Category: Getting Along

Good Sexual Relationship Essentials: Easier Than You Think

This August, Vancouver hosted the 33rd annual meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research, where I was privileged to meet the stars in the field of sexuality research and to hear them present their latest findings. Among them was Dr Peggy Kleinplatz, an Ottawa-based sex therapist who has been gathering data from seniors in long-term, sexually-successful relationships. Her subjects were all over 60, in their relationships for 25 years or more, and happy with their sex lives. Dr. Kleinplatz and her team wanted to know how they had done it.

They designed the study along scientifically rigorous guidelines. Only Kleinplatz and her assistant knew the identity of the respondents. Once the interviews were completed, they coded the responses and had them processed by other researchers who were blind to ages, genders, and other demographics. What did those researchers learn?

One interesting finding was that the researchers could not identify older from younger, male from female, nor geographical, ethnic, or any other specific differences among the happy couples. This indicates that when we form long-standing, contented, mutually beneficial relationships and are bolstered by meaningful, joyous sexuality, differences between people vanish. Erasing those disparities enables peaceful co-existence and encourages sexual adventurousness.

As well, there were no complicated magical formulae, no unusual practices that these couples used to preserve good sex for twenty-five years or more, other than a sustained insistence on the importance of sexuality in their lives. Though all of these couples were devoted and loving, the majority were polyamorous, or had become so during the course of their relationships. Surely this signals a confidence not only personally but also in their union, so that fidelity was not confused with possession. They viewed sex as a natural and healthy human expression and revelled in its open expression.

These couples set aside time for sex on a regular basis. Being older, they gave sex more time than they did when they were younger and distracted by work and family duties. Some began planning their weekend of sex on Thursday by preparing finger food so they would not be interrupted by hunger over the next few days. Then they spent the weekend luxuriating in lazy, playful sex until Monday started another week’s routine.

Note the word “playful” in that sentence. That’s the key factor found by Kleinplatz’s team. When they analyzed all the data, laughter was the key element. Those couples who laughed, giggled, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves during sex reported solid, happy relationships. Given that one feature, other demographics fell away, leaving happy, loving, communicative couples. Simple, eh?

This is the newest research–cutting edge stuff–performed under rigorous conditions by highly educated, dedicated professionals hungry for accurate information. And the answer? Laughter! Fun! Taking time to enjoy playful sex on a regular basis for many happy years!

This is great news. We can all do this. True, some relationships may need remedial work, but that’s available through sex therapy with dedication, hard work and open hearts. If you already have a strong and loving union, this new research is the hopeful and confirming news you need to fuel years of ongoing love, sex, and companionship.

But I Can’t Say THAT

– Originally published on WebOfCare.com

Sexual communication? It’s easy, when our message is “Oh, Sweetheart, that was just the BEST!”. It becomes more thorny when we need to express disappointment, anger, or disinterest; and it seems futile when our partner can no longer even comprehend the discussion, as can be the case with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and brain injury. Perhaps all of us wish we could speak easily about sex and intimacy, though few of us escape the pleasure-phobic societal taboos and innuendos that teach us we must not talk about sex. And when we throw into the mix our misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about romance and marriage, it is no wonder we hesitate to blunder forward in an area in which we are uninformed and in which our partner’s response is unpredictable and important.

Romance and new love are fertile ground for verbal exchanges about lovemaking, but it doesn’t take long for the honeymoon stage to spend itself. (The word ‘honeymoon’ refers to the concept of the time from one full moon to the next–only twenty-eight days!). Thereafter, it is as important to learn to speak about our most vulnerable and intimate wishes as it is to discuss healthy styles of co-habitation, decision-making, and conflict resolution. But most of us soon establish unspoken sexual codes, and verbal communication steadily wanes.

The danger is that silence guarantees constancy or deterioration of a situation. When we want change, we must stop being silent. We have a much better chance of getting what we want if we ask for it. One of the myths we learn about love and romance is that “If you really loved me, you’d know what I want.” Deciphered, this means we expect our partners to read our minds. Not only is this impossible, but it sets us up for disappointment when our lovers (predictably) fail the test, proving to us that we are unloved. Then, unsure of our status, we feel vulnerable and powerless, further silencing us. Such an ugly cycle, and an unnecessary one!

