Many couples come to couples therapy to talk about a problem in their relationship. Sometimes what brings them is a sexual issue but often that is not their main issue. So will you have to talk about sex? You may be asked about it initially because it is a part of the larger picture of your relationship and the therapist may want to know what is going on with the two of you in a number of different areas, including sexual activity. In most cases with most therapists, you will be the ones to set up what is talked about in your therapy, that is, what is important for you to talk about is what will most often take “center stage.” So, no, in most cases where you don’t bring sexual issues as your problem then that won’t be talked about, and if you don’t want to talk about it or don’t see a problem in that area, you will not be talking about sex in couples therapy.
If you or your partner wants to talk about a sexual issue, then it will be something that comes up and will most likely need to be addressed in the work, just as any other issue you or your partner brings up. If the therapist feels that you need to talk about it and you don’t, you don’t have to talk about it—it is your time, you are paying for the sessions, and you don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to talk about. If your partner wants to talk about it and you don’t, then it becomes an issue of what the couple needs to talk about, not just what you (or your spouse) wants to talk about. So if your partner wants to talk about sex and you don’t, it will come up in the work, and both sides of the issue will have to be addressed to help the couple with it. If the therapist wants to talk about the sexual relationship and neither of you want to do so, it is possible that it would be important for the therapy to spend some time on the sexual aspects of the relationship. But if it is not making sense to either of the couple that you are spending time talking on sex in the sessions and that is not what you want, it would be good to say that to the therapist. If the therapist is spending time on things that are not important to the couple, tell the therapist that she/he is off track. As well, people don’t come back to therapy when it does not stay mostly focused on what they came for.
In summary, don’t be overly concerned about having to talk about sex (or any other topic) when you go to couples therapy if both of you don’t want to talk about it. And do make sure to talk about and work on the topics you do want to talk about.
The Lovers is a movie about a married couple who, unbeknownst to each other, are each having an affair with a younger lover. But then (and you see this in the trailer) they wake up holding each other one morning, kissing, maybe even enjoying it, and figure out as they wake up that it is their spouse they are enjoying kissing and they quickly jump up and away from each other. It is a comedic moment—they are spouses, they have kissed before, but not lately, it seems, and what is going on that they are enjoying each other in this way? The trailer plays the movie to be a comedy, and the moments in the trailer are funny, many of them. The movie doesn’t have a lot more laughs than what is seen in the trailer, at least not out loud ones. There are moments that seem to be funny but the movie audience may not laugh because it is hard to tell what the story is telling us: are these things funny or sad? There is a great deal of sadness in the movie as we watch each of the members of the family (wife, husband, son) struggle and grieve about the crashing of this couple.
Spoiler Alert: this article will now move to aspects of the whole movie and the ending, so go see it first if you don’t want to know how The Lovers ends.
The Lovers can provide a number of issues to look at, if one is willing to go there, is willing to explore the movie. The main characters never have a lingering verbal conversation. The longest “moment” they have of any connection with one another besides having sex may have been when they first have sex—there are looks, and he moves towards her, more looking at each other, and they both realize that they want each other and they open up to having sex with each other. But there are no discussions between the two where they might work on the relationship. Perhaps that is why the movie ends up where it does, with them wanting each other, even as they get what they want with their clandestine lovers. They get what they want, but they don’t. Of course they don’t—what they want is a satisfying relationship, but that doesn’t happen anywhere in this movie. The main characters (husband, wife, son, husband’s lover, wife’s lover) are all rather desperate as they look for something in life that they can’t find. And the lovers (wife, husband, and their lovers) seem to only use sex to feel better in a relationship. Is this movie telling us that sex can be great, it can be rekindled, it can drive us towards someone (or some two others) but it is not enough? Does the movie and its makers believe that it takes more than good sex to make a relationship fulfilling? And are they saying that getting what you want isn’t always what you really need?
In couples therapy and sex therapy, it is often the case that hotter sex is something that can be sought after and achieved, but there is almost always the need for more and deeper intimacy for most couples to get there, to get to hotter sex and to a better relationship. A couple can certainly want to come to couples and/or sex therapy to have hotter sex, and they will usually have to work on the relationship to get a better sexual relationship. They will usually have to work on being intimate with each other, and giving and receiving to get to better sex and a better relationship. The couples who get the most out of therapy are the ones that get the whole package, that work on their relationship, their intimacy, and their sexual relationship. So be prepared to work on all those areas when you go to sex therapy. Be prepared to work on all those areas when you go to couples therapy. Many therapists will want to nudge you towards optimum health, which usually includes a healthy self, a healthy relationship, and a healthy sex life.
