A post by Empowerment Coach, Social Activist and Nationally Acclaimed, Award-Winning Filmmaker. E. Beth Nelsen, who is currently crowdfunding on Seed & Spark to cover post production costs for her documentary Mothership. She speaks on the importance of creating safe space for women and the intersectionality of social impact.
To open or not to open?
That is the question friends.
Last week at a party, my friend introduced his other partner. Yes, he’s identifies as gay and open. This was the first time I was meeting his second of two partners (Clint and Ruben, the names have been changed to protect the innocent).
Another friend perked up after the second partner left, “So how does this all work exactly?”
“Well”, our open friend smiled and sighed, “I’m dating both of them at the same time. It lets me take my time, compare notes and never get bored!” he laughed.
“So you’re poly now?” Short for polyamorous, my friend asked.
“Noooo… I’m open… I mean – I guess technically I could qualify as poly right now, but I prefer an open relationship long term.”
My curious friend then shot off a bunch of additional questions because he was completely fascinated and confused. Rightfully so, in San Francisco folks throw around these terms assuming we all understand. But many don’t and, without educating themselves, they’re throwing themselves and their partner into open relationships and getting into deep trouble.
I know, I’ve gotten countless calls from men inquiring about therapy to help their open relationships feel good again. I usually ask them,
“When did you both consent to be open?”
“Uhmmm…” Is a typical response.
“What agreements have you made together about how your open relationship works?”
“Agreements?” Strike two.
“How’s your communication and ability to repair after conflicts?”
“Not so good at the moment. We get pretty heated and stuck.” Yikes!
This guy and his partner are not ready to be in an open relationship. They might not even know what an open relationship is, yet, they’re in one! I tell my clients that an open relationship is a romantic relationship and agreement between two people, where it’s permitted to have intimate, romantic or sexual relations with others.
What does that look like? It’s different for everyone. For most, this looks like having one primary partner, while casually dating or engaging sexually with others. While many are intrigued by the idea of having their cake and eating it too, most do not have the slightest idea what goes into a successful open relationship. Believe it or not, the elements that make up a fantastic open relationship are the same for a monogamous relationship.
There are, what I call, the Fab Five. These are the main ingredients to making a delicious partnership with relations on the side. They are Agreements, Boundaries, Communication, Negotiation and Security. Even though these are necessary for any satisfying relationships, all partners in an open relationship must put forth energy and time into all of these.
Agreements are quintessential for open relationships because they set the parameters for everyone involved. Here’s a classic example: You and your honey go to party. Someone else you’ve been dating or sleeping with shows up. Who do you go home with? It’s not gonna go well if you make a spontaneous choice at the end of the night. Agreements that are set ahead of time help make these types of situations easier, emotionally safer and clear for everyone involved.
Boundaries are rules, limits or beliefs about how someone wants to interact or have others to interact with them. We need these to feel protected with others and they can build a standard of consent between you and your partner. Think about a time when someone did something that left you feeling very uncomfortable. There may have been a boundary crossing. Being able to share your boundaries or when they are crossed helps others to relate to you in more comfortable ways.
Communication that is clear, kind and responsible is key to healthy relationships. Expressing boundaries and making agreements are important, as mentioned above, and even more vital is letting your partner know your desires and needs. Withholding what’s in your heart or mind usually leads to disconnection or explosions down the line. Having space to talk openly and vulnerably can lead to the next important element, which entails a communicating and working through each other’s differences.
Negotiation occurs when you’re ready to mutually discuss and compromise with a partner. It’s an important skill in any mature relationship. How open are you to trying something you’re not comfortable with? How willing are you to understand your partner’s perspective and deal with all the triggers that come up? It takes hard work and patience, but the payoff is enjoying a relationship that’s satisfying for multiple parties. If you’re game, you’ll learn to develop the agreements and boundaries that are necessary to get both of you on the same page, thriving and leading you to the final ingredient:
Security in a relationship supports you in going the distance. You must feel secure with yourself and with your relationship if it’s to work, especially in open relationships, where you’re putting each other in more risky scenarios. Security involves a sense of safety and trust. It helps you have faith and take risks. With security, you can be more honest than you would normally. Security allows each partner to explore themselves and relationships with or without their primary partner. Security is so vital, it may require hard choices. For example, if you open your relationship and are enjoying it, but your partner is becoming insecure and scared…would you be willing to close it if that’s what’s needed to for them to regain wellbeing and confidence?