At this point we are influenced not only by the belief in mind-reading, but are broadsided by yet another myth, that any suggestion involving our mate’s sexual performance will be unbearably painful and scar the relationship. This is another manifestation of our culture’s ‘silence about sex’ credo, firmly ingrained in our social code. Typical of myths, it just is not true. In fact, most of us hunger for a little direction, a small suggestion, that informs us how better to please our sexual partner. Since we are given little or no information about sexual relationships as we grow up, and since we are expected to be proficient lovers upon marriage, we are left in a Catch-22: just how is this transformation to happen? We do a lot of groping, and assuming, and hoping, and sometimes we read each other well enough, and reveal enough of ourselves, that we can and do build solid, loving sexual relationships. Most of us are not that lucky. And all of us could improve what we have if we can learn to speak honestly and open heartedly about what we really like (and really don’t like) about sex.

How do we learn to be fluent in the language of sexuality?

We begin with an examination of our personal beliefs and attitudes about our bodies and about sex. For instance, who is responsible for our bodies? Who is responsible for our body’s pleasure? If we give ourselves away to another person, we lose the privilege and right to govern our own experiences. It is when we take full responsibility and control of ourselves that we can assess clearly what we need and want.

Regarding sexuality specifically, what kinds of sexual activities do we want? How often do we want to be sexual? How important, or insignificant, is sexuality to us? What compromises and accommodations are we willing to make to keep sex central in our lives? How do we differentiate sex from lust/ love/care/duty? When is sex personal and when is it a marital issue?

When we have these pieces figured out, we can attend to our needs and desires. Now comes the task of determining exactly what we would ask for if we could write our own script, if we could eloquently ask for things to be precisely as we wished and our mate’s response would be “Oh, Darling, I’m so glad you asked; I’ve been hoping for the same changes!” If there were no reason for fear and many for daring, what, exactly, would we ask for? The little things offer a good beginning. There are some relatively safe situations where we can practice our communication skills. Asking to bathe together, or suggesting a massage, or gesturing with a ‘come hither’ look and a smile, are easy places to start. We can begin the flow of language ourselves, telling our mates that we appreciate them sexually and listing the things they do to please us. We can touch more, mentioning how marvelous skin feels touching skin. We can learn this unfamiliar language as we would acquire any other, with patience, and courage, and practice.

So far, so good. But what do we do when we’re well beyond stifled communication? What if we no longer desire our mate, or they us? What if illness or injury makes sexual expression impossible? What if verbal negotiation is impossible?

We begin by acknowledging and embracing our grief for a situation that may well be beyond our control and which is unjust and unfair. We enter loving relationships full of promise and the expectation that we will have happy lives together. When those dreams are dashed, for whatever reasons, we are filled with sorrow, rage, and resentment. Dreams die hard, and it hurts very much to lose them. When illness or injury takes away the lover with whom we once shared those dreams, we lack a dividing line between the marriage that was before and the relationship henceforth. Sometimes things appear pretty much the same as before, even though they feel completely different, and we invariably feel guilty that we don’t feel gracious at all about the changes. Because routine settles us into recognizable lives, we try to ignore our sense of betrayal and rage, and get on with necessary tasks. Family and friends, as helpless as we, feel incompetent (often rightly so) to help. When sex is one of the casualties of a medical crisis, we become mute once again, struck dumb with helplessness and blind to workable options.

It is at this frightening juncture that we are most affected by our abundance (or lack) of preparation regarding the inevitable changes in our sexual relationships. The silence which marks our childhood and early adulthood often invades our marriages, too. Many couples have never had conversations about topics as vital as childbearing philosophies, disparate desire levels, beliefs about sexual exclusivity, and sexual fantasies and fears.

These silences cripple us when we are dealt a bad hand and must make unilateral decisions that involve both people. Often ignorance, fear, and isolation conspire to freeze us into inaction that can last indefinitely, leaving us a life devoid of fulfillment and scarred with resentment and suffering. There are three simple and vital questions to any decision that clarify our goals and options. These questions are:

1) What do I want?
2) How much does it cost?
3) How much am I willing to pay?

When our emotional dust settles and we get clear about our personal expectations, it is time to compile a list of options and determine the costs and rewards of each. This is a difficult process, complicated by the personal and culturally loaded nature of sexual issues, and by our heartfelt desire to do no harm to our loved ones, to impact them as little as possible. Struggling with these issues may bring us to realize a need for a more distant perspective to help us analyze our choices, and sexual or marital therapy may be appropriate at this time. It is vitally important that we choose a qualified (look for certification by the American Board of Sexologists and/or affiliation with AASECT or SSSS), sex-positive therapist. Well-intentioned but unqualified counsellors who labor under their own unexamined sexual beliefs can misinform and limit rather than expand the options in such complex situations.

