Let’s face it: very few of us were taught how to enjoy sex in relationships. We are left to figure it out on our own as we go, and as a result, sometimes false and unhelpful information gets spread around in friend groups and by movies, magazines, etc. My goal in writing this is to challenge 3 common myths about sex in relationships that I often hear in the subtext of couples’ complaints when they come into my office.
Myth #1: “If everything else in the relationship is good, the sex will be good, too.”
Here’s the thing: there’s no doubting that sometimes when you experience issues in your relationship, desire for sex or the quality of sex may be impacted. For example, it can be difficult to feel in the mood if you’re constantly fighting or feeling criticized. Or, for some people, it can be difficult to be totally open during sex if they feel a sense of insecurity in the relationship. And yes, for couples in those situations, prioritizing those issues in therapy may lead to some changes in the bedroom, as well. But the truth is, for many couples, the status of their sex lives can be independent from other areas of the relationship. It is super common for couples who come into my office to preface the first session by saying, “We are so in love, we have awesome communication, but sex has always been a struggle.” OR, “Sex was great in the beginning, and over time our relationship has only grown stronger, but lately we haven’t felt that same desire for sex.”
Feeling like your sex life is lacking can be scary, because it inevitably leads to larger questions about the relationship- Are we right for each other? Is something wrong with us? It can be very validating for folks to hear that a lot of couples struggle with sex, and that their relationship is not to blame!
Riddle me this: Did you receive information growing up about how to experience pleasure with a partner? How to talk about sex? What to expect about sex in a long term relationship? How to stay in a sexy mindset while working a full time job and raising kids? Didn’t think so, because that education is still not a big part of American culture (or many other cultures, for that matter). It’s no wonder so many couples struggle in the bedroom...and thinking that that must mean something is wrong with them can make it so much harder. Not to mention, there are other common issues (i.e, pain with sex, erectile dysfunction, etc) that can make sex difficult and that aren’t necessarily related to a couples attachment to one another.
If you’re experiencing issues with sex in your relationship, don’t be afraid to ask for help!
Myth #2: “There is a normal amount of sex that every couple/partnership should be having in order to be considered normal.”
People ask about this magic number all the time, and it usually stems from anxiety that what they’re doing isn’t normal. My answer? There is no magic number of times you should be having sex a week- what’s “normal” differs for every couple. It all depends on what is satisfying for YOU.
Now, what if you and your partner have different preferences on how frequent you have sex? It can be useful to have a conversation about the reasons why you have sex and why you prefer the frequency that you do- do you want sex to connect to your partner? For stress release? To feel desired? For the person who prefers more frequent sex- can you accomplish these things by doing other activities with your partner? For the person who prefers to have less frequent less sex- are there things you and your partner can each do to make you more likely to be in the mood more often?
Myth #3: “It’s wrong to have sexual fantasies that aren’t about your partner.”
Fantasies are normal, and they are just that- fantasy. Just because you fantasize about that Scottish guy from Outlander does not mean that you prefer him over your husband in real life. You can have a perfectly solid relationship with your husband and still think about that guy’s accent.
In fact, fantasies about others can actually help couples have a rich sex life, because letting yourself think about sex and feel sexy can lead you to be in the mood more often with your partner.
Now, if you find yourself not desiring your partner at all, then it may be a signal that something needs to change (in the relationship, the way you both approach sex, etc). Again, many couples struggle with desire, and it does not mean you don’t find your partner attractive. Check out Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski and Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel for two great resources on increasing desire in relationships.
This time of year, everyone is thinking about the goals they want to achieve and the changes they want to make. Oftentimes, we prioritize physical health when making New Year’s resolutions, but what about mental health? What about changes we’d like to make in our relationships? Our relationship with ourselves? One way to begin the process of change or to enrich your therapeutic journey is through bibliotherapy, a form of therapy that involves reading specific books to promote healing. I am a big believer in digesting therapeutic information this way and often recommend books to clients to complement the work that we are doing in session. The following is a list of my most recommended books:
1. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
I personally believe Brené Brown’s books should be required reading for everyone. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené explains how to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and accept yourself the way you are. Often, we get sucked into the unhelpful idea that self-criticism will actually help us improve ourselves, when really it is keeping us stuck in a shame spiral. With her own refreshing vulnerability, Brené will walk you though overcoming shame, cultivating self-compassion, and living a more authentic life.
2. Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson
When you feel hurt by your significant other, how do you react? Do you pull away and distance yourself, or do you pursue them for reassurance of their love for you? How do they react to your reaction? In Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson breaks down the different attachment styles that we all carry with us from childhood and explains how these styles affect our behavior in adult relationships. Johnson explains how to apply the theory of Emotionally Focused Therapy (a model that I use in my practice with couples) in order to strengthen and enrich your own relationship.
