Relationship is easy in the beginning at least in part due to the fact that everything is new and exciting. But long term relationship is meaningful in a different way as newness gives way to deeper trust and connection. That said, it is important to keep the newness going. Don't stop dating! Click here to read my post on some great dates for you and your spouse or long term partner.
In my professional capacity I keep a low profile when it comes to my personal ideals. As a psychotherapist I am careful to avoid taking sides politically, religiously or in any other context that could have a polarizing effect. I am careful to allow my clients to express their feelings and even project their ideas and judgments on to me. These ideas and impressions become very important indicators of a clients inner experiences.
There are exceptions. In the case of civil rights I believe that it is important to abandon impartiality in defense of equal treatment under the law. In this recent opion article that I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle I share my personal views on gay marriage and why it feels important for me to speak up.
As a couples therapist in San Francisco I work with many people who are the products of the information age, and many of them ask me for simple tips for creating an environment that balances the technology and work in their lives. I often propose some lifestyle tweaks and rituals which I will outline in detail:
- Feng Shui your love life. Get your computer out of your living room, and especially out of your bedroom. Put the computers in an enclosed office space. If this is not possible, put up a Japanese screen or something else that will compartmentalize your work and computer area. Consider having your living room be a media free zone, without a computer or a television.
- Turn your phone ringer off and screen down during dinner. Better yet, get it completely out of sight.
- Create blackout time from your phone and your computer. Start with a little time in the morning, and in the evening and create more blackout time on the weekends.
- Buy an old-school alarm clock and put it next to your bed. Leave your phone charging in a different room so your last interaction and first interaction of each day is with your partner.
- Let your work colleagues know that you don’t check your email or messages after a certain time each day...but that you will get back to them first thing in the morning.
- If you are a gamer, set parameters for how much time you will play when you come home at night and make absolutely sure that you are spending more un-interupted time with your partner than you are with the game.
- Practice leaving your phone at home or in the car a few times each day.
- Consider reading a book rather than a tablet.
- Plan vacations in places that have no wireless or cell service.
- Keep your ringer off! Did I already say that?
What's informing all this? Let me explain.
As a couples counselor in the nexus of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I have the unique opportunity to work with couples who are creating the very technology that allows me to write this blog post and seconds later transmit it to countless participants of the social network. As would be expected, there are some imbalances in relationship that manifest. The people I work with are the perfect study group for this exploration because they are the creators, but are also the biggest consumers, of technology.
I will not suggest that we abandon social networking...but I am suggesting that lack of technology before the internet age made for more depth of contact with people by the virtue of less distraction. In the age of the social network, the face of technology has countless ways of intruding upon your relationship. A Tweet, a text, a new Facebook post, email, Instagram, Gchat, Google+, a new Yelp review just to name a few faces of social tech. The iPhone is the Trojan Horse that the social technology sneaks in with. I understand, it looks like a perfectly sexy little gift from Apple, but it is really a giant wooden horse filled with Greeks, waiting for the perfect moment to lay siege on your opportunity to be intimate with your partner.
These days people are more reachable through any variety of means for cursory interactions. It is these continuous cursory interactions that can compromise your time with your partner, your family or close friends. And, since the advent of social media, work and social have become more intertwined. What was formerly a discussion about work-life balance has become a much more complex discussion about work/technology-life balance. The conversation now is a much bigger negotiation about Instagramming a photo of a meal, which lead to checking a text message from a work colleague about something major that a client wrote on their Facebook Page about a negative Tweet from a competitor that went out to thousands of people 5 minutes ago. Do you see how your phone becomes a Trojan Horse for your relationship? As the functionality of phones have increased there are now more reasons to interact with the device, which can lead to the slippery slope mentioned above. I paused for a moment to consider how much I rely on my phone...it is my camera, my alarm clock, source for music, my texting device, my blogging device, my primary calendar, email source, my navigation and my intel on what the surf looks like. And each one of these applications leads to me interacting with another application...this thing is indispensable to me, see, a Trojan Horse!!!
And it doesn’t stop with your phone. In urban areas especially, people have their computer desk right in their living room. This makes it almost impossible to sit on the couch with someone without being distracted by the work station. That iPad and Mac Air sitting on your desk are highly seductive machines beckoning like sirens from the social matrix. One little check of a beep or a ping, turns into 40 minutes of distraction from your girlfriend or boyfriend or whoever you’re trying to have real facetime with. Furthermore, people who work from home (computer programmers in particular) have a difficult time not being sucked in by lingering work projects throughout the night. In this manor, work continues to steal from your sex life, simply because if you are on the computer, you are not giving your lady a foot rub.