We may also find that our best solutions are ones that we would normally find unacceptable. Extraordinary circumstances sometimes require extraordinary measures, and needing to make dispassionate choices about
our sexuality certainly qualifies. Judith Light and Jay Thomas star in a daring movie entitled “A Husband, A Wife, and A Lover,” in which Ms. Light plays a woman who (conveniently) has just left her husband when she is notified that he has had a physically compromising stroke from which he will not recover. She dutifully returns to care for him, and shortly meets a man who becomes her supportive friend and eventually her lover. Together, they care for her husband throughout his illness and eventual death, the three of them redesigning their definitions of fidelity to accommodate the reality of their lives. This is a tender yet controversial movie, and even though the often negative responses of their family and friends are downplayed, it illustrates the creativity of those determined to maintain happiness to design affirmative solutions.

A Husband, A Wife, and A Lover illustrates but one solution to the problem of what to do when a sexual relationship with our partner is no longer possible or fulfilling. Some are able to redirect their sexual energy, and experience little loss. Others rely on masturbation and fantasy to fill their sexual needs. Still others frequent prostitutes, offering experienced, made-to-order sex devoid of emotional involvement. Others enjoy short-lived, serial affairs, providing the thrill of novelty and the safety of short duration. Some invest in an open, committed relationship with a person fully aware of our commitments and obligations at home. There is not one right answer to this question, and the appropriate decision must be made personally, following fearless and heartfelt analysis of our situation and consideration of the broadest possible choice of options.

We must each decide what is best for us and those we love and care for. We may well have to stretch to learn how to think ‘outside the box’. We may risk censure and rejection from those who oppose our choices. We may not be able to make everything work perfectly for everyone. We may have to learn to rely on logic as much as faith. We may have to question our commitments, our beliefs and value structures, and our loyalties. We may have to keep private parts of our lives that we would rather share, a frequent cost of sexual iconoclasm.

The test is this: if, after weighing our options honestly and making a decision, we feel that we have made the fairest choice possible, for all concerned, then we have done all we can do. If we aim to act with integrity, we will hit the correct target.

Consequences of Sensual Expression

Dear Dr Ren,

When I relocated from a city to the town where my sister lives, she gave me a gift certificate for a massage with Kelly, her regular RMT. Following that session, I mentioned intending to rebook another appointment. My sister said she’d give me another recommendation, but Kelly wouldn’t see me again. I had to pry to get the reason.

It seems I moaned during my massage and that offended Kelly. Apparently I sounded “sexual.” It wasn’t sexual…I was just responding to my pleasure! I was shocked and angry at first, but those emotions gave way to a deep internal shame. I had embarrassed my dear sister, and potentially damaged my reputation.

I wondered who else judged me for what I considered simple expressions of pleasure.

Now I find myself hyper aware of how I express my response to any kind of pleasure, lest I’ll be judged. I’m less quick to hug, or even touch someone casually. How can I know what’s acceptable?

Have I missed an etiquette lesson?

Moana

Dear Moana,

This incident has clearly had a profound effect on you. Kelly’s response to your coos of pleasure during your massage is an example of what we call sex panic or pleasure phobia.

As a culture, we are confused and conflicted about sex, touch and pleasure, and how we combine and differentiate them. Sex’s power sometimes frightens us. That can stop us from fully expressing ourselves so that we don’t risk appearing sexually motivated even when we’re not.

All touch becomes suspect when we’re nervous about sexuality. Because sex and touch are so intertwined in our society, it can be difficult to disentangle them in every context without additional cues to how to interpret the touch correctly. Kelly’s discomfort with sensual sound resulted from her misinterpretation of your sounds as sexual, and that frightened her.

We go so far with this fear that a parochial school recently imposed a No Touch rule for its students. That’s right: elementary school kids will be punished if they are ‘caught’ touching! Teachers, sadly, have long been advised about the ‘inappropriateness’ of touching their students, even when they need comforting.

The concept of ‘pleasure’ gets even more confusing. It’s difficult to pigeon-hole the source of pleasure, as it lives in a multitude of settings, situations and contexts.  If Kelly’s frame of reference regarding pleasure is limited, she’ll lack an appreciation for context. Hence, she interpreted your appreciative moans as your aching muscles eased as love calls.

So yes, Moana, I do think it’s easy to offend the skittish. Those who are uncomfortable with sex will likely be judgmental about expressions of pleasure as well. You experienced deep shame as a result of her judgment.

Perhaps your new town is less enlightened than your old one. You may have to reign in your exuberance to fit in. That’s the sad but realistic news.

The good news is that, once behind the walls of your own home, you can set the rules. Enjoy hugging family and friends. Set an ethic of abundant physical interaction within your inner circle.

And inside your bedroom, you can express yourself with abandon, free from judgment. No need to hold back here. Here you can be as expressive as you want to be. Create an environment in which pleasure and erotic heat can flourish. Design your own personal oasis where unfettered emotion and expression always welcome you!

