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).


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.


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.

Sex & Relationships: Desire Speaks

A Book On Desire

The work of Katharine Angel, Unmastered: A Book on Desire Most Difficult To Tell, stands apart in its level of intimacy, vulnerability and courage. It sketches out an emotionally and physically aware psychology of heterosexual feminine desire, loosely but perceptively journaled in the context of an actual relationship.

It begins with an uncomfortable sensuality – an anxious glimpse into the fear of moths, of all things. This vignette might be a way to limber up readers’ nerves for what lies ahead; an uncomfortable, exhilarating and painful journey. On display are the realms of sex, sensuality, power, emotion, and the preliminary signs of deeper attachment. Also present are the same forces that cause most people to lose their core sense of self, and with it, eventually, their passion.

Longing In Relationships

Intensely personal books usually need to find some commonality and connection with readers. In this regard, I think readers of this book will be divided.  I felt that her raw and direct expressions would speak forcefully to readers who feel themselves “locked in” to relationships that have low desire, frustrated sensuality and fear of power dynamics. Her longings are not unusual, held by many partners in long-term committed relationships.

Speaking Up

I agree with the author: this book, and desire itself, is very much about “speaking up”. That’s a simple act of courage, whether it’s her – or you, or me. In my office, I do all that I can to stimulate this kind of courage.

“The desire to speak desire is a desire to burst through silence, to puncture. As such, it is also erotic; it contains its own excitement.”

I look for ways to encourage and empower people in relationships to speak up and self-validate their desire to want (and to be that vulnerable) – physicality, power, fantasy, distance and mystery, and intense sensation. You must have a firm grip on yourself to speak up in a relationship for the eroticism you believe you have, and want to develop.

Another Truth

Another truth is that your fingerprints are all over your problems. In striving to change your situation, you simultaneously make it less secure for yourself. What holds people back is the anxiety that intimacy creates. It’s the part of us that does not want to get that close, to be in that much “conflict” or confusion, with the most important person in your life.

Writing Style Evokes Imagination

The author has chosen a writing style that creates the effect of space between the partners. The style brings in both mystery and imagination, right alongside the frequent codas of “please fuck me!”.  The oblique, angular prose heightens the mystery and space between author and reader, even though the author is describing very intimate encounters.

As I’ve previously blogged, I agree with (and thank) Esther Perel for speaking up for the role of a playful, imaginative life as the way to sustain desire. There’s also the privacy and distance that good lovers keep between them.

They are also willing to experience longing. Longing gives desire its depth, intensity and overall maturity. Longing is the tension between the indulgence of desire, and frustration at having to wait. It brings maturity and intensity to sex, simultaneously.


If it’s any help, the Portugese have a word for it, sort of: saudadesBrazil also celebrates this feeling, which is a merger of strong loving and longing. While love and longing are universally recognized, saudades is  a passionate cultural meaning that expresses the struggle between loving and aloneness.

Speaking Up For Desire’s Variety

She elicits a variety of quite specific states of desire: wanting things to be suggested to her; slick pornography, being directed, having others be directed to fulfill every wish; sheer physical infatuation, or the loving of specific body parts. She wonderfully displays how silence and using few words is erotic. Her way of asserting and wondering about desire at the same time is a refreshing voice to hear.

Tension Between Hot Opposites

She likes pornography quite a bit, both in its elegant and tackiest forms. Beautful but robotic actors turn her off, and on (porn as out of body experience achieved through strict objectifying.)  She sets up her own submission/compliance (“being good”) to accommodate the typical male “wanton aggressor” role. She sees herself ending up being more likable, but out of touch with many other feelings.

Physical Sex, Then Dissociation

The physicality of sex is heavily emphasized in the difference in heft and strength between her and the “Man”. This hot mash of thought, feeling and sensation is offset by the way she also becomes nearly dissociative, disconnecting them all at once:

“In this way you come to know that you are not quite yourself, but someone else”.

