We've all, at some point, gone through a rough patch in our sex lives.
You may have confessed your struggles to your girlfriends over brunch (à la "Sex and the City"), or you may have kept this to yourself. Even if you were brave enough to ask your friends for advice, they are not licensed professionals in this area.
I sat down with Dr. Teesha Morgan, Vancouver-based Sex Therapist and Couples Counselor, armed with questions from the busy women that I connect with through Secondhand Therapy. I was determined to nab some insights that would help everybody out.
What is the most common issue in sex therapy for couples that are in long-term relationships?
Dr. Teesha revealed that the number one struggle for couples who come to her with intimacy issues is that one person has a higher libido that the other. Couples come to her wanting to know that there is hope down the road for resolving this.
At the beginning of the relationship, Dr. Teesha explains, there is a honeymoon stage. It can feel devastating to couples when they have moved past this initial stage, but Dr. Teesha helps them to see that there are many other stages of intimacy that they will go through within their relationship. Some couples require a professional to help guide them through the next stages of physical intimacy.
How do you start to address differences in sex drive?
"Intimacy is a broad spectrum," Dr. Teesha stated. This spectrum extends both inside and outside of the bedroom.
Having goals and expectations for ourselves in the bedroom can set us up for failure. Approaching physical intimacy with the mindset of, "What can we create today?" has been liberating for many couples that she works with.
She also explains that women tend to need foreplay before they start to feel desire or drive. Masters & Johnson created the linear framework of the Sexual Response Cycle, but it was a model based mainly on the male sex drive. It turns out that for most women, desire/drive comes AFTER foreplay (based on research by Rosemary Basson). This means that most women need our partner to initiate foreplay in order for the desire to have sex kicks in. It is therefore crucial to communicate with our partners what we consider foreplay.
If couples are really struggling to re-connect, she will walk them through a series of sensate focus exercises, which encourage couples to focus on various sensations. These exercises progress through G-rated to the R-rated sense-based experiences. Couples pause to re-evaluate their feelings and reactions at each stage.
How do you get past seeing sex as one more obligation that you have to fulfill?
Dr. Teesha tackled this question from a few different angles.
First, she referred to Dr. Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages, and explained that if our "love tank" is empty, sex can start to feel like an obligation. This requires that our partner understands our primary love language: acts of service, words of affirmation, gifts, physical affection or quality time.
Second, women tend to "view sex as something that they are doing for someone else." If we are able to shift our mindset to view sex (or physical intimacy) as something pleasurable we are doing for ourselves, this can shift the power dynamic for couples. Sex becomes less about the giving and more about experiencing pleasure for ourselves.
Why are vibrators for women and porn for men such a big deal for so many straight, monogamous couples?
There can be a lot of shame attached, according to Dr. Teesha, especially stemming from family, culture and religion. Once we work past the shame, there are some considerations about the impact on the relationship.
Dr. Teesha encourages couples to consider if they are using it as a substitute. If so, why and what is the intention? Has this become a problem in the relationship?
If there is a major dissonance between what we are using to get turned on in private and what is happening in the bedroom, there is opportunity for a wedge to be created within the relationship.
Is there one major indicator that determines if a couple will make it?
I wasn't sure if Dr. Teesha would point to a sex-related indicator, but I figured she would have a lot of insight after working with so many couples.
It turns out that she would want to see the couple fight. She explains, it's not if we are fighting, it's how we fight that determines the success of the relationship.
She refers to the book, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman and Nan Silver, and their concept of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Gottman and Silver teach that if an argument is escalated using one of the four horseman (criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling), this can introduce a toxicity to a relationship that will make it difficult for it to survive long-term.
What if we have tried everything and are still struggling?
Some couples get caught in a cycle and need professional intervention to move past an issue. A licensed professional can help to mediate and also help to determine if this is something to be worked through individually or as a couple. According to Dr. Teesha, 25% of the couples that come in to see her, a red flag comes up during their initial interview and she ends of doing a series of one-on-one sessions with an individual.
A sex therapist has specific and tangible tools to deal with certain things that a regular family counsellor would not necessarily have. For example, most family therapists would not be trained in specific techniques to deal with something like premature ejaculation.
A call to action!
If any of this information has challenged your perspective or assumptions, make sure you discuss this with your significant other. If you are having trouble communicating, consider working with a licensed professional to help you navigate these delicate conversations.
For more resources on your overall emotional wellbeing and to grab a free 30 page eBook, "Start Investing in Your Emotional Wellbeing," visit secondhandtherapy.com.