How Emotions Become Sexualized

In previous posts, I have written at length on the relationship between emotions and sexuality. You can see some of these articles here and here. I think most people can conceptualize how emotions can play a large part in sexual expression, but what most people often don’t understand is how emotions can actually be the primary fuel of sexuality, and in some cases, may even be the source of sexual arousal itself.

When strong negative emotions such as anger are experienced, they feel extremely uncomfortable and painful to tolerate, so the natural human impulse is to escape away or defend oneself from the pain. We may try to distract ourselves from the pain by burying ourselves in work or in seeking thrills such as alcohol, drugs, or risky sex. At other times, we may develop what’s called a counterphobic reaction to the pain by actually courting more of it as a means of building mastery over it. By taking up a counterphobic response we actually adapt strategies to face the pain head on rather than run away from it.

One example of a counterphobic response is what is known as reaction formation, which means taking on an air of overly exaggerated positive affect in response to something that may fear or hate. Examples of this can be found in many social situations . We’ve all seen group situations where people may act as if they are ecstatic to see someone about whom they were just disparaging privately. Other examples of counterphobic behavior would be the individual who becomes a pilot in order to overcome a fear […]

When Love and Lust are Split

One of the most common concerns I come across as a therapist is in the difficulty many people experience in reconciling relationships (love) with sexuality (lust). Indeed, I would say that almost all sexual difficulties exist within the framework of relationships. Very few would seek out help if their sexual difficulty were not interfering with some aspect of an existing relationship or in the possibility of starting a new one. Whether is is dysfunction, compulsivity, or just an inability to get one’s needs met, all sexual issues become magnified under the microscope of romantic relationships.

Often, core emotions interfere with integrating one’s sexuality into the relationship. For example, fear or shame often prevents an individual from not only directly stating his or her needs and desires in the moment but may even lead to starting up a relationship under false pretenses. I’ve seen countless individuals trapped in an unfulfilling and unhappy life of their own doing because they were too ashamed to be open about their sexuality with their partners from the very beginning.

Sometimes the sexual desire is so shameful, that the individual has learned to compartmentalize it and only experience it in secrecy. As a result, that person splits the sexual desire from any emotions that are connected to other people and relationships. It is only safe to be enjoyed alone or with another individual from whom all emotional attachment is removed. In other words, the individual’s sexuality (lust) can only be shared with an objectified other. And never with a person with whom that individual has an emotional connection.

The famed sexologist Jack Morin […]

The Hidden Meaning of Sexual Fantasies

Sexual fantasies can create a wide mix of reactions for people. They may often feel exciting and exhilarating. But often sexual fantasies may feel troubling for the person who is experiencing them. They may seem so at odds with the person’s view of themselves that the individual may feel intense shame and a strong desire to do anything to get rid of them. Often though, the sexual fantasies are harmless and trying to understand them, rather than push them away, will be the most helpful strategy to disarm them. Many times, the fantasy actually loses all its power if acted upon; the strength of the fantasy is only in the fantasy.

I see sexual fantasies as types of waking dreams. And just as many people keep dream journals or like to discuss their dreams with friends or their therapist, so too can sexual fantasies be analyzed in much the same. Just like dreams, sexual fantasies can be seen as wish-fulfillment. For example, someone who feels overburdened with responsibility may experience frequent fantasies involving submission scenarios, where the full brunt of responsibility is shifted to another person. Or, someone who feels  invisible in his or her daily life may experience fantasies involving power, dominance, and control.

Fantasies involving strangers or numerous partners can point towards a strong desire for anonymity. Fantasies involving aggressive acts or rough sex may indicate an underlying feeling of rage towards the object of the fantasy or just simply a desire for reckless abandon in the face of a daily life filled with keeping up a facade of collected calm and control. Fantasies […]

Addicted to Addiction

Last week, a colleague consulted with me on a challenging case in which his client cannot enjoy sex unless he is engaged in smoking. The client, who also struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), specifically cites the feeling of being addicted to nicotine as the most arousing aspect of this behavior. In other words, he is aroused by addiction.

In trying to make sense of this, I think the first thing to understand is the role that this person’s OCD plays in his everyday experience of life. Many would argue that OCD is some sort of inborn disruption of the neurochemicals in the brain, and maybe there’s some truth to that in some cases, but the first things that I look at are the themes of anxiety and control. Specifically, how do this person’s obsessions and compulsions help him to gain a greater sense of control over his anxiety?  In my experience, an individual experiencing either obsessions (incessant thoughts) or compulsions (incessant behaviors) inevitably uses either or both of these as strategies to manage and control anxiety. Unfortunately, they often only serve the purpose of making the anxiety worse.

