Relationship & Couples Therapy: Learning From Sexuality

As a relationship and couples therapist, I am interested in what partners in different relational and sexual experiences are learning from their sexuality together. Monogamists, polyamorists, sexual traditionalists and kink practitioners are joined by a simple truth: we can recognize each other’s skills and learn from one another.

In this post, I’m looking at the kinds of skills people seem to be developing when they have diverse, imaginative eroticism and sexuality. It’s less about how you want to have sex than it is about securing a place for imagination and play in your lives. It’s not “work”; it’s a possible part of life. Within it, eroticism has another root at the center of one’s (relational)  life.

Anxiety, Pleasure And Growth

New skills are needed if people are monogamously developing new eroticism and desire, particularly if they are “bending” monogamy. There will be anxiety along with the pleasure and growth. A couple should have a good “big picture” understanding of what they are doing. They hopefully build from a core of transparency, consent, overall strength and confidence.

Bet The Farm

All too often when a couple opens their relationship, they become fixated on “success”, avoiding the “failure” of their first attempt. In the emotions of building and losing the first new partnerships, they can lose sight of the core partnership as their primary focus. It’s similar to wanting to have a good feeling about one’s first love, but raised to the level of a regressed fixation.

Recent Sexuality Research & Relational Skills

There’s recent sexuality research out of the Netherlands. From the research report:

“As BDSM play requires the explicit consent of the players regarding the type of actions to be performed, their duration and intensity, and therefore involves careful scrutiny and communication of one’s own sexual desires and needs, this may be one possible explanation for the positive association between BDSM practitioning and subjective well-being.”

An article on the research notes (p.2):

In short, BDSM is a lot like other practices and communities. It works when it’s well-governed and when its constituents are well-formed. When they aren’t, and when the rules are unclear, the dangerous ingredients at the core of this culture—domination, exploitation, violence—can inflict serious harm.

“Pushing The Envelope”

Are there meaningful differences that come from making unconventional erotic and relational choices? My experience working with clients suggests that the study’s findings have some merit, but not simply for the reasons cited by its authors.

In this research, the subject is about how relationships might gain or develop skills that come from “pushing the envelope”. I don’t believe that anybody has to push these particular envelopes to develop these skills. That would needlessly leave a lot of people out of that personal development picture – specifically those that prefer an exclusive or ‘conventional’ erotic/sexual life.  

I agree that using negotiation skills around eroticism and sex have a positive influence on the whole relationship. The wider the range of sexual practices, the more developed the negotiations and transparency there needs to be. Vulnerability and trust, careful and profound consensuality & collaboration – all of these complex capabilities get better and better when challenged by new desires from both partners.

Imagination And Play

I prefer to think in terms of a more inclusive erotic/sexual model for increasing relational skills. Indeed, here’s an approach  – an imaginatively driven “vanilla” sexuality. It encourages greater imagination and adult playfulness to the most common & popular repertoire of sex practices. I believe that the connection between eroticism/sexuality and more advanced relational skills lies within the realm of imagination and adult play more than in any particular group of sexual practices.

So can people who prefer a specific or “conventional” set of sexual practices (conventional or otherwise) also develop the skills of sexual self-awareness, self-expression and making intimate agreements? I think the answer is “yes.”

BDSM Has To Be Real Relationship

People cannot be persuaded, lectured, cajoled or shamed into sex practices strictly on the argument of their novelty or notoriety. People really do have to want it for their own reasons, with each other. Some who’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey have tried to integrate some of its BDSM action into their own relationships. Some have since checked out from this kind of play, citing too much confusion, anxiety, physical pain, lack of technical expertise and repetitive/not creative fantasies. Others have found that these practices were motivated by previously undisclosed hostility in the relationship (generally a “no-no” in BDSM practice.)

Meaning And Motive

I don’t think that the sexual behavior choices people make are all that significant on their own. The most meaningful differences between conventional (“vanilla”) and kink erotic and sexual play have to do with the partners’ motives and the meaning they make out of what they do. Let’s not needlessly divide people by sexual practices and preferences, creating one more “us” and “them” distinction.

Rather than seeing people divided into separate camps, I see a continuum between “vanilla” and kink. Most couples practice at least a little of what is considered “kinky” sex. The question is how often and why. I am interested in how we benefit from accurately understanding our own sexuality, and by extension, the sexualities of others. This is more likely when we treat all forms of consensual sexuality as opportunities for learning about human nature and social conditions.

 What Makes For Success

What makes for success in keeping sexuality alive in committed relationships? Successful development of eroticism involves not only a “leap of faith” with new sex practices, but an even more important leap into imagination, and what “adult play” can be. One intervention I’ve made begins with a question about whether adults will make a connection between all of the ways in which they work (and the many hours involvedand how they might want to play. Whether a couple truly plays is perhaps a more important question than who they play with (including themselves) or what the sexuality looks like. What motivates the play – and how those motives develop over time – becomes essential.

To Be Developed In Further Posts…

I tend to think that the way people experience life and love – both past and present – says the most about their eroticism and sexuality. People who seek out new or novel experiences in life, balanced against their desires for predictability and security, are “in the game.”

Brief Addendum: Reversing Sexuality Stigma

Studies like the one cited above are needed so that ignorance and prejudice against sexual minorities can be retired. There’s a ongoing cultural battle in which sexual minorities have pushed back, with some success, against the thinking that certain sexual practices are associated with or defined as mental disorders. In fact, these practices can be studied, and positive, useful data can be developed.

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