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.

Thanks to Bisexuality-Aware Professionals Directory

Professional Directory For Bisexual People

Thanks to the Bisexuality-Aware Professionals Directory for including me recently. You can click on any state for their listings, including mine in Washington State. Integrating human sexuality into individual and relational therapy should include a good understanding of bisexuals. This directory is one of the few that require evidence of direct experience and training with bisexual clients. If you have questions about my practice, please feel free to contact me here.

Bisexuality –> Fluid

Bisexuality, or the more expansive term fluid sexuality (no assumption of only two genders ) is a common form of human sexual behavior. While no clear genetic markers have yet to be found, they are likely linked or identical to those already identified with homosexuality.

Social System

Although bisexuals are more fluid sexually, there are anxieties projected onto them by  straight hetero, Queer, gay or lesbian populations. There is also much more understanding today than in the past. But community development remains difficult due to panoramic stigma.

These and other issues are involved in working with bisexuals. Future blog posts to come


Sex & Relationships: Why Desire Is Fragile

Sexual Desire

Sexual desire, arousal and lust are powerful and alluring, so why is desire fragile? . Whether one believes one’s life to be erotically blessed and indulged, or deprived and wounded, it’s hard not to see that desire (and arousal) is still the most robust ways to feel ‘alive’ – or ‘dead.’ Also the most fragile, vulnerable, perilous… and easily thrown “off course.”


The Medical & Physical

What makes desire and arousal so difficult is often unrelated to physical or medical causes, While we should investigate the medical side, It sometimes means we are delaying a deeper, uncomfortable intimacy with ourselves and partner(s).

It isn’t that doctors shouldn’t touch this issue. But they should generally refer to a mental health professional trained in this area of human experience and mental health.  Only in isolated cases is desire or arousal, in all of its complexities, improved by medications.

Desire is Fragile

This simple idea – the fragility of desire – is not so novel. Some act as though this part of relationship can be deferred and subordinated to other ‘necessities’. Others will say it’s not that relevant to the outcome of a marriage.  Until you consider that many, many relationships – full of successful attachments of all kinds (marriage, careers, children, property,  in-laws, etc.) – struggle to maintain desire, arousal and real wanting, and fail for those reasons.

Desire Has It Tough

The day-to-day environment for desire is very adverse. Many of everyday life’s relentless, necessities, and the ways that our primary relationship(s) are run by them, have a negative effect on desire. It’s not only about conflict over priorities.  Desire and arousal are not great “competitors.” against the endless maintaining & developing of work/career, health, money, in-laws & extended family, property and parenting. Many relationships experience a meltdown when desire and work cross paths; the workplace affair is very destabilizing.

Desire Isn’t How The World Mostly Works

The world is not built on the same rules that desire plays by. Unlike the rest of human affairs, arousal and desire thrive in a tension of partners’ loving selfishness, separateness, aggression and willfulness. The rest of life’s relationships – which thrive on cooperation, compromise and predictability – would be havoc if they played by those rules. Yet this is why people so often want erotic and sexual lives; they can safely escape constraints and boundaries that relationships normally require, through consensual play and imagination.

Desire doesn't work this way

Desire doesn’t work this way

Teamwork vs. Differentiation

A relationship is often caught up in the accomodating teamwork that modern life can demand. Predictability, agreeability, accountability and equality are the standards that daily life is held to; as few surprises as possible. An ‘adequate’ sex life, employing an agreed-on (even silently) scripted sexual routine, functional, somewhat mutual & generous, may already exist. It’s a collaborative and serviceable arrangement, until it isn’t.

Desire-Arousal-Intimacy Can Be Threatening & Subversive

People so often develop relationships that are bound and obligated, but where they have little to no desire for one another. Desire, and increasing intimacy, actually threaten to subvert or re-organize the attachment they have built. The relationship may be quite rich, ‘successful’ and warm – but rarely if ever “hot.”

The ability to self-validate one’s own sexual character or nature requires both personal and relational differentiation. It takes the courage to be seen in ways that might be very vulnerable and anxiety-provoking (often due to fear of rejection), even in a long-term relationship. You cannot easily soothe a partner who thinks you are erotically threatening or sexually dangerous.

Unfortunate Beliefs

The non-erotic aspect of most of life’s maintenance tasks serves those who do not welcome ongoing development of their world of desire. It’s often seen as the part of the relationship that “naturally decreases.”  Yet their erotic imaginations – the safer, private erotic relationship with themselves – continue on however. We do not give up this sense of aliveness easily.

kick the desire can down the road

Kick the desire can down the road

Kicking The Can Down The Road

One common (anxiety-deferring) wisdom says, “desire is tricky,  you’ll feel it again someday – whenever” — or some similar post-mortem. Desire declines are therefore “not a big deal”.

Yet the loss of desire is a main reason for marriages and relationships to end (often faster than people can find the maturity they need to carry on.) There’s talk of “incompatibility”, “lack of chemistry” and “love, but not in love”.

Therapy may be used in a hurry-up effort to repair desire, but that kind of personal development doesn’t play well with deadlines or being rushed.

Warm Is ‘Helpful-Not-Sufficient’ for Hot

In some desperation or confusion of the loss of “hot”, increased applications of “warm”, well-attached behavior, do not, frustratingly, revive “it” in a durable way. I consider the idea of a “dishwashing husband rewarded with sex” to be folly, unless we’re talking about erotic life involving the kitchen setting, water, soap, etc.

“Hot” needs play and imagination, opposition, non-compliance, some comfort around risk and experimentation, self-validation, transgression (of something/anything), distance, self-interest, possible/likely generosity (“GGG“), etc., not chores. Even if sharing housework represents a good relational step, it’ll rarely induce the sought-after heat (other than hot water.)


Warm Not Hot

Warm attachment sets the table for “hot”, but that’s all. Then the partners must find the separateness to sit down, order what they want, and openly, consensually-selfishly enjoy it.

It takes at least one person in the relationship(s) who’s dedicated to having a sexual self – as a matter of life (and ‘death’).  And the decency to give one’s partner(s) room and flexibility to continuously develop an erotic/sexual self too. (I always liked Marty Klein‘s simple analogy of being a “good citizen in the relationship“.)

The Great Achievement

In my thinking, keeping desire alive and kicking in committed relationships is the greatest of all personal/relational achievements – one of the rare successes in life that no one else need know. Yet nearly everyone does know when they see a relationship that still has it long after the period of early infatuation ends. Maintaining desire is defined here as always developing it.

The Safety Of Desire & Arousal

Desire is fluid. Like water on the roof, it will go wherever it can. But it thrives on a certain kind of safety. Small wonder so much human desire exists in private mental life. That’s where the real safety lies, in the inner world privacy where this part of a person can emerge and find expression.

Michael Bader brings the idea of sexual expression as a milestone of personal development, setting the stage for helping a person cope with a core, and likely well-hidden worry. I think of it as undifferentiated anxiety from family and social relationships.

carve out time

Carve Out The Time

Time must be carved out by two (or more) adults to better figure out their erotic lives. All the other scheduled events must be set aside. Desire,needs to be openly supported, developed (hopefully with much humor), acted out and cared for. Desire is fragile and must be nurtured (because adults aren’t “really” allowed to play, and so they forget how.)

 ….an abrupt ending to be sure, but to be continued…