Often, other people will categorize those who suffer with OCD as “anal” or “control freaks,” but this controlling behavior can best be understood as an antidote to the overwhelming feeling of anxiety that these folks experience on a regular basis. The constant ruminating (obsessional thinking) and ritualized behaviors (compulsions) can come across as overly controlled, but this is the only way that these folks have learned to defend against constant and intense anxiety.

This is where I think the […]

How Do You Know if You are Ready to be in a Relationship?

This is an article I originally wrote for the dating website Singles Warehouse…

Let’s say you’ve been single for a while, or maybe you recently got out of a relationship and you are ready to start dating again. This time, you want the relationship to last, but how do you know that you are ready to begin something new and healthy?

Before hitting the dating scene, make sure you ask yourself the following three questions:

Do you feel like you have a full life?

Do you have a variety of friends and social events on your calendar? Do you have hobbies and activities that you feel passionate about? Do you feel like you have a purpose in your life? If so, chances are that you are more ready to include someone else in your happiness.

If, however, you are hoping that someone else will provide you with all these things, you may be sorely mistaken.  Expecting someone else to make you happy places a ton of pressure and unrealistic expectations onto the relationship. This kind of one-sided dynamic rarely works out, often burdening the other partner and sending them running for the hills.

Do you like who you are?

This is similar to the previous question, but more internally focused. Answering this question requires brutal self-honesty, but it is very important to sort out. You can help yourself along by asking yourself the following questions. Do you usually feel upbeat and optimistic, or depressed and anxious? Do you feel that you deserve to be loved and in a relationship, or if someone were to show interest, would you wonder if […]

When It Comes to Sex, It’s All About Intent

As a therapist, I am often asked to differentiate between positive and healthy sexual behavior and that behavior which can be considered “pathological,” or unhealthy. The difference is often a very fine line, seeming vague and unclear to most observers. When it comes down to it, two different people can be engaged in the exact same behavior, but for two radically different reasons– one that enhances the person’s life and the other that undermines it. When trying to determine what is healthy or not when it comes to sex, what it often boils down to is intent.

By intent,  I mean the purpose underlying the person’s actions. Is the sexual act creating pleasure and fulfillment in the lives of everyone involved, or is it coercive and manipulative, pleasing one person but exploiting or harming others? As an example, I recently did an interview with a magazine writer who was inquiring about the swinger subculture. The journalist wanted to know if it was a healthy activity for couples, and my answer, as is often the case, was… it depends. Has the couple discussed clearly what they expect from their encounter? Have they discussed hard limits and boundaries? Are they clear on why they are looking to open up the relationship? In that case, if everyone is on board and clear about what they want, then the experience may be positive and add fuel to their sexual relationship. However, it is also not uncommon for someone to drag the other person into a party under covert threat of the dissolution of the relationship if the other person […]

What Role Does Anger Play in Sexual Dysfunctions?

Sexual dysfunction– whether an inability to achieve erection, premature ejaculation, pain or discomfort– afflicts millions of people around the world. Recent data suggests that about 30 million men in the US suffer with erectile dysfunction (ED), for example, and one in four of them are below the age of 40.  While older guys are more likely to have some physical ailment, such as a cardiovascular condition, primarily contribute to the ED, for a large number of men, especially the younger guys, the ED stems primarily from a psychological and emotional issue. In my practice, I mainly see the younger guys struggling with ED, and for them, drugs such as Viagra and Cialis, while a miracle cure for older guys with health issues, do very little to solve their difficulties.

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on ED, although the basic principles would apply for all the other kinds of sexual dysfunctions that people may experience. When we take a closer look at psychological or emotional issues, such obvious ones as anxiety and fear come to mind as likely contributors. Clearly, someone who is anxious about their performance and fearful of a shameful experience if the sex act doesn’t go well, is more likely to struggle with ED symptoms. But I would like to take a closer look at another problematic emotion that often gets overlooked– anger. Folks who regularly read this blog may recall a previous post where I detailed how anger (and its intense cousin, rage) can wreak havoc on the body. In this particular article, I would like the […]

Couples: To Deepen Feelings– Show, Not Tell

This is an older article I wrote a number of years ago.  I thought it would an appropriate piece to resurrect for Valentine’s Day, especially in light of its message to show your sweetie through actions how much you care… Enjoy.

This piece of advice for couples falls solidly in the “Actions Speak Louder than Words” category.