You’ll encounter lots of Kellys. Though you may resent having to trim your expressive sails to avoid the shame they would have you wear, you can balance the injustice by building a judgment free, touch positive zone within your own home.

 

 

 

When Your Husband Is a Flirt

 

Make flirting work for you

How often I hear women lament that their husbands can’t seem to go anywhere without flirting with women. Early on, they accepted this behaviour as part of their men’s ebullient personalities, and often their girlfriends appreciated the attention, complimenting the wives on how hot they assumed their sex lives must be at home.

As the years evolve, however, and the heat of early sex wanes into what can often be routine encounters, men’s attention to other women can sting when it feels like others get more attention than we ourselves do. Couple this with the lack of esteem we can feel if we’re recovering from childbirth or breastfeeding, or if we haven’t had five minutes of personal time since the arrival of those children, and we can be quick to rankle if our husband notices someone else when he doesn’t seem to be noticing us.

We wonder why other women get the attention that used to be ours, and we feel foolish for being jealous of strangers, jealous of women who are or could be our friends, but now become our rivals by default. Yes, we are the ones our men are having sex with, but are they the ones he is fantasizing about? We drive ourselves crazy with our doubts and insecurities.

It’s not really that we want to have more sex. Better sex, maybe. But we are quite clear that we are the one we want that man to want, to desire, to chase after, and no one else.

How do you react?

We let him know clearly that we disapprove of his flirting. We give him the silent treatment—and certainly no sex—after a party where he pays “too much” attention to other women. We tell him that watching porn is one short step away from cheating (and there are plenty of talk show hosts who will back us up on this one—though you’ll be hard pressed to find a sexologist who will support this myth), and if we catch him with his pants down and the computer screen lit, we call him a sex addict. Little by little sex becomes a battle ground as we make his erotic desire (for anyone other than us) a problem.

How does that play out?

When he feels guilty for feeling aroused, he eventually learns to shut down his erotic feelings, or to associate them with shame. They certainly no longer hold the thrill they used to. If, while making love to us, he should fantasize about someone or something unrelated to us, he connects those fantasies not to higher but to lower arousal. He may even lose his erection. Now a negative feedback loop begins in which intimate contact with us is paired with performance anxiety. He starts to avoid the situation by withholding initiation.

In a cruel and ironic way, we’ve “won.” By trying to extinguish our man’s erotic interest in other women, we snuff it all out.

What’s a better plan?

Just as a group of women can enjoy an evening out at a male stripper bar and then go home horny and happy to their loving husbands, so can it work in reverse. Men do not remain faithful because they are not allowed to stray; they stay loyal by choice.

If we have solid, happy, mutually-fulfilling relationships, we have little reason to fear cheating. Happy men—and women—desire sex with their partners.  Flirting with others, and seeing our mates flirt with others, reminds us of our mutual value in the dating market. Being reminded that someone else finds our partner sexy and attractive is a good thing. It reminds us how lucky we are to have landed such a catch, and having someone flirt with us while our partner looks on boosts our own sense of desirability.

Smart couples use this little bit of non-threatening jealousy to boost the ante on sexual anticipation. Pointing out a woman you know your husband will find attractive indicates to him that you appreciate his erotic interests but do not feel intimidated by them. It tells him you trust his behaviour and your mutual bond. Not insignificantly, it lets him know that you are confident enough in your own sexual abilities that his appreciation of someone else can’t possibly rattle you. This makes you a highly desirable partner.

Underscoring all this is the tiniest current of anxiety, instilled by years of cultural dogma telling us that desire is finite, dangerous, and potentially uncontrollable. That’s untrue, of course, but we don’t experience the rewards of challenging those old fears until we recognize them.

What to do when your husband is a flirt

The truth is that desire is infinite and feeds itself. Provided your husband is not actually cheating on you, but is simply “a terrible flirt,” examine your fears and approach the situation differently.

Have a talk about how flirting can be made safe for both of you and can enrich your appreciation of each other. Incorporate safe words or gestures to sidestep situations getting out of control or being misinterpreted. Then start with baby steps and watch your sex lives explode after flirting moves from the “terrible” category to the “harmless” one. You’ll be glad you did.

Better Sexual Communication

Communication is an overused and misunderstood word. We generally think it means saying what we want someone else to hear and expecting them to understand the message. Actually, communication that promotes intimacy involves far more than just spoken words, and when we add a sexual component to our message, communication can get complicated indeed.

In the early stages of courtship, sex seems perfect. It is abundant and satisfying, fed by those powerful endorphins. Our conversations revolve around getting-to-know-you fascinations and murmurs of appreciation.