There are many valuable books about sex, sex therapy, and their role in a couple’s relationship and in couples therapy (some good examples: Passionate Marriage, Intimacy and Desire, Resurrecting Sex, all by David Schnarch). And so the question comes up, “Will we have to talk about sex?” No, you do not have to talk about your sexual relationship in couples therapy. But it is important to add that you may want to or you may need to. One example of a couple that doesn’t need to talk about sex in couples therapy is when both partners are satisfied with the sexual relationship. If both of you are satisfied with how things are going sexually, then you most likely will not bring it up and the focus of your sessions will be on the issues you bring and not sex. If either of you (or both of you) are having a problem with your sexual relationship, then it may well come up and become one of the focuses of your work.
What might be some good reasons for sexual issues to come up in couples counseling? Simply put, if either of you have a problem with sex, that is a good reason to bring it up and work on it in couples therapy. Many couples put up with less than satisfactory sex because they don’t know that sex/couples therapy can help, that it helps make sex better. Many couples don’t realize that they could improve their sexual relationship if it is mediocre or less than what they are wanting. Many people have difficulties talking about their sexual relationship and shy away from talking about the minor or major issues that may reside in this area. Sex therapy can help the majority of couples find better satisfaction in their sexual relationship and can help with erection problems, rapid orgasms, delayed orgasm, desire problems, sexual pain, arousal issues, and lubrication problems.
If the couple moves to having a better sexual relationship and feeling better about each other, it often helps with getting through the other issues that come up. Bonding to each other, being intimate with each other, feeling connected goes a long way for couples. Is that something you want more of in your relationship?
Self-soothing and self-confrontation are two ways for an individual to work on him or herself. Working on yourself will increase your differentiation, your own health. (You can find out more about these terms by reading the works of David Schnarch. Passionate Marriage and Intimacy and Desire are two books of his that have a lot to say about differentiation, self-soothing, and self-confrontation.) But what does all this work on yourself have to do with couples therapy, you might ask. Couples counseling is about the couple, right? These concepts—working on yourself and your own differentiation—are what make couples grow and heals them. It is what a lot of couples need to do to repair damage in their relationship and/or in their sexual relationship. But wait, what? Working on yourself strengthens the couple? Yes, working on yourself—getting yourself healthy (mentally and emotionally more so in this context), moving towards differentiation, soothing yourself when your spouse disagrees with you and doesn’t want things the same way, confronting yourself about what you need to change in the relationship—these all make for a stronger couple. This focus differs from what a lot of people believe. It differs from what many individuals bring to couples counseling when they are focused on what their partner needs to change or when an individual focuses on how their partner has the problem.
Another term used by Schnarch is fusion. Many couples end up with rather fused relationships. What does that look like? It often means that both partners look to the other for their own validation (other-centered validation). So when your partner doesn’t understand you, or goes a different direction, or doesn’t do the dishes the way you’ld like, it causes big problems. But as couples move away from being fused to one another—that is, they become differentiated, self-soothe, self-confront—the couple gets better.
Can you begin to have a different focus in your relationship? Can you focus on yourself and self-soothe when you are starting to get upset? Can you self-confront about what you need to be doing and changing?
This feels like a most controversial topic to write about. There is no known research about the topic, no known articles about it, no discussions with other professionals about it. It is just something observed many times over the course of a career. That is: when there is an affair or indiscretion, in my career, I usually see the problem happening twice. For example, a partner is caught in an indiscretion, caught doing something the partner should not be doing (having an affair, getting emotionally involved with someone else, hiding something important) and the couple ruptures as everything comes out and they come to couples therapy and they get through the problem and the betrayal and the issues and sometime later it happens again, and they go through it all again. And it is worse, harder for the couple to get through the second time. (Also, it seems like sometimes it has to be that serious, happening twice, for both partners to really get the gravity of the situation.) This could be an artifact of my career, something that doesn’t really happen that often but just, coincidentally, has happened in front of me most of the time with the couples I see.
So in thinking about this, there could be multiple explanations. I’ve stated above that it could be random, that it just fell that way with the couples I have seen in doing relationship work.
It could be that the couple–getting through the problem, the indiscretion, the affair, working in couples therapy on their relationship and their issues, and fixing their relationship–leave couples therapy too early, not fixing enough of what was wrong to decrease the chances of it happening again.