When I work with couples, I often need to remind everyone that human relationships are based on feelings. Yes, we may have initially been attracted to someone based on looks, charm, confidence, or other attributes, but what keeps us connected to that person is how they make us feel. And those feelings are shaped based on the way that we are treated. Actions. When it comes to feelings, words often prove to be empty and hollow.

Sure it feels good to have someone say something flattering, but it won’t be sustained if that person’s actions are incongruent with their words. For example, if someone praises us for our intelligence but then acts in a condescending manner, those words are not only meaningless, but make the person seem untrustworthy. If someone praises our looks but then ignores us on a date, that person seems to be nothing but a fraud and liar.

So, with that in mind, I often tell my couples if you want to make the other person feel good, you have to “Show, not Tell.” Let’s take a look at how this can be applied immediately within the relationship. If one partner is feeling neglected or low on the other person’s list of priorities, instead of telling the hurt […]

When Resentment Takes Hold of a Relationship

Often when I see troubled relationships, there really is no one true source of the problem. In other words, there isn’t one central issue that is undermining the relationship, but rather years and years of multiple troubles piled one on top of another. Trying to get at the root of the issue becomes almost untenable as mistrust, poor communication, and most importantly RESENTMENT cloud the picture and interfere with peeling away all those years of negative layers. Above and beyond all else, many couples’ most dire root problem is the resentment that they have built up for each other. This resentment prevents proper communication, undermines trust, prevents clarity and creates an environment of rage and despair.  Whenever I hear that a couple is on-again/off-again, or has a “love/hate” relationship or “love each other, but can’t live together” or any other ridiculous cliche that is being bandied about, I can already state with a high degree of certitude that resentment is eating away at the relationship.

But where does this resentment come from? How is it created? And what can be done about it?

Resentment forms when one or both parties feel that their needs or expectations are not being met. For example, if one partner feels that they are always doing what the other person wants to do, then they will start to feel resentful if this issue is not addressed (see the previous article about Power Imbalances). Likewise, lack of sex, lack of intimacy, lack of sharing, and lack of understanding, perceived or real are all reasons for the formation of resentment.  The key reasons […]

The Four Horsemen of Relationship Doom

When a couple comes in for treatment, I can often see behaviors that undermine the relationship within just a few minutes of speaking with the couple. Specifically, there are four distinct behaviors that spell doom for any relationship. In the first few sessions, I will usually explain these harmful behaviors and help the couple to catch themselves in the act.

In the previous post, the Triangular Theory of Love, I mentioned Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist who specializes in research about marriages and relationships. In his years of research he has identified these four types of relationship behaviors (which he called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) and based on their presence, has been able to predict within 90% accuracy which relationship will succeed and which will fail. These behaviors all consist of ways that people react when dealt with adversity or conflict in the relationship. In other words, Gottman claims that it is not the underlying problem, but the ways that the couple reacts to the problem which determines the fate of the relationship. He found that all of these four behaviors were common in marriages that ended up in divorce.

The behaviors are:

1. Criticism- this is when one partner constantly criticizes the other and makes it personal. For example, instead of criticizing a mistake, the partner will attack the personality or character of the partner instead of just the action. This is most commonly a behavior trait of women.

2. Contempt- this is when the criticism gets particularly hostile, including name calling and cursing. This indicates a total lack of respect within the relationship.

3. Defensiveness- […]

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Cosmo- April 2014

cosmoI am featured in the Sex Q&A section of Cosmo's April 2014 issue, in which I get asked about BJs, Plan B, sex in hot tubs, and all kinds of other tittilating reader questions. They did a good job of adding all kinds of humor, including a silly picture of tea bags-- need I say more? It's a can't- miss hoot. Go and check it out at news stands now!

Sex For Smart People Podcast

sex for smart peopleI just recently did an interview for a cool podcast called Sex For Smart People. Here is their description of the show: Sex therapist/psychoanalyst Dr. Michael Aaron is our guest of honor this time. Hear his and our perspectives on things like: What to do when you feel less ravenous about sex than your partner feels? Is it really honestly possible to feel coziness/familiarity and also sexiness/mystery/excitement in a long term partnership? How do you begin to talk to your partner about your interest in power play? (Trigger warning, around the half hour mark, we talk explicitly about rape fantasies.) And did you know that *just this past year*, kinky behavior was officially de-pathologized in clinical psychology terms (we think it is about f*****g time)? Plus, Dave is super silly and time)? Plus, Dave is super silly and loopy on NyQuil, and he and Stephanie share their favorite pick-up lines. [audio mp3=""][/audio]