We rarely stumble into areas of difficulty until limerence wanes or until we need to negotiate a difference. This can prove either smooth or rocky, depending on good will, our communication skills, and the subject area. Negotiating housekeeping standards is easier than discussing disparate desires, for instance. It is always more thorny when it’s about sex.

As a society we do not talk openly about sex, and we protect ourselves on such a personal level. The parameters of “acceptable” sex are so narrow that asking for something we want that our partner may view negatively can make us feel unacceptable and could lead to our rejection. With that big a risk, most of us remain silent and hope our partner suggests the activity we crave.

The undesirable effect of this self-protection is that our lover reads our silence and inaction as conservative behaviour and responds to it in kind. Before long, we are both locked in a bland set of sexual activities that gets the job done but lacks creativity and vulnerability. Such couples refer to their sex lives as efficient but not hot. Eventually, desire suffers.

One way this type of unimaginative sex is played out is when sex becomes simply intercourse. Lost is the languorous playtime involving caressing, pillow talk, kissing and laughter.

Another is ‘duty sex,’ a close relative of ‘mercy sex.’ You know what they are if you’ve ever given—or received—them. Then there’s twelve-minute sex, and that’s only after a glass of wine. It’s nice, but it’s sure no movie love scene.

Do you both wish for better quality lovemaking but just don’t know how to recapture the magic?

Plan your next few lovemaking sessions to include your three favourite forms of sex play—except intercourse. Have your mate choose, too, and alternate. Do I hear wails of complaint about not getting off? Include orgasm-producing activities in your list, or mutually (or individually) masturbate to conclude your sessions.

If you find that suggesting such an exercise is way outside your comfort zone, it is an indication that you two are locked in a rigid sexual routine and are sharing little sexual communication.

Ask yourself when you can last remember sharing a sexual conversation. Initiate one now. Start small. Perhaps tell your lover three things you appreciate about how you have sex together and ask him or her to respond in kind. Next, ask for three things your partner would like more of. You can see how the questions, and the activities, can grow.

Now, as you begin to open up to each other, tell your lover how much you appreciate knowing this information and how it helps you to be a better lover. Add how you would like sharing your own fantasies, hard as that may be, because it allows you to be sexually visible and vulnerable. And it helps your sex together get better and better. The more you do this, the easier it becomes.

By the time you get to this point, you and your lover will have established a new rhythm to your sexual communication. You can now talk to your partner in new ways because you have learned to take small risks and check their consequences. Because we all love being paid attention to and respond positively to it, we gain better communication–and better sex–immediately.

This is no magic potion: “Take a pill, do an exercise. Save your marriage.” You both need to be onboard. Your relationship needs to be happy and solid. This will not work if you have desire problems, or if you are angry or out of love. However, if you are best friends and still hot for each other, but have just sort of lost touch with the erotic element in your relationship, these tips will help bring it back. Have fun.

Same Language, Different Dialects

Sometimes a thread weaves through one’s life for a while. So I have found it lately with the theme of male/female eroticism. I thought this was complete with October’s Hot Topic, which told of my unsuccessful search for heat at The Lusty Lady. But I was not yet finished. The same message kept coming at me in different forms until I was compelled to pen this month’s column, too, largely informed by my reading of Max Valerio’s excellent book, The Testosterone Files. The theme is similar: the disparate erotic dialects of males and females.

I use the term dialect and not language intentionally, for I believe we are more alike than different in our quest for sexual fulfillment. I believe, too that homosexual couples, whether male or female, have an advantage over their heterosexual counterparts in that they are not only making love with similar bodies but also with minds that view sex similarly and bodies that dance to similar rhythms.

How often I hear women complain that they would welcome their husband’s sexual advances if only he’d romance them first, while that same man complains that if he simply got a little now and again he’d be more inclined to woo his wife! These are not stubborn thoughtless people unwilling to give their mates what they want. It is beyond each of them to understand what the other means.

Transsexual Max Valerio becomes ‘bilingual’ in the language of gendered sexuality as he crosses over from living in the body of a lesbian who enjoys sex just fine to inhabiting the body of a testosterone-driven male. He explains how sex shifted from important to primary, from a craving to a drive. He clarifies how sex and relationship no longer necessarily co-mingle, but are now distinct and at times separable.

Women would be wise to listen to these lessons from a former sister. There is great relief in the message, for if men can be sexually attracted to others without any emotional connection (just as they’ve been saying all along), there’s really no harm done, is there? We needn’t be threatened by Internet images or ogling. Maybe we can even encourage our men to rev up visually outside and bring the good sex energy home. If we want them to begin the romance in the morning, maybe we can start the titillation then, too (“Go ahead and stoke your fires all day, Honey, cause tonight I’ll be taking care of all the heat you can build!”)

