Some Thoughts About Couples and Intimacy​

I am often very moved by the way people make use of tools and new options for growing. In particular, I am touched when people eagerly say “yes” to developing themselves and their relationships, and create new performances on how to be with others. We have just completed our final session of a ten-session group for couples that my colleague Allison Caffyn and I have been running. We have been meeting with a group of couples, nine in all, once per month for a couple of hours to create a space where couples can talk about the inhibitions and challenges in developing relationship, growing with each other, finding constructive and growthful ways to address conflict and difference of opinion, and working on creating intimacy with one another. In a recent group session we focused on sexuality. After working on helping couples to deal with longstanding and perpetual conflict that can sometimes create gridlock, we created a space to begin kick-starting romance and sexuality in relationships where sex has been routine or non-existent and that sexuality may have lost its vitality and newness. How do we change this? One way is taking an interest in performing as partners who have some new things to learn from each other in talking about their sexual relationship. Often, after being in a relationship for some time, after our initial romance, we might get pajama-comfortable, let our hair down, and settle or adapt to a relatively safe relationship. This posture may create conflict as well, since we have moved from romanticizing and idealizing the relationship in its newness, to getting to know, – and sometimes be upset with – the person that we chose to be with. Though we may want more from our relationship, our desire to ask for more, to take more emotional risks, to challenge ourselves to grow together, may lay dormant. Our passions for one another may be asleep. Our group worked to help the participants look at and explore questions that open options that enable us to see our partners and our selves in new ways. For example, we helped people to perform as givers instead of waiting to be given to. How does that help? I see the differences of views or habits that come up between partners as an opportunity to learn from each other. By sharing and giving to the other our wants, wishes, pain, conflict and shame, we create opportunities for intimacy. Rather than viewing these differences as a problem to be fixed, they are ‘natural’ in the process of human beings getting to know each other. I often say that relationships can be a beautiful performance you can write, direct and creatively improvise. By putting ourselves in the position, in a safe environment, to intentionally risk being more open with one another about our deeply felt wishes, fantasies, fears and discomforts, we can propel ourselves and our relationship to intentional development. Learning to perform in a relationship as one would in an improv troupe, where you are continually learning how to say “yes” to one another, is an activity that can put our submerged and sleeping desires on a more stimulated and growthful edge. You can learn more about the couples workshop that we offer by checking out The Couples College.​

Brain Activity to Social Activity​

I love TedTalks.  Frequently they are an opportunity to hear some of the most innovative ideas around human development, education, technology, and science. They give me a sense of optimism about the future.  Occasionally however, I watch a talk that seems so misguided as to be dangerous.  I just watched such a talk, given by Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute for Mental Health.  In exploring the terrific advances in our ability to predict and prevent physical disease, Insel suggests that the same may be possible in mental health.  He advises that we define and best understand mental health issues, e.g., suicide and other “dysfunctionality,” as stemming from “brain disorders.” He proposes that if we identify these disorders earlier on, we may have a shot at circumventing the possible dysfunction that these disorders produce. All well and good.  However, there are significant problems with Insel’s basic premise.  Unlike medical conditions (whatever you think of western medicine’s precise classification of syndromes and conditions), the effort to categorize mental health conditions is enormously controversial. This is evidenced in the recent debate and controversy surrounding the new psychiatric and diagnostic manual, the DSM 5.  On one hand, diagnosis of mental conditions using the DSM has very little consistency among diagnosticians, even for basic syndromes, making the effort questionable, if not effectively useless. On the other hand, there is little correlation between diagnosis and ultimate progress, as evidenced by an avalanche of psychotherapy outcome research. More concerning still to me, is the notion this leads to, that of reducing our mental conditions (emotions, feelings, passions, fears, etc) to physical brain states – or viewing brain activity as the starting point in a causal chain leading to our mental lives. How do you reduce creativity, feelings of love or watching a sunset to brain activity? In fact, I am tremendously excited about the research that has been taking place looking at the working of the brain.  I believe that this will offer us many new understandings, including creating a better understanding of the ways in which our social cultural and emotional life impacts on the brain’s development. Alva Nöe’s book, “Out of Our Heads” on the workings of the brain is a brilliant exploration of this subject. Nöe tells us that what happens in our brains however, offers little help in understanding what actually happens in our brains as well as in our day-to-day activity.  To reduce our understanding of conditions such as depression, suicidality, even hallucinations to mechanical/physical brain conditions ignores how fundamentally socially- and culturally-shaped our species is. There is a rich literature discussing the complicated ways we collectively, socially and culturally shape even what science is and how we understand it.  The schism between eastern and western medicine is but one example, in which two completely different “scientific” understandings of the world have developed two entirely different understandings of the workings of our bodies and our selves.This is all good news. Because an appreciation of how much culture shapes who we are, and an appreciation of the ways in which our very understanding of the world is a human construction, opens up tremendous creative potential and enormous hope for our species.   We can (and do) continuously create our cultural lives, our emotional lives, and our relational life. Understanding this can have a powerful impact on how we relate to the world, to ourselves and to each other.  That is some of the work I do and consider in creating groups in the approach I practice, social therapy.  Insel believes that we need better explanations, better tools for identifying people who may potentially have serious problems in the future. I believe that a broader conversation needs to occur, at least on appreciating the limits of what we know and understand. What is needed to create a kind of environment where we can ask new kinds of questions, and ones that don’t have ready-made answers – outside of what we know – to the complex issues that need addressing, about improving the lives of all people. I believe that we do have the power to transform the conditions of our relationships and world in ways that change our relationship to the conditions that produce the pain and dysfunction we see.  And this is what hinges on creating hopeful models of mental health.​