On the flip side, just because you know what generates a fabulous open relationship doesn’t mean you’ll want one. Open relationships can be very challenging. They can trigger our most basic attachment needs. Attachment needs are universal and are expressed towards our caregivers when we are babies. Some attachment needs are love, closeness, affection, care, reliability, engagement, and accessibility. Sound familiar? When we don’t receive these growing up, we become wounded. As adults, we look for them in our relationships. When their met, we feel amazing, and when not, we are emotionally tortured.
We’ve grown up with messages and values from family, friends and society about what is “okay” and “not okay” relationally. It’s natural that many of us soaked those in. Now as an adult, you’ll need to ask yourself: What type of relationship do I want? You may just be learning about different types or be well versed in open, poly and other paradigms. The point is, it’s a choice. To decide, you must ask yourself:
What are my values or goals for a relationship?
Could I emotionally handle the person I’m in love with seeing other people on the side?
How willing am I to work at the Fab Five with a partner?
Open relationships are not for everybody, especially those who do not have the elements listed above. The most vital are security and trust. If you do not have this foundation, forget about opening or enjoying your relationship. So whether you’ve decided to have a monogamous or closed relationship, go slow! This way both partners can become aware of their emotions and needs, while working through conflicts and developing a firm foundation.
My favorite disclaimer is a quote used in many contexts but fits so nicely in this one:
“Sex is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be discovered.”
I can really only speak about sex therapy with me, but in general, the experience should be comparable (we hope). I like to think of sex therapy as a journey, an experience, a process, and an adventure. There usually won’t be one easily identifiable, concrete, black and white solution, and there shouldn’t be, because we are extremely complex individuals made up of multiple overlapping dynamics, identities and experiences. Even in situations where there are clear challenges, i.e. a medical concern or biological factors, they are never in isolation of feelings, impact, perceptions and attitudes- all of which play a part in how we engage or disengage through intimacy and sex with ourselves and with others.
So what then, is sex therapy?
It is your space and time to carve out for yourself or for your relationships to explore- to outline your vision and hopes for how you want sexuality to play a part in your life; to expand your vision of sex; to discover and re-discover elements of the self that align with pleasure, satisfaction, eroticism and desire; to learn and re-learn techniques that may bring you closer to that alignment; to challenge values and critically assess the norms we have learned culturally and societally since childhood in a non-judgmental space; to empower a sense of risk and vulnerability through a secure attachment and bonding experience; to increase connection to the self and to others; and to experience and re-experience self-love. I believe that anyone can benefit from sex therapy.
So what can you expect?
Par for the course, lots of conversation about sex! As a society, we struggle to know how to talk about sex, and so having the privilege of journeying with others into such conversations is invigorating and can definitely be expected in sex therapy. I don’t want to minimize how scary this can be, however you will have your own safety and boundaries in place to ensure the practice you get in therapy works for you and your process.
You can definitely expect to find comfort in how common of an experience it is to feel distress, anguish, fear and un-comfortability around talk of sex or your experiences of sex. So many of us just hope we are “normal” or “going to be okay,” and I can definitely promise you, you are. Just because no one is talking about these things, doesn’t mean they are only happening to you. While each of us has our own unique stories and narratives and experiences, we are all subject to human universals and feel the same feelings.
You can expect to find increased hope and motivation as you progress, and you can expect to build confidence in a new narrative of healing, expansive thinking and excitement.
You can also expect homework- a lot of what happens in sex therapy happens on your own time within the confines of your own privacy, so don’t be surprised when your sex therapist warns you about that! This is where the motivation comes in handy- homework takes time, it takes energy and it takes commitment. Think of it as an equal priority to cooking dinner or going to the gym- you’ll be happier if you did it.
Apart from that, expect an individualized and unique experience because this journey is yours and yours alone, no two people have the same challenges, desires or hopes, so give yourself permission to dream and to feel satisfaction based on your own personal vision, without comparison or judgement.
Thank yourself for taking the first step of the adventure by asking these questions and building your curiosity around welcoming new conversations and new possibilities!
The Pursuer/ Distancer Dynamic in Intimate Relationships: The Most Painful & Dangerous Dynamic is not to be ignored! Our highly specialized expert San Francisco Bay Area Couples Counselors and Sex Therapists can help identify the negative cycle and help you learn more effective communication skills that will lead to deeper connection, trust, security and intimacy.