For most males, the romantic or emotional connection part of sex is distinct but not absent. Orgasm releases a cascade of brain chemistry, particularly oxytocin, that floods us with the desire to bond. Presto! Intimacy. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?) The more we encourage the men in our lives to express their sexuality freely and openly, either by themselves or with us, they stay sexually satisfied, oxytocin-saturated, and well bonded with us. In post-coital reverie we get our relationship needs met while they get their sexual needs met. Symbiosis.

The trick here is in believing that there is no threat to us when the man we love is aroused by another woman. That could be true only if he felt differently about love and sex than we do. Max Valerio, who knew love and sex first as a woman and then as a man, tells us this is true. It is in our own best interest to believe him. How this frees us all!

But, you say, even if Max’s experiences do prove something, can his experiences apply to all men? Who cares? The goal is to improve our relationships, isn’t it? If we are given the gift of understanding these different dialects of gendered sexual communication, would we refuse it because it might not be a perfect model? How silly! Let’s take this gem of experiential knowledge and use it to close the gap between the genders. The result? Everybody’s happier!

Code

I am often asked to present seminars on sexual communication and negotiation. In the preliminary part of the lecture, I examine the different types of words we use to speak about sex, from childhood vocabulary (peepee, dinkie, down there) to scientific terminology (vagina, scrotum, coitus) to street terms (prick, fuck, pussy). A fourth method of sexual communication is code, perhaps the most universally understood…and misunderstood …of all. Code comprises all the non-verbal and symbolic ways we communicate with each other, from the randy tap on Mama’s behind to the cold-shouldered fetal position of an angry lover.

Given that we have a much better chance of getting what we want if we ask for it, I am generally an advocate of direct, clear language in romantic matters. I realize, however, that nonverbal communication is often the most powerful of techniques. It forms the basis of flirting behaviour, providing a sort of shorthand moving us from hello to good morning. It’s fun, exciting, and effective. The danger lies in misinterpretation. If I toss you a ‘come hither’ look, for instance, which you think means I have sand in my eye, we must revert to verbal methods of getting clear if we are to proceed.

When code is misinterpreted, it can lead to a communication standoff. During a recent therapy session a desperate wife cried out through her tears, “I hate you for disappointing me so!” Her husband, defensive and confused, shot back that it had been she, not he, who had changed the rules and brought disaster to their previously happy union. This couple had enjoyed a loooooong relationship and, moving toward twenty years together, decided to start their family. After all, they agreed, theirs was a time-tested relationship, solid and unassailable. They produced two children within the next five years, bringing them the joy of family and precipitating an estrangement neither of them understood.

The crux of their problem lay in the stereotypical gender role behaviours they each adopted with the coming of the children. He continued his life outside in the ‘real’ world while she stayed home with the babies. A few years later, she discovered that she had become a mother and ceased being a lover. Her gentle husband, dutiful provider, misinterpreted her distress as something he needed to fix, and he was flummoxed about how to do this. By the time they came to me for help, they had long ago lost the romantic ‘glue’ of their childless years together.

The husband did not understand his wife’s anger. He had been a faithful, constant mate and an involved and caring father, yet had failed to notice his partner’s slide into discontent. His defense was withdrawal and silence. It was her angry outburst that betrayed her true feelings and made way for growth in the relationship.

She was not, you see, angry, but hurt. She had not permitted herself the vulnerability of grief and so converted it into a more powerful angry expression. When we decoded her message to read “I am so frightened that I may never again be anything other than Mother,” both parties could soften and gain perspective of the other’s position.

Code is like that. Sometimes it is light-hearted, spontaneous, and evocative. Other times it distorts our message and leads to ruin. It is often tempting to preserve our dignity by denying our helplessness and transforming our message from a plea to an accusation. Lashing out feels easier than letting in. But such backwards communication cannot be effective in resolving issues.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that we do well to confine the use of coded communication to situations unburdened by negative emotions. When tackling serious issues, verbal communication establishes less room for misinterpretation. If we want to say, “Comfort me. Support me. Cherish me” and we express it as “You never pay any attention to me anymore,” it is foolish to expect the hoped-for response. When we are clear, honest, and unguarded we better our odds of maintaining smooth relationships.

Code is a useful communication tool. It has it’s place. We are wise to keep it there and hone our verbal skills.

Changing Parental Roles

I pen this month’s Hot Topic between the celebrations of Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day. This year I honour particularly the first-time parents of my new grandson. This column is a reflection of what I am observing in their lives as parents and how I believe they represent a shift in roles that heralds good news.

