Our “Tug-of-War”

As human beings, relationships are very important to us.  We’re social creatures, who thrive on mutual support, interaction and validation.  It’s indeed a rare and atypical person who is an “island”.

This observation certainly applies in the domain of our intimate relationships.  Staying shy of the codependent extreme, there’s truth in Barbara Streisand’s Funny Girl song lyrics observing that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world”.

The engaging and incisive psychotherapist Esther Perel makes a key observation about our human nature:  we are torn beings. (See her riveting TED talk on the secret to desire in a long-term relationship.)   On the one hand, we strive for long-term security and stability in our relationships.  We want to be with someone we can trust and rely on.  On the other hand, we thrive on the adrenaline rush of new and exciting experiences, and we are drawn to the “forbidden fruit” of relationships outside our cozy but confining usual sphere.

This dual draw makes sense, from an evolutionary-biology perspective.  We of course need security and stability in order to prosper.  We need to know that our basic needs can be met, in a predictable way.  At the same time, our urge to explore gives us adaptiveness, such that if something in our environment changes in a survival-threatening way, our inclination to explore alternatives may give us a badly-needed “plan B”.

Our society extols the virtues of unwavering monogamous commitment to our partner.   (Never mind that few of us seem able to meet such a lofty expectation).  However, that same society demonizes and penalizes any straying from this often-unattainable “ideal”.  In doing so, we put in place cultural prohibitions and expectations that effectively deny— or, worse, repress— the experimental and novelty-seeking side of our nature.  Such a stance can only lead to problems, in the form of unmet expectations, social stigma, and personal disappointment and heartbreak.

As Esther Perel points out, it is essential to the health of a relationship that it allow for playfulness and experimentation, in some appropriate form.  Each couple must determine how to introduce the needed novelty into their relationship, in order to keep it fresh, alive and engaging.  Failure to make such an accommodation is likely to lead to a stale and moribund relationship.  Allowing for experimentation takes trust, imagination and a willingness to sometimes step outside one’s “comfort zone”.  Those can be challenging to muster.  However, the payback can be big: a relationship that adapts to the challenges that life invariably presents, and a relationship that constantly offers new things for the partners to share and enjoy.  Thank goodness for our conflicted nature— it’s a good thing!

Baby Steps

Not surprisingly, launching a new coaching practice in an area that involves the “third-rail” topic of sexuality is challenging.  One of the big challenges is to figure out how best to connect with people who are receptive to thinking and talking about sensuality, sexuality and intimacy.  Where do those “fish swim”?  On some level, these are almost universal concerns— but in spite of their interest, many people are carrying too much “baggage” to be able to directly and productively engage their sexual side.

There’s a large sex-positive community in Portland (OR)— people who embrace their sexuality, many of whom are quite open-minded and experimental.  That is likely to be fertile terrain.  Delivering free talks in such a forum seems like a promising avenue to pursue, so I’m doing that.  Participating in the many sub-groups of that community is also promising…  both in person, and through online dialog.  As a step toward building community, I’ve also started a meeting group (the Loving Softly group on Meetup.com). Still looking for a private, comfortable and affordable meeting location for that group; it’s probably not the best for hosting at the local public library!

I’m greatly looking forward to getting past these tottering initial baby-steps, and on to interaction with a vigorous community.  It’ll be great to enjoy the company of fellow explorers, and to have regular opportunities to contribute my professional expertise!

Good to Be Back

This blog has unfortunately been inactive for several months, due to the many twists and turns that Life takes.  Since my last post, I have earned a doctorate in Human Sexuality— work that is very relevant to the mission of this site and blog.

Sexuality and intimacy are complex and challenging subjects.  There is literally a world of knowledge about these subjects out there, but such knowledge is merely a navigational aid in the experience of living one’s sexuality.  Armed with my large body of formal knowledge, I now look forward to creating ways for people to engage in honest, trusting discussion of these important subjects.

There is normally little opportunity for people to do so, in our often prudish and sex-negative society.  Sex is often seen as a “third-rail” topic in our culture; touch it and die!  In spite of this, sexuality and sensuality are central forces in our lives as human beings; sex is, in essence, our “life-force”.  This dichotomy puts people in the very unfortunate position of having to disown and avoid the acceptance of their sexuality. Widespread personal pain ensues from this rift.

