A generous smattering of delicious tips from our Intimacy Coach, Mark Sutton, helping you to enrich, enliven and invigorate your sensual selves.
Understanding Relating Patterns
Stuart Johnson outlined five levels in which partners relate to each other dependent on the self-differentiation of each of the partners from their family of origin when the self was formed. This schema provides a framework for understanding how patterns in relationships develop. We will be looking from the lowest of the five to the highest of the five:
In this type, the two essential human needs: to be separated individual and to be emotionally connected to another cannot be met. For those within this type of relating, to be intimate with another is experienced as completely losing the self. The closer they get the more anxiety as seems they will be completely lost. There is a natural move to pull away, but being alone is emptiness and nothingness. The paradox is that moving towards being separate has the same results as the anxiety of moving closer and this results in too-ing and fro-ing in an unsolvable dilemma with relationships being difficult, fleeting and unstable as being close and being separate are equally dangerous.
In a large move upwards from paradox, comes Projective identification where one half of the intimacy/autonomy equation is balanced. That is you can consciously be Intimate OR Autonomous but not both at the same time. Both in the partnership are dealing with this inner conflict and do so by isolating, repressing and projecting onto their partner whichever side of the internal conflict they have disowned. For example, someone who is consciously embracing their autonomy, but not intimacy will find someone who embraces intimacy, but may have difficulty being autonomous. They would be looking for someone to complement each other: they may have similar backgrounds but while the autonomous partner is looking for someone to carry their need for intimacy, while the other is looking for someone to assume their need to be a separate person and have the other express it for them. This leads to both being polarised in their respective positions and the formation of a pursuer-distancer relationship with neither getting what they truly desire for themselves. Virtually any interrelationship issue they have can be placed at either end of the spectrum in an oversimplified fashion and resolution is difficult as long neither recognise that there is a need for both to be intimate and both to want space and the essential problem is the inability of partners to contain internally both sides of the polarity. Neither has come into the relationship as someone who can both stand on their own two feet and be close to another and to overcome this, the couple needs to understand where one ends and the other begins. Something that is impossible to overcome while the projections continue to be exchanged.
Couples in this Relating style may seem to be in the previous style above, but the major difference is that even though unwanted thoughts and feelings are being projected, when the argument dies down each is able to take ownership of the internal conflict between togetherness and separateness and gain some insight about what they are doing. This level may be seen as a bridge between the previous level and the next or indeed vice versa. Essentially though, awareness has increased around the level of complexity of the partnership in terms of both the internal conflict of the self and the internal conflict of the other: they are becoming more aware of their suppressed desires for autonomy and closeness which both carry.
At this level, both are taking ownership of both sides of the internal conflict, it is not seen as an oversimplified polarised internal situation. Yes the internal war between the competing needs is experienced but it is not projected outwards onto the other, it is at this stage contained and tolerated. They recognise and take responsibility for their ambivalent needs, thoughts, feelings and desires. Self-differentiation increases and relationship matters are worked out in a two step process. Firstly, both recognise and address their own inner ambivalence of the competing needs of intimacy and separation and then bring it into the discussion with their partner. By having a greater appreciation of the complexity of the inner world, couples do not become locked into rigid, simplified, polarised stances.
Autonomy and intimacy are experienced as integrated aspects of the inner world of the individual and the relationship. It is the converse of the lowest level, paradox, as the competing needs of closeness and being separate are seen as safe and acceptable, all of the time, without conflict. This is something of an aspiration admittedly but essentially in the previous style, tolerating ambivalence, was linked to what the partners are doing, whereas with integration it is the way the couple are rather than what they are doing. At this level couples can live with their differences, autonomy and intimacy are mutually supporting and enhancing states of being such that, for example closeness to another actually supports being a distinct separate person.
