Your body needs to be held and to hold, to be touched and to touch. None of these needs is to be despised, denied, or repressed. But you have to keep searching for your body’s deeper need, the need for genuine love. Every time you are able to go beyond the body’s superficial desires for love, you are bringing your body home and moving toward integration and unity.
Following on the heels of my last post, I was struck by an article that Susan Gubar published in the New York Times about how cancer patients deal with developing or maintaining a sex life after their diagnosis. Gubar knows whereof she speaks, having been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and written a lot about the subject. What impressed me about the article is how the cancer patients she talks about articulate a broader sex of what constitutes sex beyond intercourse-to-ejaculation.
We all have limitations in our capacity to engage in pleasurable and satisfying sex, even though we may be reluctant to admit it. But for cancer patients, there’s no getting around the reality of facing those limitations head on. Everybody handles the situation in their own way. Reviewing a new book called “Sex and Cancer” by gynecologic cancer specialist Saketh R. Guntupalli and Maryann Karinch, Gubar writes:
The capacious term “sex” should not be conflated with penetration or intercourse, according to Dr. Guntupalli and Ms. Karinch. “There is no dysfunction if both members of the couple are happy with the level and style of intimacy they enjoy.” Kissing, hand-holding, cuddling, caressing and massaging bond couples by kindling arousal and ardor. The authors do not mention the useful word “frottage” which comes from the French for rubbing or friction; it neatly bundles together many forms of stimulation that prompt tenderness and excitement.
Gubar goes on to mention her cancer support group and the wide range of challenges its members deal with on a daily basis when it comes to sex and intimacy.
The youngest member of my support group nevertheless found herself “less easily aroused and less orgasmic.” Her explanation of how she cultivated “the art of desire” strikes me as illuminating for women and also for men. She uses exercise to appreciate her body’s tremendous resilience; acknowledges that she is anatomically, psychologically and hormonally changed; experiments with solo sex and also extended foreplay with her partner; and samples the shared stimulation of movies, concerts and travels to create a sense of closeness. Since her marital bed had been her sick bed, she refurbished the bedroom with sensory stimulants. It now promotes joy in her partner’s life and in hers as well.
Check out the whole article online here and let me know what you think.
Judith Newman writes a monthly column for the Sunday New York Times Book Review about self-help books. In yesterday’s paper, she led with a capsule review of Marie de Hennezel’s A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Sex After Sixty that so beautifully articulates a philosophy of sex at any age that I can’t resist quoting that passage in full. The book, Newman writes,
immediately catches your attention because the cover shows a woman of a certain age glancing coquettishly over the bedsheets. But that age isn’t 40. It’s perhaps 75. So this isn’t the American version of old; it’s the French version, which is to say: old. And that’s what makes this volume uniquely French: It’s deeply un-American in its realism. Aches and pains, medications that reduce libido, a diminution of hormones that mean friction is tougher on our naughty bits and of course the occasional urge to cover all the mirrors in the house: Aging ain’t pretty, Hennezel admits. Yet for many of us, Eros lives, and Eros wants its due. What’s called for, then, is a revolution in the way we look at sexuality: a de-emphasis on orgasms in favor of kissing and caressing, more solo play to connect with our erotic selves and “making affection” as an alternative to making love. Feeling good through exercise and a healthy diet is paramount; looking younger through plastic surgery is mentioned not at all. Reading the stories of septuagenarians and octogenarians who are finding love or intimacy or sometimes just sex, one is reminded that the very French concept of joie de vivre — a sense of joy that comes from curiosity and playfulness, from looking outward instead of inward — is its own form of Botox.
You can check out Newman’s whole column online here.
Esther Perel is a Belgian-born sex therapist who has become widely known for her speaking and teaching about sex, intimacy, and relationships. Her first book, Mating in Captivity, examined and overturned a lot of preconceptions about how to sustain emotional and sexual intimacy in a committed relationship. Her TED talk on desire (“The secret to desire in a long-term relationship”) has gotten over 11 million views online. And her new book, The State of Affairs, inspired another juicy TED talk distilling the essence of the book, “Re-thinking infidelity.”
Perel has achieved media stardom partly because she’s a strikingly attractive blonde woman with a charming European accent — I mention her photogenic personality to make the point that it combines with a sharp intellect and a gracious sense of humor to get across some very provocative and challenging ideas in a remarkably accessible way. She was recently interviewed about the material in her book on NPR’s “Fresh Air” by the ever-appealing Terry Gross. Few therapists in the public arena have impressed me so much with their sensible approach to the subject of sex and relationships.
In particular, I was struck by how Perel talked about a subject that I encounter frequently in my own practice, which is the situation where there is a big difference in libido: one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t.
Terry Gross: How do you deal with relationships where one partner desires something that the other partner isn’t willing to give? Doesn’t enjoy sex, doesn’t want it frequently, therefore they’ve become sexually incompatible. What’s your position for the partner who desires something that partner can no longer get within the marriage?
