Unexpected Pleasures with Your Partner

We will talk about what happens when your partner suggests a new sexual activity or a new idea about how he or she wants to have sex, instead of the way you’ve been doing it, over and over again, and your first reaction is – “you want me to do WHAT?” And you try not to say that – and you try to bite your tongue, but somehow the look on your face telegraphs it anyway. Or maybe you really do manage to show nothing, and your partner still picks it up. Or maybe you just blurt it right out, like a hissing cat coming out of the bag, and your partner feels dejected, and angry, and shut down. Now maybe you leap to make amends immediately, and you feel so badly for having reacted as you did that you say you’re going to try it anyway – you’re going to do whatever it is that they suggested and make the best of it. Or maybe you feel like you just want to take care of him or her, and you want it to be good for them, but this idea – this thing that they wanted to do – oh, you know you’re not going to be into it. And so once you do it, you know you are never, EVER going to want to do it again. And nobody really wins with that kind of attitude. It’s not fun for anyone, much less the person who had this wonderful creative idea, to begin with – that you just stomped on.

So maybe you stick to your “not in this lifetime” idea instead, and you don’t try it. And little by little, the request becomes like the pink elephant in the room that is always there and always between you – it’s the unmentionable desire that creates ever more emotional distance. He or she still wants it, you still don’t want to do it, they try to put pressure on you, you are certain you’re not going to give in. The whole state of affairs gets very sticky and complicated very quickly. The next thing you know there’s a domino effect on your relationship as a whole – when you want something, even if it’s just a matter of going to a certain restaurant or seeing a certain movie, suddenly your partner is going to be giving you a hard time about it, or you’re going to be afraid to ask in the first place because you’re feeling guilty about not wanting to give them what they want. It’s amazing how fragile relationships can be when you don’t have in place a sincere and loving method for handling the kinds of requests that neither one of you feels particularly excited about hearing in the first place. Knee-jerk reactions, avoidance, and self-sacrificing acceptance, in their own way, exert enormous pressure and tip the scales of the relationship in a way that upsets the delicate balance of power that you have.

So what can you do to handle these “you want me to do WHAT?” moments with some grace? Let’s rewind here and go back to the moment when your partner whispers – or announces – or writes in lipstick on the mirror – what he wants you to do – THE request. Let’s take a very simple idea, that probably won’t shock any of you, just for purposes of example. Let’s say that your partner wants you to wear sexy, revealing lingerie around the house. That he or she wants you to prance around the living room in skimpy “nothings.” This is actually an example that comes straight from my private practice, and it caused some deep-seated problems in the relationship between a couple that came to see me over it. They were able to work it out in a way that I think is relevant for everyone, no matter what the specific request may be. We could be talking about anything here – from watching adult videos to having a threesome to bondage – you name it, everything I’m going to tell you applies to requests that are benign or very kinky. It’s all really the same because remember, extreme is relative. If you are a sexual adventurer it will take a whole lot more to push your limits. If you are more conservative it may not take very much at all. But a limit is a limit, and when someone pushes your limit, you react.

So in our example, let’s call the couple John and Susan. Susan comes up against John’s request to wear these little get-ups that she finds offensive, not just in bed, but while going about her business, making dinner, watching TV, whatever. And her immediate response is NO WAY. Well, you see, Susan is a bit of a jock. So to Susan, the idea of wearing these frilly, girly things is literally repulsive. She can’t imagine it. She likes wearing shorts and t-shirts, and she doesn’t mind wearing clothes that show her body, but only a certain kind of clothing that shows her body – athletic gear that shows her body. And if you go back and look at her history, you see that when she was a kid, her mom, who wasn’t so excited about having a tomboy for a daughter, kept trying to push her into being more of a girly girl. So her mom would come home with these frilly little dresses and these fancy little outfits and ask Susan to put them on. And Susan would do it, because after all, it was her mom, and wind up feeling angry and humiliated, and bad about herself. And so when her partner asked her to do essentially the same thing – in her mind – she balked. See, whenever we say “no way” automatically to something, we usually have a history. Maybe the history comes from our family, maybe the history comes from the culture we live in. For some women, dressing up in that way would mean being objectified – it would be a political “no way.” But for some women, it would mean being sexual – being slutty. And that would be a very scary way of seeing oneself, not just being seen by a partner.