Mark Sutton, December 2016
In the end
Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. Most relationship experts agree that it is the middle of the relationship cycle that is the most stressful for couples. Whether it is ageing parents, the demands from teenagers, the realisation of our own mortality being in sight or that time is running out and what we may not have achieved or accomplished may now be beyond us. These internal realisations, together with external changes handling of the knowledge of the immense changes in our lives where we may be a couple but essentially two people alone causes old issues that have not been adequately dealt with to arise again with full force. It is at this stage that we may act like we did in adolescence, when we separated from our parents, now we seek to leave those attachments we have created with our partner in order for us to regain autonomy and self-expression leading to what has been termed a “middlescent” crisis. This in particular manifests during the transition of their own children into autonomous adolescents and those middle aged parents who have more or less successfully navigated their own adolescent transition are better equipped to handle the subsequent transition of their children and navigate the changed in their relationship with their intimate partner. This can lead them to re-enact the past and in particular ongoing unresolved conflicts within the psyche and that is a game both play, this in particular can manifest in the relationship as a re-enactment of the adolescent leaving: if the adolescent separation was angry and with many unresolved issues, then this is replicated in the middle years when circumstances are similar. Couples often act in what is termed the collusive bond which effectively mean that the original issues had to be re-enacted in the marriage and could never be resolved and this stems from the fact that in the two-way collusive process we carry one side of our partners unresolved issues and in turn our partner carries a side of ours. A different approach would be to realise that loving does not mean carrying one side of your partner, but respect their right to handle their own difficulties in their own way. Empathise, yes. Support, Yes. But do not take on one side of their inner pain by assuming that they cannot handle it themselves and it is when both in the relationship accept and acknowledge that each has the right to deal with their own difficulties that separate resolution has the potential to happen without destroying the relationship.
Mark Sutton November 2016
Fighting and the role of narcissistic vulnerability.
While conflict and fighting are natural part of relationships they can be categorised into two general types, the good fight and the bad or dysfunctional fight. The former is one which ends in greater understanding, negotiated compromise and a realistic resolution. The latter is one that is engaged with continually without resolution as each partner feels wounded by the other’s rejecting cruel behaviour.
Maggie Scarf in “Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage” described this wounding as narcissistic wounding and stated that we are all vulnerable to such wounding depending on our degree of self-esteem. Many people lie somewhere in the middle of the spectrum but at the extremes you have a sudden drop in self-esteem to any perceived sign of disapproval or rejection and at the other end any criticism or negative stimuli have only minor effects on how they view themselves. For those in the middle, the sense of self-esteem is somewhat uncertain but not pathologically challenged and there is a tendency of one partner to depend on the partner to maintain their own internal balance. It is the individual’s neediness that creates these narcissistic expectations of their partner’s behaviour to keep their own bad feelings about themselves under control. There are two polarities that are taken, the attention seeking and the admiration seeking. The first requires constant parent-like attentiveness and concern otherwise they find it impossible to like themselves, the other style the partners praise and reassurance is needed to combat the persons sense of self-criticism and failure. Both partners in the relationship are suffering from a lack of positive feelings from the self and self-absorbed in maintaining their own self-esteem. It could be said then that what is lacking in the relationship is empathy as neither are aware of the other’s needs. In fact both behave in a threatening way to each other : the admiration seeker is frequently forgetful and inattentive towards their attention seeking partner and the attention seeking partner is critical and condemning. Each then is finding the narcissistic vulnerability of the other creating the conditions for “bad fighting”.
Narcissistic wounding and vulnerability have their roots in the parents’ both internalised positive feelings of acceptance, approval and admiration and the stronger negative feelings of rejection, disapproval and depreciation. When the intimate partner fails to provide the necessary positive supports, then the internalised, shame producing self- images cannot be defended against and anxiety and rage arises, particularly where the self-esteem of both in the relationship is fragile. A second line of defence then arises: projective identification. In this case, rather than recognising that he negative images are a product of their own internalised thinking, it is perceived that these bad feelings are coming from the partner and behaviour ensues which ensures that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the internalised part of the self that is the cause of these externalised onto the partner creating a hostile relationship. The key to changing the bad fight into a good fight is to acknowledge the part each is playing in creating such intolerable conditions and to negotiate a settlement, in that way the underlying issues can be resolved and the role of narcissistic vulnerabilities opened to the spotlight.
Mark Sutton Oct 2016
Creating Relationship Visions
In July’s edition I talked about the couples coaching framework and I was asked a question following that. “What is a relationship Vision?”
Let’s put it this way, have you ever had a major life event occur in your relationship: marriage or moving in together for example which you have said yes too only, sometime later, to find that it is not what you expected? That what you thought this would mean, radically departs from the reality? Or that down the line time-wise things have altered?
How would it be if you had written down how you see the relationship progressing for the future and how your partner sees the relationship progressing for the future, then comparing the two to work to establish a joint vision? Even if you are together for a long time: how would it be to look at the vision going forward? Harville Hendrix in his book “getting the love you want” describes such a process.
It is quite a simple exercise to create a relationship vision and from that a vision statement that can be placed somewhere prominent and reviewed on a regular basis or a new vision statement created every year. Also a vision statement may include statements that are aspirations, but it helps in making them realities.
Some of the common goals could include honesty, respect, communication, a healthy sex life, joint parenting, affection, financial security and they may seem universal but interpretation can differ between you both.