3. I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression by Terrence Real
This is an amazing book about how depression affects men. Terry Real explains how many men are silently suffering, appearing to be “high functioning” to the outside world but struggling with unspoken pain on the inside. Due to the way men are socialized, Real argues, depression can manifest as workaholism, alcoholism, rage, difficulty with intimacy, and abusive behavior – quite different presentations than the classical signs of depression we are taught to look out for. He also explains how trauma can be passed down from fathers to sons, and provides insight into how to break this cycle and heal.
4. Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
As a sex therapist, this is by far my most recommended book. It. Is. Amazing! Emily Nagoski, brilliant sex educator, breaks down all the myths about female sexuality and explains everything you need to know about female anatomy, arousal, desire and orgasm. Most importantly, she explains how the cultural context around these things can influence the way we feel about our sexuality, often hindering female pleasure. If you’ve ever felt that something is wrong with you sexually – because of your anatomy, the way you experience desire or orgasm (or the lack of experiencing), etc. – PLEASE read this book!
5. The Defining Decade by Meg Jay
Because of economic and cultural changes, one’s twenties are now culturally seen as a time of exploration, a time to travel and have fun before settling down and beginning one’s career. This sounds great in theory, but Meg Jay argues that your 20s are actually incredibly formative years that should be spent wisely. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have any fun if you’re a twenty-something, but the key, she argues, is to be intentional. Jay breaks down how to take advantage of this time in your life while also being more forward-thinking to set yourself up for success in your thirties and beyond – career-wise, love-wise and more.
Many of my friends often ask me, “How should I go about finding a therapist?” Or, sadly, many people also tell me, “I’ve been wanting to try therapy but I can’t find someone who is available/affordable/takes my insurance.” So I decided to write a Q&A about how to find a therapist.
Q: What type of clinician should I see?
A: It depends on what services you are looking for. Are you looking for someone to talk to? Someone to prescribe medication? Someone to provide a formal evaluation? A psychiatrist, for example, can prescribe medication, but psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and mental health counselors (in some areas these professionals are called licensed professional counselors) cannot prescribe. If you need a formal evaluation or diagnostic testing done, then a psychologist can provide you with that. Licensed psychologists, marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors all provide psychotherapy and can diagnose for insurance purposes, as well as assist you in finding a prescriber should you need medication.
Q: Do Marriage and Family Therapists only work with couples and families?
A: Not at all! MFTs often see individual clients for a range of issues, including mental health problems. Because of their training, they approach these issues keeping relationships and systemic context in mind.
Q: What type of training should the clinician have?
A: There are several different types of degrees in the field of counseling that prepare clinicians to all do very similar work, so the most important thing is to find a clinician who works with your particular needs. Sometimes clinicians will specialize in a particular area or population, such as working with infidelity within a couple, parents of teens struggling with addiction, etc. If you aren’t sure based on someone’s bio, you can always reach out to them to ask if they work in a particular area. Clinicians also have different theoretical orientations and styles, and some might fit you better than others. You can always ask about the therapist’s approach and what their therapeutic style is. Many therapists offer a free phone consultation to determine if they would be a good fit for you- it can be super helpful to take advantage of this!
Q: Where can I find a list of therapists in my area?
A: Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” page is a very popular directory in which therapists list their services. You can search by location, type of therapy, and your presenting complaint. Most therapists list on their profile whether or not they take insurance, what types of clients they see, what their training is, and what their fee range is. The profiles will also list contact info so that you can reach out to clinicians to inquire about their availability.
Q: What if I want to use my insurance benefits for therapy?
A: If you are looking to use your insurance benefits, start by contacting your insurance company to see what they cover for you. If you are able to see a therapist in your network, oftentimes you will have to pay your therapist a copay, and then the therapist will bill the rest of their fee to the insurance company directly. Sometimes your plan may require you to reach a deductible first before they will cover therapy. The more you know about your exact plan, the easier it will be to navigate finding a therapist.
Q: What if my insurance doesn't cover therapy or my deductible is high?
A: If your insurance does not cover therapy, your deductible is high, or you found a therapist you like who is not in-network with your insurance company, there are other options. Many therapists offer out-of-network services, which means they can give you a detailed receipt for your sessions that you can then submit to your insurance company to see if they will reimburse you. If a therapist’s fee is too high for you to pay out of pocket, they may also offer a sliding scale, which means they may adjust the fee according to your income. You can always ask if therapists offer something like this.
Q: Are there benefits to seeing a private-pay therapist?
A: There are some benefits to private-pay therapy, as the therapist is not required by insurance companies to stick to a specific treatment method or number of sessions. This allows them to be more flexible and tailor the therapy to your needs.