My daughter and son-in-law represent a demographic of young West Coast urban professionals who planned their lives well. They learned deferment of gratification from their Boomer parents, perhaps, or maybe from long years of paying off their student loans. They educated or in some way ‘found’ themselves and each other during their early twenties. As a generation they were goal oriented, but insistent on having a good time along the way. Among my children’s friends I meet couple after couple who took years to cement their relationship before having children. Their lives are intentional and happy. Their children are planned, valued and surrounded with love.

I notice the good will and fun among these young couples, but mostly I am struck by the happiness of their children. Rarely do I hear whining, squabbling, or crying. More likely I will come upon groups of kids reading to one another or playing co-operatively.

Particularly striking is that the children demonstrate no parental preference—when they need care, any attention will do. Dads and Moms are equally involved. Fatherhood seems no longer distinct from motherhood.

Though I am viewing but a subset of a class, I believe their numbers are representative of a burgeoning population. I see them on TV pilots such as What About Brian. I note daddies with strollers and no mommies in sight. Dads are comfortable with their kids, and the kids reflect this. If fatherhood is no longer distinct from motherhood, what does it mean about parenthood in general? Is it gender bound? What accounts for this shift?

One factor is the relative economic ease of these couples. They have mortgages, cars and RRSPs. Their futures seem assured. Surely with manageable stress levels, they have greater reserves of energy and patience to devote to their families. Certainly, too, wanted children enjoy more relaxed parents than those forced into parenting. Most enjoy good health, strong support systems, and cordial family relations.

But there’s more. These are men and women with decidedly liberal attitudes. They embody and reflect Canadian values of tolerance and inclusion. Most boast gays and lesbians, and people from various ethnicities in their circles. For the kids this means exposure to a variety of foods, customs, and languages.

When my grandchild was born, his parents had a year of parental leave. His mother took the first six months because of the demanding nursing schedule. Now he stays home with his father. They view this as the most natural arrangement in the world. They are correct, yet it is heretical. My mother could not imagine such a thing. I doubt my father ever changed a diaper, though I know he loved me dearly.

Men are no longer missing the joys of parenting, which benefits the whole family, especially the daughters and sons who absorb and reflect this high regard and happiness. The ripple effect is enormous. As we say ‘yes’ to inclusion, freedom, and kindness on a personal, political, and national level, we promote the position that we will honour our children as we would have them honour us. Well Done. Happy Mothers’ Day. Happy Father’s Day.

Intergenerational Strife

You are torn. Of course you want your family’s approval. You hear such platitudes as “Blood is thicker than water” or “You get only one mother.” You listen to your family’s concerns, weigh their arguments fairly (unless you are still in the throes of limerence, in which case you are deaf, dumb, blind, and stupid and should refer to this article in another year or so), and reassess your new partner’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Eventually, you make a choice. Regardless, you continue to massage and foster the interaction between the family you love and the mate you’ve chosen.

In most cases, when parents see that their children are truly content, they relax whatever objections they had. Hearts soften and observations of a happy relationship override prejudicial hostilities. Time heals rifts that previously looked unbridgeable. But what if that is not the case?

What if your family pulls the loyalty card and demands your allegiance? What if they label your mate as the cause of their unhappiness? What do you do if you’re caught between your family of origin and your family of choice? No one envies this position, but for many it is a painful reality. Now we must muster our best negotiating skills, foster all parties’ best behaviour, and forgive what we may view as petty complaints.

However, when your family refuses to honour your choice of life mate, you are the only one who can decide what to do. Each of us knows deep in our hearts if we are truly happy in our relationship. Good partnerships are rare, built with attention to detail, openheartedness, and honest communication. If you are wise and lucky enough to have landed a good one, take stock of what is on the line. If your family of origin demands you choose between your mate or them, you might have to do just that.

This is sometimes an unfortunate and unfair cost of attaining adulthood. If you cannot redirect the control issues inherent in this sort of argument, you may have to pay the enormous toll of losing an original family home to establish a chosen one. Try to maintain some cordial contact so that either side has the option of backing down while saving face. It is a tightrope dance, and one we hope never to have to perform. Still, parents normally do not reject their children unless they really believe they are doomed, and children do not rebuff their original families until every other alternative has been exhausted. Assess your situation critically and fearlessly, and, if you are sure your mate choice best suits your needs, defend it valiantly. Keep your primary relationship unassailable. Your mate, your children, and hopefully even your disapproving parents will admire your conviction and devotion. Build as many bridges as possible, but refuse to sacrifice your adult love for parental approval. Hopefully, this will be the most difficult decision you ever have to make. Optimistically, both you and your parents will eventually accept that you made the correct one.