Take some time to create this alone first, 20 minutes or so.
Reflect on what is current for you in the relationship and what you would like to have. Write short sentences in the present tense that reflect what you desire to have and write them in a positive way.
“we have fulfilling careers”
“we respect each other’s opinions and values”
“we have fun together”
When you have completed the list, then look again at it and rank each sentence from 1 to 5 in order of importance with 1 being most and 5 being least. Also, tick the sentences where you are having difficulty in
Next compare your lists and rankings, be prepared to add sentences that your partner has thought of and you haven’t and rank them. Prepare a master list of all the sentences scored 1 by either of you.
Together look at the remaining sentences from 2 onwards and decide what you wish to add to the list and what can be left off. This provides you with your vision statement. It also provides you with information on where the differences may lie.
For example, if the sentence:
“we share parenting responsibilities equally” scores 1 for you yet 4 for your partner, then it that is a point for you to discuss. Similarly, where a shared value has a tick indicating a difficulty in achieving, then this gives ideas where further attention is to be paid.
A vision statement may look something like this:
The mutual Vision
1 We take time to listen to each other 1
2 We Respect each other’s viewpoints 1
1 We are Honest with each other 1
1√ We get out together once a week, just us 1√
1 We enjoy sex together 1
1 We make time for each other 1
2 We share the parenting roles 1
1 We are loving parents 1
1 We do the best we can for our children 1
2 We can talk about our feelings and concerns 1
2 We Hug and show affection for each other 1
4 We share Household chores 1 √
1√ We respect each other’s time alone 3
1 We have our own interests 3
1 We have Financial security 1
1 We have Fun 1
2 We respect each other’s friends 2
When complete, place the statement in a prominent position to remind you of your shared vision.
Mark Sutton Sept 2016
First Night Nerves
One of the questions that I receive from clients is “I have met someone and I am ready to sleep with them but am feeling anxious about our first time together”. There are many reasons why someone can feel anxiety: performance pressure, penis size, concerns about whether they will be found attractive, being long out of the dating scene or being celibate for long periods, lack of awareness and knowledge, will I or they be any good, what do they like, what do they expect, will they compare me to others, what does it mean afterwards etc..
We are going to look very briefly at some tips before during and after to ensure that your first night with a new partner goes more smoothly.
Make time, Make Space: One of the things I see most often is partners rushing in sex at the end of the night. Take time for sex to occur and create space where it can occur, the more time you have the less the need for rushing. Also, while nerves can be steadied by alcohol, over consumption can both affect your ability to achieve arousal and lead to boundaries being crossed.
Communication and Boundaries before and during sex: Rather than muddle through, communicating what you are feeling, what you want and your boundaries is very important. Far from being a passion killer having the major talk before the romp can set effective boundaries and bring play into the situation. Boundaries can revolve around what contraception to use, what you like doing, what you do not like doing and what you are in the mood for. It’s a two way thing of course and it’s useful to ask the same of your partner, by establishing boundaries before you have sex can create an immense scope for creativity. This can be hard to do particularly if you haven’t actually openly talked about sex before, there is immense pressure to perform on both parts and for many assumptions that the other knows what we like, so communication during sex is important to let you partner know what they doing feels good and what you would like them to change. Communication should neither be a series of demands, nor a timid querying, but gentle, simple and supportive.
Lose the goal: Sex isn’t just about genitals, it is a whole body and mind experience. Kissing and foreplay can be exquisite in itself and is a great way to get to know your partner. Lose the idea that sex is about orgasm or a big finish, it isn’t how you perform it is what you experience. Yes, knowing several techniques in your repertoire is great, using them when you don’t have a goal changes the focus of your first night from something to get a release, to something you experience.
Be Curious, Creative and Playful: Do you have a set way of doing things? Is this what you have been taught or led to believe? Everyone is different in how they respond: what may have worked before may not work now so be curious about each other, seek to explore this excitement of a new, undiscovered partner. Of course sex should not be serious, a playful attitude, with appropriate humour (not sarcastic or demeaning, which can be devastating) can allow you both to relax more. Losing the idea that there is a set way of doing things opens up a wide range of creative possibilities, OK that may take time to develop, but on your first night, starting with that in mind sets the foundations for a greater depth in the future. Being creative as well allows more room for play if an erection is difficult to achieve, there is a lot of pleasure to be had with a soft cock and the creative use of fingers and tongue for example.
Slow it down: Not only in making time but in what you do. Slowing down the sex prolongs it and removes the pressure for a headlong rush to a finish and is great when you want to be creative, connected and playful. Slowing down sex allows for experiencing more pleasure and connectedness even at this early stage. It also helps to relax you both, enabling you to move into the body experience rather than looking for what to do next. Massage, for example, is a great and gentle way of both of you tuning into each other and relaxing you both.
