Let's talk about sex baby, let's talk about you and me...
Come on, you know that George Michael song??? Or am I just giving away my age...I was a big fan of his as a kid. In fact, I fantasized about marrying him until my brother smugly informed me that he is gay. I was very disappointed.
So actually I do want to talk about sex. I do so every day. Yep, pretty much. Because I'm a perv? No...at least I don't think so. Because I am a therapist, and it almost always comes up in one way or another with clients. In particular, with couples facing infertility, a number of challenges around intimacy can emerge. Often too frequent, timed, high pressure intercourse for the purpose of conceiving, coupled with not conceiving leads couples to associate sex with failure and disappointment. Men often develop performance anxiety because they need to be able to 'produce' at a specific time. Women are often so distraught over the infertility their interest in sex wanes significantly.
Other times its a history of sexual abuse that causes difficulties with intimacy for people, or a betrayal or emotional trauma. It is also not uncommon for me to see individuals with major sexual inhibitions and/or phobias due to a very strict or religious upbringing. There is no doubt that sex is an area of wellness and health that many, many individuals and couples struggle with.
Thus, I happily agreed to review Rekindling Desire (2nd Edition) by Barry and Emily McCarthy. I am thrilled to say I was not at all disappointed. In fact, I think this book is so good, I have already been recommending it to many of my clients.
The book is actually meant for couples as a self-help guide, but it is also extremely informative for counsellors and therapists. Throughout the book, they highlight the importance for couples of working through sex and intimacy issues together, along with a therapist, but I think the information can even be helpful for individuals not currently in a relationship, struggling with sexual issues.
I should say that this book is very much geared towards heterosexual couples and individuals and does not offer much for those in same-sex relationships. Nevertheless, I think there are some truths they discuss that most people can benefit from knowing.
First, any sex or intimacy issue facing a couple is something that should be dealt with as a couple. No matter what the issue, it is not one person's fault and the solutions should not lie on the shoulders of just one partner. It has to be addressed as a team. Blaming your partner will do absolutely nothing to improve things.
I also think this passage is extremely important for individuals in long-term relationships:
Premarital sex is a self-defeating and unrealistic standard of comparison...Do not make premarital sex comparisons. This poisons marital sexuality...Couple sexuality involves dealing with the whole person and sharing the complexities of your lives, including emotional and sexual intimacy.
The factors that drive pre-marital sex, -- newness, illicitness, risk taking, winning the partner over, romantic love, passion, idealization, and exploring sexual boundaries -- are unstable. By their very nature, romantic love and passionate sex erode with time. Ideally, hot sex is replaced by the integration of intimacy, pleasuring, and eroticism. Yet, too often, sex becomes routine, low quality, and infrequent. Typically, this occurs even before marriage.
The McCarthys address how anger, guilt, anxiety, inhibitions, obsessions and compulsions and shame interfere with sexuality and couple intimacy. Since it is a guide book, they also give specific strategies for overcoming each of these issues. In fact, they have a number of exercises for couples to practice in order to achieve certain goals or overcome particular difficulties or challenges.
Although the book does touch on how trying to conceive can affect a couple's intimacy, there is very little discussion of the effect of infertility. They do a better job of addressing in a few places the impact of sexual or emotional trauma on a couple's intimate relationship:
It is crucial to accept your sexual past, including negative or traumatic experiences such as child sexual abuse, incest, rape being exhibited to and peeped at, receiving obscene phone calls, dealing with an STI, having an unwanted pregnancy, being sexually humiliated or rejected, having a sexual dysfunction, being sexually harassed, being caught masterbating, or feeling guilt over sexual fantasies. Negative sexual experiences are almost universal phenomena for both females and males. Sadly, it is normal to have negative sexual experiences -- whether as a child, adolescent, young adult, or adult. You can accept these experiences and integrate them into your sexual self-esteem. You are a survivor, not a victim. Feeling controlled by guild because of past trauma cheats you of your sexual self-acceptance and enjoyment of couple sexuality.
Unfortunately, they don't give tips on how to deal with these traumas, but in any case, I would recommend seeking professional help to do so.
I also like that the McCarthys challenge traditional gender stereotypes related to sexuality, arguing that men are socialized to associate sexual prowess with masculinity while women are socialized to value feelings and emotional attachments, and that these differences are not based on genetic or hormonal differences. Both genders, they assert, are capable of desire, pleasure, eroticism and satisfaction, as well as empathy, closeness, sadness and anger.
And I am sure you are wondering what they have to say about extramarital affairs? Well, first, affairs, of course, threaten marital bonds. They suggest that should it occur, the following steps should be taken to repair the bond:
1. Deal with meaning of the affair
2. Attempt to rebuild trust bond
3. Develop a new couple sexual style
4. Make a firm commitment not to have another affair
5. Discuss high-risk situations that emerge (opportunity, temptation, etc.) with partner before allowing a potential affair to begin
A couple will most likely have to work with a couple's therapist in order to survive an affair.
The McCarthys also explain why affairs are tempting (they hold the same allure as new relationships) but also discuss how the unrealistic expectations actually set up affairs to becoming unsuccessful relationships (all that newness, illicitness, etc. eventually ends).
I think this is an excellent book to help both individuals and couples address issues with sex and intimacy. In combination with the help of a counsellor, I think most people looking to improve their relationship with their sexuality or the sexuality in their relationship can benefit by picking up Rekindling Desire.