The Life-giving Power of Touch

young man puts on jewelry on beautiful womanI am a great believer that it is the emotional connection that matters in relationships. It’s true: emotions matter. But this post from positive psychologist, Emilia Zhivotovskaya adds a little more complexity to the equation. and also a new avenue to explore to strengthen intimacy in marriage. I recommend her full blog entry on the Positive Psychology News site, you can read her entry here.

The bottom line, in case you don’t have the time to read the full posting, is that  our bodies have naturally occurring oxytocin that gets activated and released when we experience touch, or when we feel connected, loved and cared for. Even if that feeling is generated through social media like facebook.

Of course, we don’t have to sit helplessly and hope someone will show care and love through facebook. Even thinking about someone who loves you or  someone you deeply care for is enough to activate the release of oxytocin.

Best of all though, if you want to stimulate the most potent release of oxytocin, it  is actually experienced through physical touch. In a TED Talk, Dr. Zak prescribes at least 8 hugs per day to feel happier and more connected, as well as to nurture relationships.

Now you really need to read Emilia’s post here for the full story. But, in the meantime, do yourself a favor—go hug someone!

Dr. Don Russell and Associates provides counselling therapy through this site: russellcounselling.com.

Dr. Don Russell also offers seminars and workshops. Check out improveyourmarriage.ca for Marriage and sex Seminars and Retreats and drdonrussell.com for  professional development seminars

Brene Brown on the Corrosive Power of Shame: And What To Do About It

Brene Brown, a researcher in social work, speaks for a second time at TED Talks on shame. Many, many times on the couples counselling office obstacles to intimacy surface that are related to fear of vulnerability in relationships; fear of being exposed as less than. It creates huge problems. Dr. Brown shines a bright light on shame. That bright light can reduce the power that shame has over people, and reduces the impairing impact on relationships.

 

Do you have the Courage to Be Vulnerable?

kissing couple5Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly is a must read! She takes ideas and concepts that we experience in life and relationships and she puts words around them.  I highly recommend the book for therapists who want to help couples improve the level of intimacy in their relationships.

I also have been recommending the book to clients: individuals and couples. Here’s the book page on Amazon.

If you aren’t a reader, don’t despair. You can get a good taste of Dr. Brown’s message here posted below.

Let me know what you think of her message.

The Great Communication Gap: Voices from the Gap

 

Many, many couples start off their couples young-couple1counselling saying to me, ‘we are having trouble communicating’. I’ve learned that that is often one of those half truths: it’s really true that they’re not communicating well, but there are other things going on that is making the communication challenged. Those ‘other things’ are for another blog entry. For today, I want to share some examples of the communication gap in one of the most sensitive areas of married life; the couples sex life. The Blogger who goes by the name ‘Hot, Holy, & Humorous’ has collected reports from husbands on ‘what they wish their wives knew about sexuality – you will be surprised.

Here’s the link:

Hot, Holy and Humorous: Hearing from the Hubbies Wrap-Up…and a Tease:

These posts can serve as great conversation started for couples to get some unspoken topics out on to the table – always a good thing….done respectfully, of course.

As always let me know what you think.

Getting the Obstacles out of the Way 3/7: Where’s Your Head At?

I’ve attempted the spiritual discipline called centering prayer. In a nutshell, it is clearing your mind about everything, except one thing, a mantra or centering phrase. Sounds easy, right? If you have ever tried it you know that it is very difficult. First time I tried this discipline -which by the way is supposed to bring calm and peace – I was shocked at how much ‘noise’ is going on inside my head filling in the vacuum.

What does this have to do with sex and intimacy in marriage, you ask? A lot actually.

Couple in bed communicatingWhen we make ourselves vulnerable sexually with our spouse, it is supposed to be a time of focusing on one thing, but like the spiritual discipline of centering prayer, it can be the trigger for a tide of random and frequently negative thoughts.

Random thoughts?

One author I read a while ago likened the mind to a young, untrained puppy. It doesn’t intend to drive us nuts. A puppy just hasn’t learned to behave itself and so it will pee on the carpet from time to time.  Likewise, our mind will go where it shouldn’t because it hasn’t been trained yet either. Especially, it seems with sex, our mind can simply start wandering. For many of us, our thoughts wonder out of the bedroom and we find ourselves rehashing a conflict from work, wondering if the kids can hear, should we replace this squeaky bed, can we afford a new bed?, planning lunches for the kids tomorrow. You get the idea. Just about anything and everything EXCEPT where we want our mind to be, which is focused on the sexual enjoyment and intimacy happening right now.

Even worse than random thoughts are the negative, judgmental ones. For some reason our mind doesn’t usually suffer from intrusive POSITIVE thoughts. Hmm? The thoughts that intrude and distract can also be a cascade of negative, critical evaluations of oneself, one’s partner, the sexual encounter.

It is called ‘spectatoring’ and it is one of the most frequent and troublesome factors that can compromise sexual enjoyment. Generally men are more beset with mental background noise around their performance: “Am I erect enough?”, “Am I turning her on or is she faking it?”, Where is the clitoris supposed to be?”,  “Am I going to orgasm too soon?” You get the idea. For women, the concern and mental background noise is around questions and doubts about body image: “Does this position make me look fat?”, ” Can I disguise that part of my body that I don’t like?” These are hard and fast gender distinctions of course and research is suggesting that the gender differences are closing: men are becoming more concerned with body image and women are becoming more concerned with their evaluation of their sexual skill.

