Couples Therapy is actually a very recent development in the field of mental health. Marriage and Family Therapy, my field of study, got its start in the 1940’s and 50's when psychotherapists and psychologists began to notice that the ways in which a family interacted affected an individual’s treatment outcome.
It started with many prominent figures in the field working with schizophrenic patients and their families. In every clinic addressing this very serious mental health concern, there was a common theme of patients regressing when visited by family members or after returning home.*
Why would being with your family have such a strong effect on your ability to do better?
I think the answer lies in the understanding that we are social creatures; we form attachments to our caregivers, we find solace in our friends, we generally seek out the people who get us.
We learn how to be functional, or not-so-functional, people from the ones who raised us, who gave us messages about how we could develop and who we could be. It would stand to reason that this also sets us up for finding the people who reinforce our view of the world and our view of ourselves.
This is why I need your partner to come with you if we’re talking about a sexual problem in therapy.
Let me clarify by saying that sexual intercourse is an interaction between people. Notice I said, between. Any dysfunction that happens during sex with your partner(s) is a relationship problem, or maybe a “between-problem.”
Obviously, I will want to be sure that biological causes are ruled out by a medical professional. But even when there is a biological issue, there are still relational factors that could increase your stress level, your anxiety and these will negatively affect your condition. The mind and the body are not as separate as we have been led to believe!
If you can masturbate when you're alone but find that you lose your erection with your partner, it's a between-problem.
If you're experiencing little to no desire for sex and you feel guilty for how it's affecting your partner, it's a between-problem.
Basically, (at least) two people need to be accountable for changing the interactions that got them into this situation in the first place.
In the end only one thing is certain for me if I see one partner for individual treatment: they’re going to regress when they go home, because their partner isn’t going to be on the same page with what I’m asking and progress will either be slow or not at all.
When the above situations, or any number of common sexual dysfunctions are impairing your life and your ability to be intimate you could benefit from seeing a sex therapist who also has training in couple’s therapy. Consider including your partner in counseling, at least in the first session. It could have a huge and lasting impact on your ability to do better!
*Nichols, M. (2013). Family therapy: Concepts and methods (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Put it on the calendar, so you can put it on me later
We schedule dentist appointments, doctor’s appointments, our kid’s recitals; even when we hate going to these things we will still ensure that it gets written down, because there is no way I am getting another cavity.
So why don’t we view sex the same way?
If we don’t ensure that we’re maintaining that part of our relationship, our desire for our partner wanes. Isn’t that important enough to schedule? Isn’t that a big enough consequence to consider penciling your partner in for an afternoon quickie?
Maybe you’re interested in the idea but aren’t sure how to broach the topic with your partner. Perhaps you need more convincing that making the time is the best way to stay connected.
Lucky for you, I have a few great ideas about why it’s better for you to listen to me on this one. Here are the three reasons why scheduling sex is some of my go-to professional advice:
When you schedule, you up the anticipation
When’s the last time you weren’t excited for that big event you got tickets 3 months in advance for? My point exactly.
Once you knew it was going to happen you started anticipating and planning and spending a great deal of mental energy on what you were going to wear, who you were going with, etc. All the while, you’re building a sense of suspense, a perpetual excitement that heightens the experience before you even get to it!
Building that sense of anticipation works the same for sex- you agree you’re going to get frisky when you get home, he sends you a flirty text, she tells you she bought a new toy, before you know it your desire for the hot sex you’re going to have with your partner is almost unbearable and you’re rushing home to enjoy the time you’ve planned out together.
That sounds way better to me than being unsure as to whether your partner is going to want it after work or not.
When you plan, you’re working on communicating
Which brings me to my next point: spontaneity is great and I have nothing against it, but it’s foolish to leave all your sexual experiences up to chance. There’s too many opportunities for hurt feelings, miscommunication and eventually there’s a huge emotional barrier between you that feels insurmountable.
When you’re planning, you’re actively negotiating what works best for both of you and this strengthens your communication.
When you plan on having coffee with a friend it doesn’t just happen- it takes figuring out when a good time for both of you is, where you’re going to go, ensuring that the kids are taken care of (if that’s a consideration) and being flexible enough to adjust the plan as necessary.
In the act of planning you are required to communicate about your wants, your needs and what works best for you. The same goes for scheduling sex.
The side benefit here is that the good communication habits you’re practicing get applied to other, less sexy areas too!
When you make the commitment, you make it a priority
Like everything in life, relationships take work. If you’re not actively making your partnership a priority then it will fall by the wayside.
The sad truth is, if your intimacy with your partner takes a backseat to work, family events and catching up with friends, then, eventually, so does the rest of your relationship.
Putting time to be intimate (and possibly sexy) with your partner on your calendar is like making a promise- you know when and where it’s going to happen and you’ve committed to, not just the activity, but to your partner.
It promotes a sense of accountability; maintaining that part of your relationship ensures that you are building a sustainable, overall connection with this person.
Building your desire, working on good communication skills and promoting accountability in your relationship are some pretty killer side-effects for this one activity.
If you’re ready to build a better relationship, try asking your partner if they would like to have their clothes ripped off when they get home from work that night.
You never know, it could be the start of a new era in your relationship.
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Alana R. Ogilvie, MFT