This column would be incomplete without a word to the parents caught in this struggle. It is important for you to remember that you ultimately have no choice in the matter of your children’s choice of mates. If you raised your kids to think for themselves, you must support their decisions and not burden them with your negative thoughts. Holding your tongue may well be the best choice, unless you have evidence of real harm. Remember, the time you have for turning your children into the people you want them to be ends when they leave home. That’s all the time you get. After that, your job is to accept, support, and nourish your adult children’s choices.

Intergenerational difficulties are heartbreaking. Do all you can to mend, heal, and foster a supportive environment. If you believe that the relationship is toxic, you may have to choose. Everyone can’t win all the time. Sometimes cutting your losses is the only way to save yourself.

Creative Resolutions

I know that therapy is progressing well when I hear clients say, “I’ve never thought of it that way before.” Indeed, exploring different perspectives is one of the goals and benefits of therapeutic intervention. When couples come in, each is generally hoping the other will recognize the error of their ways and change. Sometimes, however, therapy catalyzes changes that neither anticipated. Such was the case with Matthew and Shirley.

This couple presented with serious sexual issues. They had known each other since high school, dated through their university years, and married shortly after each had established their careers. This should, they believed, have guaranteed security and happiness. They had added two children, reasonably spaced, and carried a manageable mortgage. They had followed all the rules, yet they were miserable. They had not had sex for months, and their intimacy had dwindled to occasional cuddles on the couch.

Shirley bore the scars of an original family plagued by a parent addicted to alcohol. Matt’s family was less chaotic, but distant nonetheless. The cocoon they built around their nuclear family buffeted the impact of the outside world, but failed to protect them from the boredom that infects relationships not carefully tended. Each wished for an end to their stalemate, but neither knew how to accomplish this goal.

During therapy, the legacy of Shirley’s original family stalled their progress. Unable to trust her own father, she now distrusted the father of her children. She saw the flaw in this, but was unable or unwilling to overcome it. She was intractably resistant to facing her demons and, despite my encouragement for her to attend a few ACoA meetings, she did not want to be “one of those pathetic people”. Matt deflated when Shirley decided she did not want to attend any more counselling sessions either. She decided she just wanted to be left alone; therapy was far too much work for her. She got a prescription for SSRI anti-depressants from her family doctor and retreated into a world bound by her domestic duties. She and Matt became ever more sexually estranged.

After a hiatus of some months, Matthew called for another appointment. He had done an experiment: he did not initiate sex to see how long it would be before Shirley would. Not only did Shirley not approach Matt, she failed even to mention the change. Matt painfully watched his dreams collapse.

Matt came in looking for options. I suggested he must discuss this impasse with his wife and listen carefully to her responses. Shirley admitted that she was quite content living in a celibate marriage and suggested that if Matt wanted sex, he should have it with others. She had some conditions: complete discretion and privacy. She did not want to experience any embarrassment from his affairs nor did she want them to affect her family.

This was not the outcome Matthew wanted, but he had learned over the months of therapy that Shirley did not share his goal of marital intimacy. Though she abdicated her role as sex partner, she did not want to disrupt her family.

Shirley’s disclosure set in motion Matt’s re-assessment of their marriage. He set about to accommodate the choices that would preserve their relationship with as little disruption as possible, but also began putting in place outlets that provided him with social interaction. Because of his unique situation (happily married but non-sexual with his wife) most single women were uninterested in him. He explored polyamory brunches and found folks who understood and honoured his commitment to his family. The last time I saw Matthew, he was happily dating a woman who understood that Matt was not going to leave his wife any more than she would forsake her own intimate network. Without Matthew’s amorous intentions pressuring her, Shirley became happier and more relaxed. Everybody won with this unique and creative solution to a stalemated problem.

Might this couple have resolved their issues differently? Of course! Shirley could have sorted out her own issues and worked together with Matthew to re-ignite their mutual desire. Matthew could have cheated. They may have decided to separate, as most would do under these circumstances. None of these options worked for this couple, however. They absolutely did not want to disrupt their family, and, aside from their sexual incompatibility, got along famously. Bolstered by books and supportive websites addressing alternative household arrangements, Matthew managed to preserve his marriage and family while exercising his freedom to find love and companionship.

Quite often, we just do not know where therapy will lead. So many variables comprise the mix that each situation must be explored individually. The point is that solutions can be found that minimize heartache and disappointment. Matthew and Shirley represent an uncommon resolution, but theirs works for them. Their family now intact and each of them individually happier, who’s to say this was not the best of the possible answers?

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