My hope for this blog, this site and the other activities that I orchestrate is to provide fertile terrain for the creation of an online and “real-world” community in which these topics can be safely and constructively discussed.  I believe that there is a latent though tightly bottled-up demand for a space in which to conduct such personal explorations.  If you’re reading this blog and find that you resonate with this idea, please nurture it by sharing your thoughts. Your comments are welcome, and they’ll benefit all participants— including yourself!  Let’s work together to increase our personal freedom.

Spooning to Nirvana

I recently came across an interesting and thought-provoking article online.  The article reported on findings of a strong correlation between a couple’s overall level of happiness, and their preference for sleeping very close together.

Of course, there are perfectly contented couples who need to have “personal space” in order to sleep comfortably.  Personally, though, I was not surprised to read about these findings.  My wife and I sleep in various creatively-intertwined poses— a state that we call contentedly “inter-twingled”.  We may settle into our own individual side-by-side spaces, after a while; but we almost always start off lovingly in each other’s arms (and legs).

In that intimate space, we take the time to unwind, and to share the day’s highlights with one another.  For us, this is the most “real” and valued time of each day.  (My wife Penny is convinced that we should start a “cuddle institute”— indeed, we have recently read about at least a few entrepreneurial ladies who are apparently doing very well by offering (non-sexual) cuddle-time to their clients.  Again not too surprising, since we live in such a hands-off, touch-starved society…

There  is something primal and elemental about being in close proximity to someone you love.  It goes far beyond that sexual, and deep into the territory of the intimate.  As I noted in an earlier post, we humans are neurologically “wired” for touch, as are our primate cousins.  Warm and accepting touch conveys caring, acceptance and safety, in a way that no words can remotely approach.

Sleeping in close proximity is especially satisfying for couples who sleep naked. The electric frisson of skin-on-skin absolutely conveys a flow of energy between partners.  Such intimate connection allows each partner to both give and receive marvelous sensations, through gentle brushes of hands or limbs, or the whisper of warm breath, or the reassuring murmur of a loved one’s peaceful heartbeat.  Skin-on-skin contact is the foundation of sensual touch (and a possible though not necessary gateway to sexual sparks).

In our culture (as in many others), people walk around surrounded by an inviolable “bubble” of personal space.  That perhaps gives one a sense of control and safety— I’m not sure I understand the underlying psychology, though I too value having some space, and I get uncomfortable in jam-packed conditions.  Still, with those who are important to me, I welcome physical contact.  That can range from a casual brush of a hand, through warm and open eye-contact, and on into the myriad forms that sensual, sexual intimate touch takes.  I find all such touch to be deeply satisfying and validating, and I know that my partners equally value it.

Sleeping in cozy conjunction has a lot to offer.  Give it a try, if it isn’t part of your usual routine.  It can work wonders to reinforce links of caring, as one of the many ways in which caring partners can reach out to one another.  Sleep tight!


In the Beautiful Moment

Yesterday afternoon offered me one of those “what could be better?” moments that we’re all luck enough to experience every so often.  Looking across the lovely little river adjacent to my home, I was taken by the dappled slanting evening sunlight filtering through the bright spring-green tree canopy.  Two ducks flew downriver, mere feet above the glassy water, intent upon whatever it is that occupies ducks’ attention.  A trio of eagles drifted by far overhead, lazily drifting on the wind.

In being treated to this moment of beauty and tranquility, I realized the many ways in which beauty steals into our lives— if only we open ourselves to it.  As  sexologist, my mind drifted to my appreciation of the beauty of the human form.  I find few things as moving as the gentle swelling of a woman’s breast, or the titillating dip and turn of a graceful hip.  We humans are “wired” to resonate with this beauty.  I’m sure that the sensitivity to beauty that I experience as a heterosexual male is echoed in women’s and in gay or lesbian individuals’ responses to the beauty of the human form.

All of this is a reminder to me that our sexuality is a deep and direct connection to our overall experience of being alive.  Sex is a good and a beautiful thing; it opens our eyes, quickens our pulse, and thrills us with the sheer joy of being alive.  Given that sex is such a primal force in our life, we need to be sure to be open to its gifts, and we should do what we can to embrace it.  In slowing our frenetic pace enough to become receptive, and in recognizing and rejecting the acquired sex-negative attitudes that might otherwise blunt our appreciation, we can reconnect ourselves with a major wellspring of joy and energy.  Long live sex!