And that could lay the blame at least partially on my shoulders: it could be that I don’t help couples see well enough that, after they have gotten through the pain and are on a good healing path, that there is work to be done to decrease the possibility of the problem happening again. In confronting myself about this and trying to see what I need to do as a couples therapist, I will be nudging couples who feel they have worked through a problem of this nature to look to the future and what will stop it from happening again. I have always done a bit of that, but I will emphasize that more in the future. I believe that couples need to develop the relationship more after a crash like this, deepening the relationship more to try and decrease the potential for a future rupture.
There may be other reasons that “two strikes” couples have come before me. Can you think of what is getting in the way of your relationship that might lead to a “strike,” an indiscretion, a lapse, a rupture? Doesn’t it seem like thinking about the potential for future problems and working to make sure they don’t happen might be a good idea? Could you talk with your partner about developing and deepening your relationship?
Intimacy can be defined in many different ways. One expectation that seems to often come up as couples move towards intimacy is the idea of reciprocity, that is, that if one person shares, the other has to also. An example is: if I say I love you, you should say I love you back. If I say something about how the love making we just experienced was great, you would say the same thing back. But that expectation causes problems and even often hinders intimacy. Being in a couple is a great way to develop yourself—you are forced to deal with someone else and if you don’t there are consequences. A question will get you to thinking about this issue: Can you tell your partner important information about you and that’s it? She or he doesn’t have to say anything back? Can you be ok about that, accepting that you were intimate with your partner? Conversely, can you hear an intimate statement from you partner and not just parrot something back?
Let’s look at this from a different angle. If you are compelled or feel compelled to reveal something about yourself because your partner revealed something, are you being intimate, or just compelled? Revealing that you love someone is different than saying, “I love you,” after your partner has just said it to you. It can be surprising to some clients who come to a couples therapy office when they share something important and the therapist doesn’t make sure that the partner shares something as well.
Differentiation is a term that has been used for a long time in the marital/sex therapy areas (see Schnarch, or Kerr and Bowen). It is something you want but is hard to get. It is getting your self healthier, being stronger emotionally, being able to sooth yourself. And people that are more differentiated are able to share without expecting their partner to share back. And more differentiated people don’t share back only because their partner shared with them.
So, perhaps you could challenge yourself. Make sure your partner has your attention and no one else is around, then you share something important and personal about yourself with your partner, and that’s it. You don’t expect anything in return (other than you would like him or her to hear you, but you don’t even expect that). It would be an intimate thing to do.
I continue to read David Schnarch, this time working on Constructing the Sexual Crucible. It was published in 1991 and is much more of a textbook for therapists than the other books I have mentioned. If you are looking for something to read about sexuality, I recommend Passionate Marriage and/or Intimacy and Desire by him rather than this work. I wanted to present to you something he wrote in this work: “Rather than divide people into categories of sexually dysfunctional and sexually blissful, we need to think of the sexually dysfunctional, the sexually functional, and the blessed few” (page 77, italics his). And from much of what he says in any of the three books mentioned above, the majority of people are in the middle group, the sexually functional group. Also, most of that group has mediocre sex at best. The good news is, there are things that can be done to make things better, to have a better sex life with your partner. There are things that can be done even though one of you is a higher desire partner (HDP) and the other a lower desire partner (LDP, his terms), that this is a normal state that happens to the majority of couples that couples therapy and sex therapy can do something about.
Back in the day when he wrote the book, and even with many therapists today, sexual relationships for couples are often seen as being either dysfunctional or else the couple is doing fine. Only you can say (and your partner can say and even say differently than you) how your relationship is doing. Do you have dysfunction? Are you rather normal and mediocre? Or are you having a rewarding sex life for both of you?
If you or your partner are not happy with the state of your relationship, there are things that can be done (often, usually) to make your sexual relationship better, moving you towards the “sexually blissful” group. It is up to you. You could read one or both of the books recommended above. You could see a good couples therapist with experience and training in sex therapy. It is up to you to bring about a change if you want it.
Couples can have difficulties in one area of their relationship (sex, for example) that affects them in other areas (just talking to each other). The partner that has a stronger desire for sex can often feel controlled by the partner with lower desire, and the partner with stronger desire can feel controlled by the partner with less desire. This can lead to a lot of anger in the person with desire not getting something they feel they need in the relationship. The anger often spills out in other ways besides just any talk about having sex.
