated.) Right in that crease lives the kind of personal development that understands emotional pain (and joy) as part of ongoing personal development. That means balancing awareness with careful, accurate thought about your big picture.

….Mastery

mastery

Mastery speaks realistically to that core development process that we want in our work, and in life. This is a “modest and durable” module, grounded in the practical life of spirituality, gender and sex-role netural. It owes nearly everything to George Leonard.  It can fit into just about any therapy approach – it’s like ‘behavioral support service.’ And all about practicing self-control.

A ‘practice’ can be built to reconstruct a life and a self. It orients and organizes, but understands full well — that there can be ‘practice without progress.’ The model is usually helped by a meditation or greater body conditioning.

…..Anger…

spectrumofanger

is not an emotion

The vast majority of my clients refer to anger as an emotion. I don’t. Anger is affect, emotion’s visible/audible ‘wrapper’. It’s driven by many different emotions. I ask clients to identify the emotions that fuel their angers, and there are often surprises on that ‘list.’ This starts a process of exploration, where before there was only a fear of losing self-control. The heat of anger leads to the light of clearer thinking about

….Eroticism

eroticism

A missing element in many adults. Why? How you’ve been loved, or not (and just how so), truly surfaces in adulthood. Self-love (masturbation) migrates to & from the imagination, then expressed in adult relational play. Our erotic/sexual ‘template’ is a way to relieve worries (per Bader), to relinquish anxiety — to feel fully alive.

The erotic connection lovingly turns the world on its head. Relieved of of typical daily importance, familiars can safely be strangers. An endless paradox: taking for oneself — as a primary form of giving, of showing up, of wanting intimacy of all kinds.

…..Grief

grief counseling

Grief is the seam between life and death, where they “meet”. Through my critical incident practice, I’ve learned more deeply how to help those who have endured painful loss. While I think of grief as a system equally ‘elegant’ to gestation & birth, I also know that going through most of it is lousy. Sometimes with the feeling there’s little to no light at the end of the tunnel. When someone can make durable meaning from a significant death, the process ripens.

…..Kink Aware; Sex Positive

kink aware

To credibly present these two credentials begins to heal the long history of professional mental health abuse towards the sexually, erotically and relationally diverse. That abuse has evolved into a fear of psychotherapists who either moralize, or refer clients they know they can’t relate to – after the therapy relationship has begun. Ouch.

I’ve worked with many clients advanced in the imaginative & playful living (or educating) known as kink. Their sex positive beliefs are openly practiced, even as they face nearly universal problems of intimacy and integrity.

You’ll be safe in this office with your erotic and sexual selves, exactly as they are.

To be continued…..

 

Relationship & Couples Therapy: BDSM Likely A Mainstream/Majority Practice

Is BDSM becoming a mainstream/majority practice? Thanks to Dr. Justin Lehmiller for his blog article, which supports the idea of a convergence or merger into a new hybrid of sexual behavior.

bdsm

Monogamous, Monogamish, Poly

I’ve previously addressed the idea that there can be a dialogue and development of relational practices between monogamous, “monogamish” and polyamorous people. If we can digest and excrete “regressive-competitive” attitudes, people can develop their relationships and themselves more dynamically.

Vanilla-Kink-BDSM

We may want the clarity of bright lines between “vanilla”, and “kink” like BDSM. I would argue that our digitally-driven social blender will evolve sexuality into an endless variety of practices and relational structures,

Jealousy Skills

The management of jealousy is one of the primary skill groups that people will need to handle the most typical tensions and problems. (UPDATE: if you are reading this post and are curious about jealousy, please check out this more recent blog post for a review of jealousy in its many forms, with helpful therapy tips!)