Every year at this time I look ahead, anticipating the challenges couples will face regarding sex, love, and intimacy.
In 2018 these will undoubtedly include infertility (and the consequences of fertility treatment); erection problems (including troubling new ways it’s being defined); managing menopause; and anorgasmia or painful sex in women and men.
I’m also aware of the cruel impact of criminalizing abortion; continued censorship of sex education; the barbaric punishment of teen sexual expression; the ever-expanding sex offender databases that protect no one; and the effects of health and aging on sexuality(in an increasingly older, and therefore less healthy, population).
Summing it all up, we can condense most of the sex/love/intimacy challenges that people will face next year into these four categories: Infidelity; Pornography; Desire Discrepancies; and Conflict Management.
That’s not to minimize the seriousness of other issues, but these four involve aspects of them all (including guilt, shame, autonomy, body image, fear of being known, childhoodtrauma, and existential issues).
These four challenges are all driven by urgent concerns about what’s “normal,” well-defined cultural myths and social pressures, and rigid gender stereotypes (still!).
And as the internet is increasingly influential in our lives, the definition and complexity of all four of these has changed. We have more choices than ever before, including the interface with more potential partners than ever. As the internet instantaneously brings us the entire world (past, present, and even future), our own lives and relationships often seem terribly pale and limited in comparison.
And with so much of daily life happening online, most people’s communication and conflict management skills have eroded—or did not fully develop in the first place. For most people, smartphone use does undermine intimacy and sexuality.
Ultimately, I see these topics as four sides of the same coin. In all of them, difficulties frequently degenerate into struggles to determine who is right, who is a good person, whose definitions of things shall prevail, and who will control the narrative of what has happened—and therefore what needs to happen now.
When people lack sufficient curiosity about how their partner feels and why they want what they do, coupled with insufficient communication skills and the ability to disagree productively, the result is relationship gridlock. Which weakens sexual connections, of course.
Couples coming for therapy often want me to understand that they definitely do love each other—as if that can be a substitute for skills, patience, empathy, self-discipline, and a genuine comfort with the messy business of sexuality. I’m afraid it isn’t.
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Unfortunately, most therapists get very little (or very poor) training on sexual issues such as desire and pornography. Some therapists actually reinforce harmful myths in their patients, like “Secure attachment always leads to strong sexual desire,” and “Pornography use is a form of infidelity.”
Other therapists see sex addiction in almost every conflict (such as in infidelity, interest in ‘kinky sex’, porn use, going to sex workers, contrasting sex drives), which typically punishes men without creating sexual intimacy or satisfaction for the couple.
In the arena of sexuality, most would-be therapists must depend solely on what they've learned from life (and the mass media). In America, that almost always involves shame, guilt, secrecy, and male-female stereotyping. If you are seeking help, make sure your therapist has additional training; otherwise therapists are in a very difficult position when facing sex and intimacy problems in the office—-just like their patients.