Making friends is hard to do

In my last therapy group, folks were talking about the challenge of making friends. This issue is something that is on the minds of many people. How do you make friends? Especially as an adult when your life is full and busy. Should you trust people? How do you trust people? How do you figure out the rules of creating friendships? Or even hanging out and being with people? How do you deal with the kinds of nasty things that go on in relationships? One woman told the group about how shocked she was when going on a girl’s night out. While at dinner together, she noticed that every time someone at the dinner went to the bathroom, the remaining group would start talking about her, – behind her back, – and saying things that were not so nice. When she returned, the group would welcome her back and act as though nothing was said. This occurred several times. My client was afraid to go to the bathroom, and more, to have dinner with the group again. This and other kinds of social interactions are commonplace in today’s world. Relationships take place with many unspoken assumptions, of what it means to be friends, what friends are, of the kind of expectations that people may have of friendships, and much more. There are also assumptions that we make about how to fit in, and suppress ones honesty with the people you are with. We tend not to share our questions and concerns about how we are being together. We often make compromises with our selves, our wants, our basic values, in order to keep and hold on to people we may consider friends. The assumptions and behaviors we make often lead to disappointments, and faulty expectations about the relationship. Are there ways to break out of this? One way is to learn how to create environments to be more honest, more open, with the people you are with. The group works on this all the time. Creating a place where you can openly, playfully ask questions about the basic unspoken assumptions that take place among people. Are you able to ask, “Why are we doing this together? Why are we talking about this in this manner (angrily, judgmentally, critically, trying to solve the problem, etc)?” We often don’t know how to engage in a philosophical dialogue where it is possible to play with the conversation, expose ourselves to the vulnerability of raising challenging questions. This is one of the areas of life and work that we play with in social therapy group to create new possibilities with one another. And this work helps to create new skills for strengthening and deepening lasting friendships.​

Ask the coach

Dear Coach, My husband and I have been married for four and a half years. We conceived our first child soon after we got married and the second one came along 15 months later. Before the kids came, we had a good romantic life -- after the kids arrived, practically none. We love each other and are very invested and committed in our relationship to each other and our kids. We even go out on dates once a week and try to go out, just the two of us, during the week too, but our sexual/sensual relationship no longer exists. I think this is because we are too tired and busy with baby duty most days and nights. So it doesn't leave much room for those wonderful romantic feelings we once had. Honestly, since I had my kids, I have no more libido. Even if you put the most attractive person in front of me, I would have no sexual desires. What do you make of that? Has our relationship changed forever, or do sexual feelings come back again? What can I do? What can we do?  - Susan from Sacramento     Murray responds ... Susan, You are describing a fairly common problem. It is not unusual that sexual feelings are submerged during early child-rearing. However, there is a way you are talking about sexuality that may be important to reexamine. You, like many people, describe sexual feeling passively -- that sexual feelings happen to you. However, sexual feeling is often created by what we do, by smallest of moves we make, whether conscious or unconscious. I presume that you and your husband continue to feel good about each other and put much effort into raising your children and creating a home. Consider how much energy you put in to being good parents. How does that compare with the effort toward creating more romantic and sexy moments? It is great to go out regularly, however, this too, can become routinized. Consider how you relate to each other while out or while at home during the week. Do you quietly flirt, create sexual tensions, or touch your partner in a way that would surprise your partner and maybe you? We may put much energy into this when first dating. Can you or your partner create some experience of newness, of positive tension and surprise that may eventually or even immediately create a sense of new kinds of sexual feelings for each other? It is possible. ​ ​​ - Murray 

Speaking out for development

Development and change. Is there a difference? In relationship, people make changes regularly that can improve living and working together. There can be useful differences in what we do. We decide to change who gets the mail, take out the trash, do the laundry, etc.  However, there is an appreciable difference when use take risks, share and give in relationship that adds to and strengthen relationships, enabling the relationship to grow.​

Letter to Ask the Coach

Dear Coach, My wife of seven years is spending us into the poorhouse. She's never had good money habits and has always been reckless with her spending. We both work hard, we earn a fair amount of money together, yet we have very little saved. We have children to support, a sizable mortgage, and the typical expenses of any average family. If either of us were to lose our job, we would be in serious trouble in a couple of months.My wife is always shopping and buying things we don't need and don't use. She spends her whole paycheck every month. Often, I find out about her purchases months afterwards. Money issues are destroying our relationship and causing stress for both of us. I've had countless talks with her about this, but nothing seems to work - not even explaining to her that her habits are jeopardizing our marriage and the future for our children. Do you have any suggestions for helping a spouse to be more responsible with money? Tim from Tallahassee............   Dear Tim Money issues are one of the top concerns that create tension in relationships and even cause divorce. Your frustration comes across in your letter. While you may be at the end of your rope, it is important to create a positive dialogue with your partner that is not shaped by this attitude if there is any possibility for creating a positive solution.I was struck by your experience - two sides of one coin - of portraying the situation as being out of control and as a judgmental parent. This experience is important to step away from. One way is to explore your spouse's view of the situation. Does she see this as a problem as well? Does she have a disagreement with your financial and personal goals and aspirations? What is key is to talk together -- to establish your mutual baselines about what is important to you both.Here are some questions to consider: Do you sit down together during intimate times to talk about your personal and shared long-term interests? Do the conversations tend to occur when there is a problem, a conflict, fighting or critical dialogue? The latter is an atmosphere rarely conducive to learning and listening. If you have trouble in creating a positive spirit for dialogue, perhaps what is needed is getting help from a coach with deep listening skills to help define your mutual concerns and goals. Murray Dabby 


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