We tend to express our love, affection and care for others in the ways in which we enjoy receiving love. It is likely that your partner and you have some differences in how you feel most loved and how you tend to show your affection. In order to feel emotionally connected to your partner, it is imperative that you feel secure in their love and commitment to you. This is what couples therapists refer to as secure functioning in a relationship. Simply put, it means that you trust that you have each other’s backs and you know your relationship will be protected from both external and internal sources.
Our expert San Francisco Bay Area Couples Counselors, Sex Therapists and Relationship Coaches can help you build the healthy, intimate and secure relationship you long for. We can assist you in learning your love languages and help you stop negative patterns of communication. After all, We Speak Relationship. So can you.
Read more by clicking on the title....
It's Inevitable. All couples will argue and push each other’s buttons at times. In fact, partnerships often bring up our core wounds and needs, bringing to the surface that which most needs attention. This happens in many forms, but it is most obvious when we are triggered, such as when our partner’s behaviors activate a sensitive issue within us. A couples counselor can help you figure out the anatomy of how a fight can escalate by deconstructing your feelings and needs. In helping you understand and look at when you get triggered and how that trigger may potentially be causing a ripple trigger effect with your partner, you can stop the negative cycle and more effectively communicate. Our highly specialized couples therapists can help you and your partner increased consciousness and awareness of the dynamics underlying your disagreements; in deepening your mutual understanding, your relationship will become less stressful, more harmonious and even exciting. Your differences will serve as a bookmark, a place in yourself that is calling for healing.
Tired of repeatedly having the same argument or type of conflict? Do you and your partner try to change each other’s feelings or points of views?
Our San Francisco Couples Therapists can help.
At the root of connection and intimacy in partnerships Is empathy. Empathy is a powerful way of holding mindful space with and for another person, without trying to problem solve, fix or change anything: It is the ability to deeply witness and feel moved by another person’s experience, so much so that it stirs in the witness similar feelings. Empathy is the very foundation of human connection, love and respect.
Take a moment to reflect on a time when you were listened to and really truly heard... without being offered platitudes (“Hey everything happens for a reason!” Or “Snap out of it!”), advice or dismissing statements. How did it feel to be seen as you were in that moment and experience? What did it feel like in your body as you felt understood, witnessed and heard?
One of our deepest needs as humans is to feel seen, accepted and understood; true understanding is not possible without empathy. As the iconic Humanistic psychologist Dr. Carl Rogers stated, “When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good!” And indeed this is often what people most desire when upset or in pain (or even when experiencing joy)! Typically people don’t want someone to fix or change their feelings, as much as be a shared witness who gets it. We want to know we are not alone and in being understood we feel validated and supported and close to the listener.
Being Known Requires Sharing Yourself
“Vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.” – Brene Brown
Empathy is the willingness to deeply feel with your partner and to understand and accept their inner subjective experience as valid and real. It’s an opportunity to see your partner’s private inner world. What an honor to be witness! What trust and respect given by the vulnerable partner sharing their feelings!
This critical skill is part of Secure Functioning (creating a secure and safe and even sacred space of trust between the partners) and is vital to reaching resolution in difficult conversations and especially during times of conflict and turmoil. Not surprisingly, it is during conflict when empathy is most difficult and the most important intimacy building skill to master. To empathize with your partner when their hurt feelings are a result of something you said or did without defending yourself requires skill and practice. Putting yourself in your parter’s shoes, allowing yourself to soften to their hurt even when you feel angry or hurt or want to be “right” is the benefit of empathy.
EMPATHY SOFTENS US INTO AUTHENTIC CONNECTION, VULNERABILITY AND GENUINE INTIMACY. IT HEALS ATTACHMENT WOUNDS AND GENERATES EMOTIONAL SAFETY AND INTELLIGENCE.
Unfortunately, many people are not taught empathy and find themselves caught in painful and destructive repeating patterns called negative cycles. Our highly trained San Francisco Bay Area Couples & Marriage Counselors, Sex & Intimacy Therapists and Relationship Experts have helped thousands of couples and individuals deepen their capacity for empathy and intimacy, while simultaneously reducing the negative relationship patterns through highly effective couples therapy modalities rooted in the latest research in neuroscience and attachment theory.
Couples & Partners that have mastered empathy through relationship therapy often indicate “it’s like a light switch has been turned on in our relationship” and their cycles of negatively and conflict drastically reduced. They also learned how to stop the escalation and quickly and effectively repair.