In a book called “Ways of Seeing” John Burger wrote, “Men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at. The male gaze, the male sexual imagination, defines desire IF we let it. We don’t have to.” Interestingly, one might say that Susan was taking a revolutionary or adamantly feminist position when she said “I’m not going to be an object for your gaze.” But in any relationship between two complicated adults, decisions are not as clear-cut as that. Nor was John’s desire, as we’ll see, just a matter of being a chauvinistic male. Susan had her personal history to contend with, her cultural position as an object of the male gaze to contend with, but more than that, she felt ashamed of being looked at by John. She felt ashamed of being exposed to John – intimate to a degree of pure, expressive, sexual revelation. She liked to wear comfy clothes that she felt she could hide behind. If she didn’t do that, it would be saying something about her that she wasn’t ready to say. It would say she wanted John to look at her the way he did. It would say she wanted to enjoy herself as a woman, and enjoy being desired as John desired her. And this was very, very scary for Susan, as it can be for most women. Letting yourself be swept away by your sexual feelings can be an enormous confrontation, even in an intimate relationship. And it’s one that we very often try to avoid. It has a lot of meaning to all of us, and sometimes those meanings are not positive.

Family and culture are prevailing obstacles to having the kind of free, exciting sex life we all really yearn for. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could say that our families and our culture give us the foundation for wonderful, liberated sexual experiences in our adult life? That would be great! But the fact is, they don’t, in most cases. Some people are exceptions, and they’re very lucky.

So we can’t change our histories, and we can’t change the culture that we’re a part of – those structures are a part of who we are, and certainly a part of our past. But we can change who we choose to be at any given moment in time. We can decide whether we want to let our past continue to be a profound influence, or if we want to make new decisions in the present. Put simply, we can continue giving in to the past, or we can take some risks, challenge ourselves, and grow. By saying an immediate and unexamined “no” to John, Susan would also be saying no to her own growth. She would be saying “no” to all of the ways that she was uncomfortable with her own body, and all of the ways that she was uncomfortable with being a woman – and that would keep her stuck.

Of course, sometimes we say no for other reasons that have nothing to do with our internal demons, shall we say, or our essential sexuality. Maybe it’s because we’re angry that our partner isn’t fulfilling some of our needs in other areas of the relationship. Maybe we’re overtaxed and overburdened and we want them to pick up their fair share. Maybe saying no is a way of saying “you aren’t going to take advantage of me one more day or in one more way.” But using sex either as a reward or a punishment is going to have a boomerang effect on you – it’s going to come back at you. It’s another way of colluding with a culture that says “hot sex is for your partner – it’s not really for you, so if you want to get to your partner, what you do is you withhold the hot sex. You don’t give them what they want, because after all, that’s a gift – it’s not something you do for yourself, it’s a way to get back at them – withholding.” We do it all the time, and it hurts our relationships all the time. Each time you use sex as a way of wielding power, you actually drain vitality from your own life.