Q: Are there other low-cost options for therapy?
A: If you are looking for low-cost therapy, Open Path Collective is another great resource. It lists therapists who see individual clients in the $30-$50 range, and couples in the $50-$80 range. Many universities also offer low fees to work with student therapists, so contacting training programs for therapists is another option.
Q: What if I found a therapist I like but they aren’t taking new clients?
A: Therapists generally know lots of other therapists, especially others who have the same specialty or work in the same area. You can always ask if the therapist will refer you to any other clinicians. Or, therapists may have a waitlist that you can get on while you continue your search.
While finding the right therapist can feel daunting, remember that your mental health is worth investing in. Do not give up hope!
To schedule your 15 minute free phone consultation, please email email@example.com.
Excessive worry, and an inability to control it. Worrying a disproportionate amount to the actual risk involved. Edginess, restlessness and irritability. Struggling to concentrate and feeling more fatigued than usual. Experiencing muscle aches, tension or soreness and difficulty sleeping.
These are common signs of generalized anxiety. Perhaps you experience these symptoms in all areas of your life, or maybe you only experience them in some domains, such as your work, social life or when thinking about your health. Anxiety is a spectrum- for some, it can be severe enough to prevent them from leaving the house. For others, it is a constant, underlying feeling that prevents them from making decisions, feeling confident, or simply living their best lives. If you are familiar with the effects of anxiety, here are some tips for better managing it:
1. Notice and name it (without judgement). The first step to feeling relief from your anxiety is to simply notice it. As busy humans we have become skilled at going about our day on “autopilot,” not realizing how our emotions are affecting us. You may not have known that that feeling has a name, and becoming more aware of it will help you manage it. Oftentimes people feel the underlying sense of anxiousness without consciously realizing it, but the emotion still influences their thoughts. For example, maybe after a very stressful day at work you feel anxious, and because you feel anxious you start to think, “Something must have gone wrong,” even if there is no logical reason to think that. Catastrophizing thoughts- thinking of the worst possible scenarios- can make us feel even more anxious, and then we’re off to the races in a vicious cycle. It’s important to remember that thoughts are not facts- they are simply fleeting cognitive events. You can simply notice these thoughts without prescribing to them. There is no need to try to fight the thought or feeling or pass judgment on them- after a while, you’ll notice that the feeling does come and go, just like other emotions. Practice noticing when anxious thoughts and feelings creep in, and what the circumstances are during those times- if you feel more anxious when your schedule is packed, for example, scheduling in some self-care time could be a good plan.
2. Understand the function of anxiety. Anxiety used to be an evolutionary advantage for humans. It helped alert us to dangers by keeping us hyper-vigilant of our surroundings. If you’re constantly worried about encountering a lion, for example, you’re less likely to be caught off guard by one, thereby increasing your chance of survival. Over time, however, our likelihood of being eaten by a lion has significantly decreased (thankfully!). As a result, anxiety is no longer advantageous for survival. While there may be some benefits of experiencing mild anxiety, such as motivation to meet a deadline, for most people it has become maladaptive- what was once helpful to us now hinders us from living a fulfilling life. That old part of your brain may be firing off alarm signals unnecessarily, alerting you to risks that aren’t actual risks, such as wondering if someone misinterpreted a comment you made in a meeting. Understanding this history of anxiety is crucial, because when those anxious thoughts creep into our minds, we can remind ourselves that our brain may be giving off a false alarm.
3. Don’t be afraid to seek help. Anxiety can cause significant distress, and seeking help from a mental health practitioner is not a sign of weakness. There are several techniques that therapists use to help people manage anxiety, and they may give you some homework assignments such as keeping a record of your anxious thoughts. For some people, taking anti-anxiety medication may be a good option. Your therapist can talk to you about your options and help you decide what is best for you!
I recently finished reading The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, & Other Adventures*. While polyamory (sometimes referred to as consensual or ethical non-monogamy) is not for everyone, I kept finding that authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy were full of juicy pieces of insight that could truly benefit any type of relationship- or any person, really, as their guidance also applies to those not in relationships.
Before I launch into what those insights are, you might be wondering what I mean by polyamory. Franklin Veaux has a helpful FAQ about polyamory on his blog, More Than Two. If you find yourself a little confused on what the average poly configuration looks like, that’s because there is no norm- folks who practice polyamory decide with their partners what works best for them. Therefore, The Ethical Slut is not so much a rule book on how to do polyamory the “right” way- rather, it promotes insight that is instrumental in setting one’s own rules, commonly referred to by relationship therapists as boundaries.