What to do?

Ultimately, the solution to this challenge is to become less anxious is bed. Of course, while accurate, that is not a very helpful prescription. I have more help than that. The real culprit is that when we notice our mind wandering to the kid’s lunches or the concern about what we look like in this position, the next thought we have is a harsh, self-judgmental one. That is where the damage to our well-being and our sexual enjoyment begins. Marty Klein, author of Sexual Intelligence, challenges his readers in marriages and long term partnerships to grow up! What he means is we need to cast aside the fantasies of ‘teenager sex’ (his term) and recognize that adults in long term relationships have to make space and allowances for familiarity, imperfection (in oneself and one’s partner), and age. When we accept the reality that we are sexual beings and we are also responsible for packing the kids lunches, we can accept that our thoughts are going to wander from one to the other. No big deal. It’s just your untrained mind/puppy wandering around off its leash. There is no point in getting mad at it.  In fact, instead of the negative judgement ( “I should be able to stay hard – what is wrong with me!!?”), the observation “I’m not as firm as I usually am” can be followed by an inner acceptance (“I’m not 20 anymore, thankfully, and besides my spouse still thinks I’m great”).

Truth is that there is more intimacy available in a relationship that is long term and two people who know each other deeply and over the long haul, than the young, new relationship sex. More intimacy and more acceptance. So what if there are imperfections in your lovemaking. Perfection is not what your partner loves about you!

Let me know what you think, and what questions this provokes by commenting.

Getting the Obstacles Out of the Way; Part 2/7 Unresolved Issues

Mann und Frau reden im CaféHere’s the second installment of a series on how to improve your marriage and your sex life. The second big desire-killer is unresolved issues hanging around in a relationship.

Think of these as a big, smelly gorilla sitting in the corner of your living room.  It may not be causing trouble at this moment. But, nobody really wants to take their eyes off it in case it starts to act up. Really distracting!  In this case the distraction will have a negative effect on the man’s arousal level, and a negative effect on the woman’s ability to relax, be open and vulnerable (literally and figurative speaking). For some women  emotional contact is a major ingredient in achieve sexual desire. Poor communication, topics left un-discussed, and other barriers to intimacy can turn off your sex drive.

In my counselling therapy practice,  I’ve worked with many couples who have lost vitality in their sex life. When we explore the reasons why, often we discover that the cooling off can be traced back to a pretty innocent-looking thing – they just didn’t like conflict.  Lack of conflict seems like a good thing on the surface. No one likes to fight with their loved one. But conflict is how differences get aired out and it is the pathway for growth.

So how do you fix this desire-killer?

The first part of the solution is checking for, and identifying the unresolved issues.

  • What are the conversations you are having in your imagination, but not in real life?
  • What are the ‘baggage issues’ that you brought into marriage that have been satisfactorily settled – think previous sexual relationships, expectations about male and female roles that you learned from your parents?
  • What are the issues within your marriage that got swept under the carpet under the edict ‘let’s put the past behind us’, or I don’t want to talk about this anymore, can we just forget about it?’

The second part of the solution is,  yes, you guessed it – dealing with it. There is no short cut around dealing. But I do have a bunch of pointers that will help the process – and make it survivable.

  1. The way to eat an elephant is in small bites. The way to clear away the unresolved issues is by accepting that it doesn’t have to get cleared away in one sitting. Small conversations where the emotional intensity is kept under control are FAR more productive and effective.
  2. Accept that conflict is actually a sign on love and commitment. One of John Gottman’s important findings from his research on what makes successful relationships is that even very satisfied and happy couples have conflict! The difference is that they fight well.
  3. Recognize that you are both fighting for the same thing. Honesty, integrity and openness are the raw ingredients of intimacy. So, gather up your courage and speak honestly, speak for yourself and speak about your feelings. They are your internal reality. The outcome is intimacy.
  4. Learn to tolerate the feeling of not being understood – for a few minutes. This is actually a critical life skill. Stephen Covey has talked about seeking first to understand rather than being understood. That’s a great point, but it rest on this even more important point: One can only seek first to understand if one is will to let go of being understood for a little while. It is surprisingly hard. But I promise nobody has ever died from not being understood. The benefit is that you will open communication, honesty, and that increases intimacy.
  5. Expect that you will need to forgive…something. Your spouse is not perfect. You knew that already. However, frequently we carry around unrealistic fantasies about how our spouse should be. Part of this process of improving intimacy with your spouse may (likely will) involve forgiving your spouse for not being the ideal in your mind. This forgiving doesn’t necessarily involve asking your spouse for his/her forgiveness, but it does involve you and yourself and  God.
This is a process. Clearing the unresolved issues isn’t something that get accomplished by Tuesday. But it is worth it. When you clear away the baggage of unresolved issues and clear away the unrealistic idealism of your spouse, it becomes possible to love more deeply the person you are married to and enjoy sex with that person even more.
Some couples can do this process on their own. Some couples find that the emotional intensity escalated too quickly to be controlled. If that is the case, a professional counsellor can help guide you through the process. There are good ones and not so good ones. The staff at Russell and Associates are good ones and some are available to help through Skype or telephone.
Got ideas or comments on this topic? Let me know, I always want to hear your thoughts and reactions.