With Susan, everything could have stopped with her initial no, just as it does for many of us. Instead of thinking about our own resistances, we think about what our partner is asking, and we feel self-righteous and we feel ready to say “no” from a position of sureness. But it takes a little more than that to actually stop and get curious about the other person – to really think, “why are they asking me to do this? What does it really mean to them?” And maybe we need to find out a little bit more about what our partner is thinking before we say no to anything. So Susan took a giant step and made a first new decision. She decided to behave like a woman that is curious instead of a woman that is scared, and she decided to ask John what about her hanging out in sexy clothes was important to him. And right there, in that instant that she asked that question, their relationship changed, because John had to think. He had to think about himself and his desires differently too. Instead of it being a fantasy that he replayed over and over in his mind and felt deprived if he didn’t get met, he had to start asking himself “well, what is it about this fantasy that means so much to me? Why is it that just getting a peek of my beautiful wife is so important?” So he began thinking about how, when he was about 14, his mom had caught him looking at her Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog [14:08]. And she told him that he was doing a disgusting thing. Now, this alone was traumatic, but in the face of the double messages, it was even more dramatic. After all, it was her Frederick’s catalog – he found it among her mail. So there was a very confusing mixed message about the kind of woman who looks at those catalogs, maybe even wears those clothes, but thinks that men who find that equally alluring are disgusting. It made no sense. Just the way, when he looked at Susan and felt her shy away – it made no sense. He thought Susan was beautiful, and it made him happy to watch her get dressed. It made him happy when he got little peeks of her in her underwear, and he fantasized about her in beautiful things, and he thought it would make him happy if sometimes, just sometimes, she wore those beautiful things around the house for him to see. And what Susan heard in this story was two very important things. One was that John thought she was beautiful, which was something that he hadn’t told her quite a while. And since she wasn’t so sure about what she thought about being beautiful, it was important to her to hear it from John. But the second point was that she really heard him say “once in a while.” Because the minute he made his request, she envisioned this being a sort of 24/7 requirement, instead of just once in a while special moment. She was afraid that John didn’t approve of her as she was, just the way her mother did not approve of her as she was. So hearing John say “once in a while” was a great relief. And by asking John to tell her more about his desire, and by really listening to all the words, she discovered that his request wasn’t quite as daunting as she had initially presumed.

But she still balked – she still didn’t really like it. So now it was John’s turn to suspend his impatience and to get curious too. What exactly didn’t she like? What part of her was most uncomfortable? Well, maybe – just maybe – Susan admitted, she could handle wearing things that were at bit revealing. But all that frilly lacy stuff? Uh uh. That was too much like her past – that was too much like her mother. It just gave her the willies.

Notice that Susan went from wanting to dismiss the idea altogether – she was never going to give it a shot – to suddenly saying “ok, maybe, but not the frilly stuff.” And John lit up because for John, hearing her say “ok, maybe, but” was a revelation. He had begun to think it would never happen at all. And that’s really the key here. When you begin to talk about what desires mean to you, and what your resistance to certain activities means to you, you open up doors to communication and understanding that you would never even begin to approach if you didn’t ask those questions and begin to listen very carefully to what your partner had to say. There are some activities, of course, that no matter how minutely parsed – no matter how deeply sympathetic the discussion, two people are not going to find a way to bridge. And when that happens, it can be difficult and painful for both people. But at least they don’t walk away feeling dismissed – at least they don’t walk away feeling like their partner hasn’t heard them, disapproves of them, criticizes and judges them. At least they’ve shared something, they’ve been heard with respect, and can honestly take in the idea that it just may not work for their partner, and vice versa. Incompatibilities around certain desires do occur, and they don’t have to create rifts in relationships if they are handled respectfully.

When Susan indicated that she’d be willing to try out dressing for John if they could find some outfits that she felt comfortable wearing, a whole new world of shopping opened up for them. Shopping? Yes! Because suddenly they had another activity that they could do together. They could shop together! And both of them thought that was just grand. So by talking about it, and digging a little deeper, they discovered they had not just one, but two fun activities that could bring them closer, instead of begin to build a wall between them. So Susan agreed to try this all out slowly, just one day at a time for starters, and give John feedback as to how it felt to be wearing those clothes that they had chosen together when she did, and they would take one step at a time from there. They would discover this process together, and they would find ways to create excitement for both of them.

So, no, John didn’t get his original desire met in exactly the way he envisioned – that’s true. But in a way, he got something better. And Susan got something wonderful too. They both were able to open up doors to new adventures and new ways of exploring with one another that would never have occurred if Susan had just said a simple “oh sure, ok, whatever you want” or if she had said, “no way, I don’t want to talk about it, don’t ever bring that up to me again.” So to see the gleam in the eyes of their partner, Susan and John really felt that it was worth going through the struggle, worth going through the self-confrontation that they had to go through in order to come up with this new and very sweet plan.

Now, with different kinds of desires, the outcome may not be quite as sweet – it may be a lot more dramatic, or a lot more intense, or it may require grander leaps in behavior, but as I said, the process – the way you get there – is always very much the same. So I thank you for joining me today – I hope that was useful information for you, and next time your partner – or you – have something to add to your sexual repertoire, you will be received or you will receive your partner with an open heart and an open mind.

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