Online gaming is another kryptonite particularly for younger couples. I hear this becoming a bigger and bigger issue as online games become more complex and appealing to adults. People are coming home from work and getting on the computer to play games instead of engaging one another about their day. Gaming is a particularly difficult issue for couples because it seems to have a more addictive grasp on people who play them. For anyone who has ever become engrossed in a game, you know the time-warp effect they can have. What seems like 15 minutes has actually been two hours and the next thing you know it’s time to brush teeth and get in bed. Gaming is having a tremendous impact on how often couples have sex, how much they communicate and how much sleep they get at night.
As I mentioned before, I am no Luddite and many of the issues I am citing I have to continually work on in my own relationship. Nor am I a person who believes that because of Facebook we are no longer having meaningful contact and deeper relationships. However, it may be that we are unconsciously trading off some meaningful contact with those we care for most for more cursory engagement. The good news is, and this gives me great cause for optimism, is that from what I am seeing, sex and love are still bigger than Facebook, we just need to keep it that way.
Standing at the edge of a cliff, a near fall, or barely averting a catastrophic car accident one might see their entire life flash before their eyes. Similarly, in a moment of intimacy, a clip of truly seeing and being seen, we experience our entire past, every fear, every moment of joy, all that we have ever felt, pulse through our mind-bodies. In that mutual seeing its as though nothing is guarded, the reel of our entire karmic past unwinds before the other. The specific content of our past may remain obscured, but the imprint and the impact on our soul flutters there in the nakedness of the moment.
Intimacy is perhaps best understood through the wisdom of quantum physics and Eastern mysticism combined. In physics the observer effect states that there is no phenomenon until it is observed. It is as if pure undefended observation and a simultaneous willingness to be observed lights up our most essential places. Just as an electron cannot be detected until a photon acts on it, being truly seen by another calls into form all that remains dormant and untended within us. And when this takes place in a dyad without disturbance, the observer and the observed are one. The great Eastern mystic J. Krishnamurti describes this phenomenon as the knower knowing itself, the seer seeing itself. In this moment of truth seeing truth there is just being together, without judgement without qualification, without a past or a future.
But it is so incredible, that we turn away from it. Like diverting our eyes from a light too bright, we come up with elaborate ways of defending ourselves from what feels so blissful yet so vulnerable. When we are seen in such a deep way, our pain, our insecurity our neediness whatever it may be, is evoked and activated. To the extent that we are unable to sit in the eye of that emotional storm without reacting or clinging, is the extent to which we avoid real contact. In that state we are vulnerable and a certain amount of healthy discernment is actually quite necessary. If we lack discernment or a safe environment many of us are psychically wounded in very close relationship. It happens particularly to children whose inherent need and relatively undefended nature allows them to trust easily. The psyche then protects itself accordingly. Even the most rigid defense structures develop for the purpose of self protection in some way. Anything from a silly joke to severe addiction, to acts of aggression pose as defense mechanisms against intimacy. Seen from this perspective, no defense is either bad or wrong, they simply need to be understood for what they are and worked with consciously and skillfully.
Whether through individual psychotherapy, couples counseling, meditation, prayer or any form of contemplation we gain more conscious awareness of our defenses against intimacy. Many of our defenses are semi conscious or completely unconscious. Bringing awareness into our defense structure invites malleability, and often total catharsis of vestigial means of self protection. As this process unfolds we are opening cracks and even windows into the shadows of a forgotten barn in a far off pasture. Aspects of the self that have remained obscured for decades are slowly illuminated. Allowing in intimacy is a tremendously healing act, as if bathing our inner wounds in the benevolence of the divine.
Because the tendency to turn away from intimacy is so strong we must work to sit unwavering in the brutal storm of our insecurity. It is much easier to weather the tempest within the context of a safe and healthy partnership. With a compassionate observer the defenses are more likely to soften or fall away. For healthy change to occur we must invite a partner of loving intentions. Such a person need not be divine or even close to it, but they must certainly be self aware enough and loving enough to trust with our most fragile places. We can not make someone into this type of person or seek or pine for them. Such a pursuit is in fact a defense in and of itself. The appropriate metaphor would be closer to tending your own garden. Do the weeding, till the rugged terrain and enrich the soil of your own being. Within that fertile ground your like minded partner will appear.