Esther Perel: If you ask about what to do with the discrepancy around desire for sex within the relationship, thinking that what people miss is the act of sex, you fail to understand what people are really asking for. Sexuality is often a pathway for connection, for intimacy, for tenderness, for sensuality. For playfulness, for power, for curiosity, for relaxation. When people are deprived of sex, it’s this whole set of feelings and experiences they are deprived of. They can have sex in various places. What they want is everything that the connection gives them. When they are deprived of that, what they experience is a depletion of energy, of vibrancy, of aliveness, of vitality. That’s what they’re yearning for. So the conversation begins not with sex but with loss. Loss on both sides. The person who is no longer interested is not so happy about that, either.
To me, this was the most interesting part of the interview:
Terry Gross: When someone no longer feels sexually aroused by your partner, is that something you feel they can get back?
Esther Perel: Arousal is one thing, desire is something else, and willingness is a third. We do not start sexually only because we are aroused and turned on. We sometimes start to be involved sexually because there is willingness. You’re not always hungry. But then there is food in front of you, and it looks beautiful, and it smells really good, and you have a little taste, and you think, “Hmm, after all, I wouldn’t mind a little bit more.” And even after you ate, you may say, “That was delicious, I wasn’t really hungry,” and you still enjoyed it. So we have multiple doors for entering into an intimate engagement with our partner. Excitement is just one of them. Sometimes you are desirous but you don’t have an arousal, you’re not turned on physiologically yet. But you have the idea, you have the wish for it, you’re in the mood. And sometimes you are excited and turned on but you’re not necessarily in the state of desire. I think we need to separate these concepts and these entry points, first of all.
Second of all, I think the more important question sometimes is: “I turn myself off…how? I shut down my desires…how?” That’s not the same as “You turn me off when…” and “What turns me off is…” That puts the responsibility only on the other person: if only the other person did amazing things it would move me. The fact is, if I’m shut down, if I’ve closed the door, you can do a lot of things but there will be nobody at the reception desk. There needs to be receptivity, an openness, a willingness, and that is the fundamental sovereignty of desire. That is something that I own. I decide if I want to open that or not. What they’re talking about is the ways they have closed themselves off from possibility of touch, of connection, of sensuality, of pleasure, of surrender, for a host of reasons that range from sexual trauma to self-criticism to lack of self-worth to negative body image to issues of self-esteem. It is those things that make us close ourselves down.
Terry Gross: Is that something you can help fix?
Esther Perel: Yes, many times. That’s the work. The work is about helping people often to reconnect with parts of themselves they’ve neglected or they’re in conflict with or that they despise. Or that they feel loathsome about or don’t feel deserving of because they gained too much weight or they haven’t performed well enough at work, because their mother left them for another man so they decided they would be all mother and they killed the woman inside of them the day they had a child. Or because their father was violent and aggressive and they don’t know how to bring together love and lust. Those are the deeper conflicts around desire and intimacy and sexuality that I work with in my practice.
I encourage you to listen to the entire half-hour interview yourself online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.
Many people try their best to avoid conflict, but relationship researchers say every conflict presents an opportunity to improve a relationship. The key is to learn to fight constructively. Marriage researcher John Gottman has built an entire career out of studying how couples interact. In one important study, Dr. Gottman and his colleagues observed newly married couples while they were having an argument. The researchers found that analyzing just the first three minutes of the couple’s fight could predict their risk for divorce over the next six years. That means the most important moment between you and your partner during a conflict are those first few minutes. By focusing on your behavior during that time, it likely will change the dynamics of your relationship for the better.
Identify the complaint, not the criticism. If you’re upset about housework, don’t start the fight by criticizing your partner with, “You never help me.” Focus on the complaint and what will make it better. “It’s so tough when I work late on Thursdays to come home to dishes and unbathed kids. Do you think you could find a way to help more on those nights?”
Avoid “you” phrases. Phrases like “You always” and “You never” are almost always followed by criticism and blame. Instead, use sentences that start with “I” or “We,” which will help you identify problems and solutions, rather than putting blame on someone else.
Be aware of body language. No eye-rolling, which is a sign of contempt. Look at your partner when you speak. No folded arms or crossed legs to show you are open to their feelings and input. Sit or stand at the same level as your partner – one person should not be looking down or looking up during an argument.
Learn to de-escalate. When the argument starts getting heated, take it upon yourself to calm things down. For example, use the phrase “What if we…” or “I know this is hard…” or “I hear what you’re saying…” or “What do you think?”
–Tara Parker-Pope, “How to Have a Better Relationship,” New York Times, October 13, 2017
TENSION OF THE OPPOSITES
Holding an inner or outer conflict quietly instead of attempting to resolve it quickly is a difficult idea to entertain. It is even more challenging to experience. However, as Carl Jung believed, if we held the tension between the two opposing forces, there would emerge a third way, which would unite and transcend the two. Indeed, he believed that this transcendent force was crucial to individuation. Whatever the third way is, it usually comes as a surprise, because it has not penetrated our defenses until now. A hasty move to resolve tension can abort growth of the new. If we can hold conflict in psychic utero long enough we can give birth to something new in ourselves.