David Schnarch is a psychologist that has worked to combine couples therapy and sex therapy. You might benefit from looking at two of his books, Passionate Marriage and Intimacy and Desire. He calls the partner with stronger desire the HDP (High Desire Partner) and the partner with lower desire the LDP (Low Desire Partner). As well, he writes that the LDP “controls” sex in the relationship. If you read him further, he presents how the HDP can bring about change in the couple by self-confronting, holding on to yourself, and by differentiating (getting yourself psychologically healthy).
It is crucial you see the emphasis in the above paragraph: first, that the person with higher desire (HDP) can cause change to happen in the relationship (even though that person often feels like it is impossible to get change) and, second, that the change start by that person confronting him/herself, by holding on to him/herself (rather than not doing so by falling apart, blaming, yelling), and working on his or her own stuff and getting more healthy psychologically (he calls that differentiation; I call it “getting healthy”).
The most important issue mentioned here is a very difficult one for most couples to do, that is, to stop blaming their significant other and to confront you, yourself. What do you need? Do you say that through blaming or as a statement about you? So if you are the HDP and want sex, do you talk about your partner (and not yourself), make fun of your partner, tear your partner down? These activities, for some strange reason, always seem to push the partner away and reduce sexual contact, hence the need for the HDP (the apparently “hornier” partner) needing to do some self-confronting. It will also be important for the LDP, the one with less obvious desire (which doesn’t necessarily mean that partner does not have desire), self-confront about what they are doing to stop the couple from having sex.
If you are beginning to move towards thinking about what you are doing/thinking/feeling/saying that is getting in the way of sex in your relationship, you are on a path that leads to a potentially happier sex life. I could also say the same thing without the word sex in the sentence: If you are beginning to move towards thinking about what you are doing/thinking/feeling/saying that is getting in the way in your relationship, you are on a path that leads to a potentially happier life.
In continuing to read some of the works of David Schnarch I can easily recommend them to you (previously I commented from Passionate Marriage and am currently reading Intimacy and Desire). He says a lot of important things about marriage, couples, sex, intimacy, and a lot of other issues that effect relationships. Previously, I had written about the couple as a crucible from reading Passionate Marriage, but as I read more it seemed clear that he was talking about each of us having our own crucible (which could be defined as a severe trial leading to change) to go through and when we do that together we are building the relationship. (I had thought he was writing about the couple as the crucible.) With further reading, it makes even more sense: change is within, and we have to go through our own crucible process for the couple to change.
In couples therapy, when a couple comes in to work on their relationship, they often spend significant time pointing the finger at their partner for something that is a real problem. And it is almost always the case that the partner has an equal pointing back, and an equally strong issue, too, that counters the first’s complaint. But it is also true that couples get locked into that pattern and don’t know how to get out of it. Sometimes they come to relationship therapy to help, and that is often a good thing to do because they have, quite possibly, tried everything they can think of to fix their problem. It often takes a couples therapist to get them to move beyond their entanglement. (Dr. Schnarch would say this entanglement is a natural path in a couple’s relationship which he calls “gridlock.”)
Couples counseling is about, when it is good, helping a couple unravel their way of doing what they are doing, and changing a pattern that is locking them up. A key is often to help each partner look inside and say more clearly what they are needing to say. Another key is to help each partner see what he or she needs to take on for change to happen. So bring in your entanglements, bring in your concerns about your spouse, that is what couples do, that is what needs to be worked on and gotten through. Couples therapy will address that. And realize that couples therapy may also make you, besides looking at your significant other, look at who you are.
“Crucible” is a term that is not used so much currently. It means (from a search on line) either “a container where substances are melted together to form a new substance” or “a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.” Sounds powerful. But so are relationships with even a bit of commitment and any intimacy.
As a therapist that works with relationships, that was an interesting definition. A definition that could be used for what marriage or a committed is, a definition for what couples counseling is or hopes to be.
So often couples come to therapy and see the problem as being in the other person (their spouse, their significant other). And it seems like all of the time, if the couple is to change and grow, each of the two has to move to see what they are doing and to change what they need to change to make the couple grow. “Differentiate” is the term David Schnarch uses for this aspect of growth. He says, in Passionate Marriage, “Spouses’ interlocking crucibles are an inherent part of the system that is marriage” (page 150, italacs are his). I read that to mean the their ways of interacting lock into a new system that we call marriage. He also talks about how couples often head into a gridlock that is usually seen as a bad thing, but really is the way that they will be pushed by the relationship to grow individually so the relationship can grow. I call that, “to become a couple.” A lot of couples are rather independent of one another rather than go through the “severe trial” of really becoming something new, something different that what was before the relationship began.
It is difficult, the severe trial of really building a marriage. But it leads to emotional and relational riches, growth, and love.