I might call it emotional fusion, which can produce a powerful ‘charge’ early in relationships, but soon leads to a loss of self, and therefore passion.

‘Being Good’, And Lost

She writes a recurring self-observation: “If there is a draft, I sit in it, If there is a chicken, I take the leg.” The sacrificing/accommodating stance, a stereotypical feminine relationship position, is very much alive in this otherwise thoroughly modern relationship. She expresses the way one partner tries to function for the other, to patch over losses. She lets him “win.” She calls this being “porous” to partner desires. Here again, I might use the word ‘fusion’ to describe it. He determines much of her sense of self, even if she’s ultimately posturing.

An Inevitable Relational Fracture

Their stylishly hot relationship develops to a critical point where she says,

“If I am hungrier than you, you have not fulfilled your role. You are not playing your part.”

“It’s OK, it’s OK. I’m really not that hungry.”

Reciprocal Rescues

This couple is like many: outrageously passionate at first, but ultimately they must develop and grow, past the early relationship system that forms. He’s wedded to his roles, and she to hers. They fit together well enough to lose themselves in the bargain, as each develops a sense of self reflected off the other, over and over. She raises anxiety, he tries to smooth it over, keeping everything at a simmer.

Yet they seem to have a happy enough ending to their story, the legacy perhaps of all that good lovemaking.


Seattle Relationship & Couples Therapy: People Grow And Develop

A frequent goal of therapy with my clients is to shape a new framework and approach to their problems and/or symptoms. One method that I often use could be called “developmental thinking.” This method re-constructs problems in a different context – and what they mean – in terms of how people grow and develop.The ‘gridlocks’ they experience, individually or in relationship, are milestones in a development process, painful though they may be.

Self-Esteem Is Really Accurate Self-Awareness

Problems in “self-esteem” stem from problems with accurate self-understanding. It doesn’t make much sense to try shoring up your self-esteem when the ‘big picture’ is off. Self-esteem is not a separate, sealed-off piece of your mental pie. It’s one element of a larger growth process. The “self” is not static, and therefore neither is self-esteem.

When we think differently about our personal and relationship development and growth, we can begin a higher level of self-acceptance. That competes quite well with how we criticize, censor and tear ourselves down. We can start thinking in different terms, so that emotions don’t completely run the show. Sounds simple, I know. It isn’t.

Committing to Relationship Development

When we understand types of personal and human development, we create a more accurate picture. Life decisions that turn out for the better or worse, responsibilities taken or not, the emotions brought to a situation – are not solved by assigning blame, feeling guilt or making various diagnoses. Once a problem can be seen differently, it can be acted on differently.

  • A 20 year old man and his 53 year old stepfather have been in a reactive battle over the stepson’s decisions in the last two years. The stepson complains that his self-esteem is being damaged, while the stepfather feels like a parenting failure. Therapy developed how the could interact as peer adults, not just parent-child, a transition they must inevitably face. Both began to function better.
  • A financially successful couple in their late 40s who parent and cooperate well cannot understand why their sexual life has disappeared. The deadlock has caused them to treat each other very poorly. We approach how committed relationship brings us the remarkable challenge to want the partner(s) we choose, unless we want to begin again with wanting others, a very different path.

In these two examples, my clients were able to see the bigger picture of their personal and relationship development in ways that link to the kind of people they want to be. That engages them in an atmosphere of joint responsibility instead of individual blame – no matter what they decide to do relationally.

One of the keys to understanding relationship problems this way is to see them as a question: “What is the next step for me (us) in my (our) development suggested by this problem?” Monica McGoldrick, the great family therapist and theoretician understood this; so did a father figure of 20th century psychology, Erik Erikson.

Solution Is Embedded In The Problem

One additional “tool” that I suggest to clients is “the solution is always embedded in the problem”. So when you are beset with your personal or relational problems, the most important first task is to define the problem in a way that doesn’t set up fruitless conflict. I humbly submit that seeing the problem in “developmental” terms allows us to see solutions that do not have to be at your or your partner’s expense.