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).
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.