San Francisco Intimacy and Sex Therapy Center’s couples Counselors are trained to assist partners to:
- Identify their problematic beliefs, feelings, interpretations and behaviors that create the negative cycle
- Help them to identify their underlying attachment needs,
- Learn how to effectively express their feelings and
- Share empathy with one another.
- Cultivate and maintain security and emotional intimacy (secure-functioning attachment).
When partners stop defending their positions and polarizing one another, they can choose to seek mutual understanding of one another other. Defensiveness invites defensiveness, whereas vulnerability invites vulnerability. When partners choose empathy over being “right” they become a team against the conflict and deepen security and closeness.
You, like many other people, could be taking it personally when your partner doesn’t come to orgasm during love-making. Are you worried that you’ve done something wrong? Do you wonder if you aren’t pleasing them at all? Have these frustrations contributed to a fight or a tense moment which has led to a missed opportunity for sexual connection?
Orgasm can be a very elusive for many people. Our San Francisco Couples Counselors & Sex Therapists see all genders in our therapy practices who report having a difficult time coming to orgasm. A lot of people are frustrated, angry at themselves, ready to give up hope and pretty depressed about their inability to orgasm during sex.
Orgasms are healthy and wonderful and it’s great for everyone to have them, however, pleasure is the goal in love-making and being frustrated and tense is not the way to go. When the non-orgasmic person is frustrated and you are frustrated it causes a real lack of possibilities for true pleasure and satisfaction to happen.
Here are some simple ways you can stop taking it personally and enjoy your own body’s pleasure:
- It’s not you. While it can be tempting to believe that you have control over your partner’s orgasm it may be truer that their body’s functioning has to do with what’s going on with them, not with you.
- Have some patience. Usually, it’s the person who is unable to achieve orgasm that is suffering more than you. Have patience with them as they go through their emotions.
- Ask how they like to be touched. When tension and frustrations arise it can be easy to neglect healthy communication. Healthy communication with your partner includes asking them how they like to be touched. Asking questions like, “what pressure do you like”? “where do you feel the most sensation in your body”? “what type of touch arouses you”? brings a sense of comfort and curiosity to the dynamic. Sometimes people are so busy getting to the “finish line” that they forget the journey is the most important part of getting there!
- If you are sexually frustrated and can’t be present for your partner, take some time out for yourself and your own pleasure. If you want your partner to orgasm so much that you are neglecting your own needs, take a break and masturbate! It’s okay to masturbate in front of your partner and it can be sexy too. Sometimes, taking the pressure off the orgasm of your lover and putting the attention on yourself can break some of the tension. Then, go back to making out and finding ways to please them.
- Engage in some slow, sensual foreplay and massage. Bring the energy and tension down by going back to the basics. If everyone is tense and frustrated they are not experiencing pleasure so enjoy some gentle, slow caressing and sensual massage. Remember, Get Out of Your Head And Into Your Body (if you want to have great sex).
- Enjoy the moment, whatever it takes. If you are processing verbally and emotionally during sex, don’t. Take a shower together, give each other acknowledgments and gratitudes, do some breathing together and enjoy each other. Striving for orgasm and feeling like it’s your fault that you can’t “give” your partner an orgasm is a missed opportunity to simply enjoy each other.
- Learn some creative, fun techniques and learn how your partner’s body works. We are all different and we all come to orgasm is our own unique ways. For some, they need a little fantasy role-play, others need a little verbal stimulation through “dirty talk”, some peoples bodies take a longer time to warm up and become aroused. Learn how your partner’s body works as well as a few techniques to help them along the way.
You are in this together and you can be a team! If you feel down about yourself come back to these steps again and again. There is a lot of good that can happen by letting ourselves off the hook and instead, maintaining a sense of team-work and creativity in the process.
At San Francisco Intimacy & Sex Therapy Center, our highly trained couples and sex therapists have helped hundreds of partners turn their whole relationships around by learning how to be a team when it comes to sex and leaning into the experience of getting to know each other in a whole new way.
Remember, it’s all about Pleasure and you deserve it!
San Francisco Bay Area Sex Therapist & Author: Dr. Anya de Montigny, DHS is a sexuality expert with over 20 years experience working with individuals, couples, and groups. Dr. Anya has a Doctor of Human Sexuality (DHS) degree, is a certified sex educator and certified sex coach and was the host of the popular radio show The O Word Sex Talk Radio. Dr. Anya has a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area working with individuals and couples and invites straight and LGBTQ people into her practice. She also teaches adult sex education classes as well as consent & boundaries workshops at Universities and Colleges.