To be successful in polyamory, one must embark on a journey of self-examination, putting conscious effort into recognizing and expressing one’s own emotions, practicing sharing and listening with partners, and collaborating with partners on boundaries that will suit everyone’s needs. Basically, you have to become really good at relationships in order to navigate multiples of them! Here are some tidbits of relationship wisdom from Easton and Hardy:
1. Practice Emotional Honesty
Both with your partner and yourself. It’s essential in relationships to be aware of how you are feeling so that you can ask for the support you need from your partner. If you are unaware of or denying an intense emotion, common strategies to avoid feeling pain, you are missing an important opportunity to communicate a need to your partner, and you may act out unexpectedly when your partner- surprise!- doesn’t act accordingly. If examining your emotions is a challenge, journaling, meditating, and counseling can be extremely useful tools.
2. Communication is Key!
During conflict, sharing how you are feeling with your partner so that you can feel heard is the next essential step. Easton and Hardy note that is important to own your feelings, rather than blaming others for causing them. After all, feelings arise within ourselves- no one can make you feel a certain way, and owning your feelings allows your partner to comfort you, even if you don’t agree on how to solve the conflict. Easton and Hardy recommend practicing sharing how you are feeling without using the word “you” in order to avoid blaming. Sharing such vulnerable emotions can be scary, which is why it’s important as the listening partner to validate how your partner is feeling. Pause before responding and reflect back what you heard your partner say, to show them that you were really listening. If your partner is hurt, approach them with empathy and caring, regardless of if you agree with them or not. Then it is your turn to do the sharing. According to Easton and Hardy, a fight is not successful if one person loses; in a good fight, it’s a win-win outcome because everyone feels heard.
3. Get Your Needs Met
This one goes for single folks as well as people in relationships: Pay attention to how you get your sexual, emotional and social needs met. You may get each of things met from a variety of sources (lovers, friends, family, coworkers, etc), but Easton and Hardy argue that it’s important to be aware of these needs and how you meet them. If you deny that you have these needs, you will end up subconsciously trying to fulfill them in ways that ultimately won’t work for you or are possibly destructive.
4. Negotiate Agreements
Relationships are based on many unspoken agreements between partners, such as the roles each partner takes, which behaviors are acceptable, etc. Sometimes, though, your relationship will benefit from more explicit agreements- the process of negotiating acceptable boundaries and behaviors so that everyone’s needs are met. According to Easton and Hardy, you will know when it’s time to sit down and form an agreement by paying attention to your emotions, such as when you feel hurt. Rather than criticizing your partner for breaking an unspoken agreement that they didn’t know existed, use it as an opportunity to work together in order to avoid future conflict. Easton and Hardy note that it’s important that agreements need to be consensual, and that everyone involved should collaborate. Knowing one’s own feelings and being able to communicate them is vital to taking an active role in the collaboration.
*Note: I read the 2nd edition, but the 3rd edition came out this month!
Not sure if you should give couples therapy a try? Couples therapy is often only seen as a viable option when it is an alternative to breaking up – a last ditch effort to save the relationship. While therapy can certainly be a game changer for couples in crisis, I believe that it can also be helpful to view couples therapy as preventative healthcare for your relationship. Here are some instances in which couples therapy might be helpful:
You and your partner(s) are experiencing a major transition
Whether it’s moving in together, getting married, having a baby or beginning a long distance relationship, therapy can help strengthen the foundation of your relationship as well as prepare you for obstacles you may face along this new journey. For example: When you’re facing a transition that may mean spending less time together, it’s important to form boundaries around your relationship, such as scheduling a regular date night for you to reconnect after the busy work week. Or, if you are moving in together, it can be helpful to discuss how you will maintain boundaries around your own individual identity, as well. Many couples benefit from treating therapy like a “check up” at the doctor’s office- why not invest a little time and energy to ensure your relationship is in good health?
Couples therapy can also be helpful when you and your partner are experiencing a loss. Grief can feel incredibly isolating, and can take on a toll on a relationship even if you know your partner is experiencing something similar. Couples therapy can help you turn towards each other for support during this difficult time instead of each battling it on your own.
Sex is unsatisfying
Many couples report that while everything else is going well in their relationship, sex has declined over time. Or, perhaps there is a discrepancy in desire between partners, or one partner is uncomfortable with another’s sexual interests. Despite humans being sexual creatures, many of us are unfortunately never educated about how to discuss and problem solve around sex. While it may feel easier to brush aside one’s own sexual needs instead of addressing them head on, it is important for the long term health of your relationship to find ways that both partners can feel sexually satisfied. Couples therapy can be a safe space to learn how to talk about sex with your partner.
You have different expectations for the future
We all carry with us (consciously or not) expectations for relationships and families based on what we grew up with. If you and your partner grew up in different cultures or family structures, it can be helpful to have a safe space to thoughtfully discuss what values are important to each of you.
If you are interested in setting up an appointment for couples therapy, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org !