KEEPING IT SEXUAL: Taking the Complaint Out of Discussing Sex

People have a habit, borne out of difficulties talking about sexual desires (and fears about the other’s response), of holding things in and by the time they do say something, they express it as a complaint; that the other was somehow remiss, not noticing enough, too selfish, inexperienced, too kinky, not kinky enough, and so on. They avoid talking about what they wish for, mostly because it’s either embarrassing or they fear their partner will be turned off. Complicating that are the ongoing anxieties, pressures, periods of difficulty, and annoyances of most adult lives; and people tend to use these as even further reasons to avoid honest sexual and emotional talk, saying “We just couldn’t handle that now”.

 Following are some of the ways people complain rather than address.

 -Michael says to Stephanie (when they’ve spent a year having very infrequent sex): “You’re just not attracted to me anymore”; the implication being that the problem inheres in her (lack of attraction) rather than possibly in how Michael, himself, has related to her in both sexual and non-sexual ways.

 Adele tells Marty (in her ‘complaining tone’): “It’s gotten so boring; we never do anything differently – it’s always the same way”. She doesn’t think about or acknowledge that she herself ‘keeps it boring’ by avoiding telling him her own sexual ideas and fantasies.

 Debbie has had a series of hook-ups with other guys because she’s convinced that Jared can’t fulfill her and simply acts impulsively while drinking or drugging, deciding she deserves to find some immediate satisfaction. But she’s never sought to find out whether he ‘fulfills’ her; she’s more comfortable sticking with a negative narrative about him vs trying to observe the data.

 Dan “can’t marry” Linda because he doesn’t feel at all sexual towards her. He avers that he thinks she’s a great woman, but the only women with whom he’s felt deeply sexual have been those he would never consider as long term partners.

 

What’s operating in these examples:

 -They have their own hang-ups about being super sexual with the one they also love and need (whereas it’s easy to be highly sexual when it’s someone that doesn’t really matter to them). This is a common problem and can be worked through, sometimes much more quickly with professional help. The bottom line is that one has to give up a little ‘security’ (i.e., fear of alienating the other) to take the risk of being more honest about what they like or don’t like. Our need for security really conjures up the parts of us that crave being ‘taken care of’, loved unconditionally – i.e., needing the partner to be a lot like an ideal parental figure. And you just can’t have sex with a ‘parent’. Most people never take a look at the parental and or child roles they take and/or put onto the other. If you start observing yourself and are willing to think about it honestly, you’ll see that it may be happening to some extent. Consulting in South America for many years I used to notice the way a couple would call each other “Mami” and “Papi”. But it’s just more blatant there; we in the States have our own versions: acting helpless, being judgmental, talking baby talk, being the other’s caretaker, scolding or correcting the partner, moralizing, criticizing etc. The list goes on.

 -They blame their partners for the relationship becoming stagnant when they themselves ignore that they too have been reticent in addressing problems. Adele learned to feel ‘put upon’ watching her mom feel put upon by her difficult husband, and Adele then perceives any of her annoyance with Marty as the same thing – and yet he’s not really difficult at all. I told her that she might be surprised to find that Marty may actually welcome talking about the different ways they can be sexual, but that, because of some of his own passivity he’s been unable to initiate a conversation (quite like Adele herself). And if she takes the complaint out of her voice, she may find that he’s actually pretty excited to experience her talking about sex. And he may then come to do the same.

 -Much of Dan’s problem is his unwillingness to see ‘such a perfect woman’ as in any way responsible for why things aren’t sexual or why he feels unable to marry her. In fact, his complaint is about himself; he sees himself as the problem because “something must be wrong with me for not being able to love her as ‘I should’. Whereas  the others described above attributed all the problems to their partners, he’s too uncomfortable to look at why he’s attributing all the problems to himself – telling me that I should somehow fix him enough to want her. The difficulty seeing someone he loves negatively would likely have originated in guilt feelings about being angry at mom (beyond the scope of this post). When I probe further, he admits that Linda isn’t taking showers as often, and is less concerned with her appearance, but says he’d be ‘a bad person’ if that kind of thing were to upset him”. The fact that one might legitimately have a negative response to that doesn’t faze Dan – because he’s ‘just wrong’.

 As long as he complains about himself as ‘the bad guy’ – unwilling to acknowledge that there are problematic things she does as well – he won’t be able to feel sexual with her. Sex is just too real of an activity, especially in an ongoing relationship, to pretend this person is someone  other than who s/he is (unless you’re intentionally role-playing together – which is a very different story).  Counterintuitive as it may seem, I’m offering Dan the possibility of staying with Linda by legitimizing and knowing his upset feelings about her.. Otherwise, he’ll likely ‘lose’ her by coming to the point of feeling as if he just has to get out. (see post on “Losing The Other Because We’re Afraid of Losing Him/Her”)

 -In Michael’s case, he has to be willing to look at himself and to ask Stephanie why she seems unhappy with in him. It means taking the risk of hearing things that are uncomfortable. But the truth is that it’s our only way of improving/changing/building into a more fully developed person – including becoming far more sexual. Particularly in the case of sexuality, if we have no wiggle room to say what’s on our minds, sex will indeed become boring, staid and ultimately untenable in other than very matter-of-fact ways. Stephanie does finally talk to Michael about how turned off she’s become with his constant venting to her of all of his problems: his co-workers, boss and all the ways he’s not being treated ‘fairly’ in life. After some time in therapy Stephanie identified having watched her mother be the receptacle of all of her father’s complaints, and so she’d come to believe that that was her job as well. But she learned too that turning off sexually wasn’t such a surprising reaction to a husband who preferred to complain and vent to her rather than make some changes in his life. And she was encouraged to talk this through with Michael. Though at first he became defensive, he  began understanding that Stephanie was really offering them a road back to sex.

Truly good sex requires an ample amount of self-discovery and the willingness to share it and learn how the other responds to it. Complaints are never accurate because they’re always a form of hyperbole – far overshooting the real picture.

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