One of the key topics that I cover in my Common Issues in Partners’ Sex Therapy class is how to work with those relationships that are undergoing some sort of a transition. What I mean by a “transition” in this case, especially when it comes to sex therapy, is some new item of information that is introduced into the relationship which also serves to destabilize that relationship.
What are some examples of this kind of destabilizing information? Here are some common ones– one partner introduces a desire for a specific kind of sex (or fetish) that is found to be repulsive or offensive to the other partner; one partner shares a desire to open up the relationship and explore some form on non-monogamy; or, and this was more common in the past, but still happens frequently enough, one partner shares information about his or her orientation or preferred gender that is at odds with the other partner’s prior knowledge or understanding. Regarding the last item, these types of relationships are called “mixed orientation” relationships. In the recent past, with a lessening of homophobia in general society, this kind of disclosing was likely to be of a man opening up to be homosexual. These days, my observation is that, while that still does happen, mixed orientation couples tend to be more of a hetero/bi dynamic. But I digress.
Let’s now talk about some specifics of how I work with relationships that find themselves in transition. The first and most important step (as is the case in any type of psychotherapy) is to create a safe space for both partners to feel free to share their subjective experience of the situation. I think it’s very important in this stage to model a type of curiosity, rather than judgment between the partners. So, I will focus my attention on asking questions that will encourage deeper reflection and self-examination. For example, I may ask both the interested and disinterested partner (the one who is disgusted by a fetish or uninterested in nonmonogamy, etc) open-ended questions such as “what does this activity mean for you,” or “what do you imagine would happen if you engaged in this activity,” and so on. I don’t need to dwell on this further, but the point I’m trying to make is I want to create an environment that feels safe, non-judgmental, non-shaming, curious-minded, and collaborative.
From here on out is where the road divides, usually depending on the mind set and beliefs of the “disinterested” partner. Often times, one partner may be hiding parts of their sexuality for years in fear that they may be shamed and harshly judged by their partner, only to find out that their partner is not only not judging, but perhaps has even been interested in trying the activity all along! Great! Or maybe the partner isn’t totally on board, but they are open to exploring further. In this case, depending on the needs of the relationship, we’ll discuss staged approaches to trying new behaviors (for example, going to a swinger or BDSM party but only to watch at first, rather than engage). I often help my couples to create “menus,” much like a menu in a restaurant, in which they identify behaviors they are eager to try, those that they are curious but anxious about, and those that are off-limits. From there, I help them to negotiate and co-create experiences that incorporate the preferences and desires outlined in both menus. That’s somewhat of a short summary; I go into much greater detail in my upcoming book Modern Sexuality, to be released in October by Rowman & Littlefield publishers.
Other times, the response is much more negative, with severe fallout and negative consequences. In these cases, usually the fate of the relationship comes down to four distinct choices: a) both partners agree that the interested party will continue to suppress his/her desires, b) the disinterested partner will try to appease the interested partner, often with mixed results, c) both partners agree to dissolve the relationship, or d) both partners agree to something akin to a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) type of scenario. Let’s go through each one in turn, with some commentary on how, in my experience, I usually see these situations play out.
Let’s start with option (a), suppression of desires. Let me first state that there is no right or wrong decision, and I honor and respect the choices and self-agency of all of the couples that I work with. That said though, to me the decision to suppress some aspect of one’s sexuality is usually not ideal. It is not sustainable and doesn’t lead to happiness, authenticity, or relationship satisfaction. It is often the byproduct of a rigid system that is unable to be fluid enough to integrate large-scale changes into the system. That said, it is not my decision to make, as I am only a facilitator. What we are really talking about here is an “existential dilemma,” one that forces the individual to choose between identity and values (sexual desires) and attachment (relationship) and often there is no easy clear-cut solution.
Moving on to option (b), in which the disinterested partner tries to appease the other partner, I have often found that this is also an incomplete solution. Often, due to some combination of disinterest and/or revulsion, the disinterested partner may try to put on a good face, but the other partner still doesn’t obtain the experience they desire because it is so clear that the disinterested party is not enjoying it. As a result, we may often find ourselves with a toxic mix of resentment and frustration.
Option (c), dissolution of relationship, is often the last choice, as I intentionally take on the biased stance of advocating in favor of the relationship until all options have been exhausted. That said, not all relationships are destined to exist forever, and I do not believe that relationships should be judged by length or whether or not the partners stay together. Some of the most beautiful relationships I’ve seen were time-limited, in that one partner needed to move away, but they were still very healthy, as both individuals learned and grew from each other, and I’ve also seen long-term relationships that were abusive and toxic.
Let’s move on to the final option, (d), DADT. I have found this to work well for some, and not so well for others. The defining factor, in my experience, is how strong the relationship was to begin with. A relationship with a strong foundation, with good trust and communication may do well with a DADT agreement. However, such a scenario could prove to create even more havoc and jealousy for a relationship with low trust and poor communication.
As you can see, relationships in transition are quite complicated, and usually offer few easy answers. Even though on the surface it appears we are looking at a sexual discrepancy, as I’ve hoped to describe though, the success of dealing with and integrating these sexual transitions often comes down to working with and strengthening the underlying relationship. Sometimes everyone is on board and we can then go right to having fun with new encounters and menus, but when we are stuck in an impasse, what we are often faced with is an existential dilemma that involves tough choices and difficult compromises. But no matter what, approaching the difficulty as allies, rather than adversaries, is the key to finding an arrangement that, even if less than ideal, works more or less for everyone.