Like many of the great mysteries of science and spirit, defining intimacy is not altogether possible. The moment we say “its that” or “its this” we create what it is not. Like defining death or God or truth itself we find ourselves in a tireless paradox. Some of the great truths are best left as questions, never completely defined but rather, eternally open to discovery.
Most couples enter therapy with the assumption that they need to eliminate conflict from their relationship. The belief is that fighting of any kind is somehow a bellwether of incompatibility. And commonly, the couples who avoid conflict tell me, “we don’t fight at all, so I don’t understand why this isn’t working.” Again, there is a common mis-perception that presence of conflict is somehow the indicator of a relationship heading south. This idea could not be further from the truth. It is conflict in balance that can allow a couple to enjoy more intimacy, the preservation of individuality, and vibrant sexuality.
In fact couples who don’t fight outwardly are less likely to have a satisfying sexual relationship or experience true intimacy. Such couples tend to have symmetrical personality characteristics and suppress their anger. This doesn’t mean that anger isn’t present, it just means that anger isn’t expressed directly. Unexpressed anger shows up as emotional or physical withdrawal, sexual flatness, or passive aggressiveness. These couples can remain in relationship for long periods of time but when it comes to any real closeness, they are ships in the night . They can co-create strong friendships or business relationships with one another and the non-romantic aspects form the foundation of the partnership. But the challenge for these couples tends to be an enduring experience of not feeling attracted or emotionally close to one another. Conflict-avoidant couples painfully get along at the expense of individuality and individual self-expression. Total avoidance of conflict means to avoid the willingness to articulate individual needs and desires when those needs could be in conflict with the needs of the other.
On the other side of the conflict coin we have the couples who simply fight way too much. These couples come in absolutely exhausted. Every night at home is a battle and just getting through the day without a meltdown is a Sisyphean task. These couples can have symmetrical or complementary character traits. The couples with symmetrical pre-disposition towards conflict have the hardest time down regulating their fighting and therefore the most difficulty finding balance. I have found that couples with complementary qualities have an easier time achieving this goal when the peacekeeper in the relationship can match with the torchbearer to achieve a kind of optimal level of discord and tranquility. But the task remains for these couples to manage the amount of conflict they are having. The major challenge is just as it seems...they are in conflict so much that neither partner can rest or feel safe. During times of moderation, there is still an anxious sense of walking on egg shells to avoid triggering another eruption. When I see the sexual relationship suffer in high conflict environments it is because one or both partners feels so anxious, he or she just can’t let go sexually. More commonly though sex can become a means for conflict repair with these couples and while it offers a moment of reprieve, it enables a hostile dynamic to continue. Here sex is not about intimacy, but rather a provision of a release valve. When sex among hostile couples replaces meaningful communication it may be exhilarating but it does not help the couple evolve in a meaningful way. For the reasons above, high conflict couples tend to report having much more favorable sexual relationships than the couples who don’t fight at all. But the system still lacks healthy balance.
The connection between sex and anger remains as somewhat a mystery to me. One conclusion that I have drawn is that when we block our anger altogether, we also block our eroticism, or at least divert it elsewhere. Conflict avoidant couples have become so skilled at maintaining harmony that clear assertion of feelings has gone underground. In the most extreme cases, even egregious behavior such as infidelity can be swept under the rug to avoid disturbance of the peaceful homeostasis. My work with conflict avoidant couples often focuses on pushing the couple toward more direct communication. Direct communication includes clear dialog in the love spectrum, AND clear expression of anger in a balanced manor. When anger is unlocked in the system, sexual feelings often follow.
High conflict couples need to work towards managing their anger. As I mentioned earlier too much hostility can stifle sexuality or make sex a less intimate experience. The objective here is twofold. First this couple must regulate anger and transform it from aggression and hurtful criticism. Two, this couple must build a repertoire of communication tools that allows them to have meaningful repair after a conflict. They can then have conflict in a moderate way, and then work through each breakdown to the point that long term balance is more attainable. These couples can then make space for the sexual relationship to become an expression of intimacy rather than an unconscious reaction to a painful altercation.
It seems that healthy, intimate sexuality depends on how well a couple does when it comes to managing their conflict. For some couples this means tolerating more conflict, for some couples it means having much less. Whether a couple avoids conflict or whether they are consumed by it, the work in therapy is to guide them toward the middle. It is conflict in moderation, combined with meaningful repair that can make space for a robust and intimate sexual connection.