Be Realistic in your Expectations: Don’t fall for the idea of your first time together being earth shattering, it may be, but realistically as you are just learning about each other, both of you may not be fully relaxed or unsure. Then how realistic is this, take the attitude of radical acceptance: “it is what it is”, in this case your first night with your partner and there is no expectation that it will be other than that to be enjoyed. Expectations as well include what both of you bring onto the table: is it a one night stand, is it with the aim of something more developing or is it casual: ideally both of you should have communicated these expectations beforehand which can save a lot of heartache and esteem issues later. Understanding each other’s perspectives on sex and what this is for you both ensures that both your expectations are fully known to the other as well as your worries and concerns.
Be hygienic: It may sound obvious, but basic hygiene is often a common thing that is overlooked. This includes not only showering and cleaning genitals beforehand, but avoiding dragon breath. Look sex gets messy and sticky, it’s part of the experience and fun; fresh sweat and musk are aphrodisiac in nature. Stale sweat isn’t.
Stay present: The simplest way is to be aware of your breathing into your body and the sensations that you experience. Being in the moment with your partner has many benefits, it enables you both to tune in together, experience what is happening and importantly keeps you out of your thoughts which may be looking back at the past or worrying about what is going to happen. Being present in this way enhances pleasure and creates more flow as you are aware of the shifts and responses you are having.
Relax: Anxiety and stress can be libido killers and we think ourselves into a mental state even prior to going to bed together. Even telling your partner that you are stressed and anxious can reduce the effects. Many of the tips here can help you to reduce the stress and anxiety by either building your confidence, taking the performance pressure off you, challenging your thinking or allowing you to be present in the moment rather than in the mind.
Connect: Intimacy will develop over time, but starting by taking time to connect relaxes and enhances your experience. It can be as simple as allowing eyes to meet, talking, taking time to touch or synchronising breath. It tells your partner that you are there for them and that they are part of what’s happening. The first time penetration occurs, pause and allow yourself to connect via the eyes, it makes a huge difference. It keeps you present and shows your partner that you are there with them in the experience.
Mark Sutton August 2016
Couching for Couples
How many of you, when you first entered a relationship actually took time to consider what difficulties could arise in the relationship and actually took time to plan for them? My intuition and experience says it is very few. We generally feel that we will always be in a certain state with our partner and do not consider what may lie down the line. Couples come to me for coaching for many reasons, while some may be highly specific, in general the reasons why can be summarised by saying that the Reality of the relationship does not actually match the Vision. In my coaching, I use a couples coaching model called C.O.U.P.L.E  to explore this gap between the reality and the vision:
(C)ommitment: The first step is looking at the Vision of the relationship and the current reality, this setting out of the vision leads to commitment as it highlights the shared values and goals that you have as well as the differences which need to be worked on. This leads to five possible outcomes.
Neither of you change.
You change to meet your partner’s vision.
Your Partner changes to meet your vision.
Both of you change to meet the joint vision.
Both of you change the vision to align with reality
The coaching process works with the last two options and once the commitment to change has been made then we move to the next stage.
(O)penness: In couples coaching, both of you are present in sessions openly discussing and exploring your shared vision. Your aim is to coach the relationship, not the individuals within it and for this, your individual personal agendas are linked to your relationship goals. In essence, there are now three clients, both of you and the relationship and our primary focus is the relationship.
(U)nderstanding: When the first two steps are in place we aim to enhance understanding between you as it relates to the relationship. In this stage you aim to enable each other to feel understood and expand your perception of the other person and take their feelings and perceptions into account and vice versa.We use transformational communication skills, such as assertive communication, reflective listening and NVC (Nonviolent communication) to check your internal states and if these are desired states without attributing blame or offering solutions. These highlight one or more of three general areas to be explored:
1. Resolving misunderstandings.
2. Exploring conflicts in needs using a win:win approach by identifying needs, evaluate, conceive solutions, choose a solution, taking action to implement it and evaluating the results.
3. Highlighting conflict stemming from deeper beliefs and values which need to be explored.
One important aspect of enhancing understanding in relationships is that there are certain expressions of love: quality time together, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, closeness and touch. Unfortunately each of you may experience and prioritise them differently and this can be a potent source of conflict. For example: One partner may feel that working to provide a good lifestyle is the most important, while the other may feel that quality time together and acts of service like sharing housework duties are higher priorities than has been given. So it is important in the coaching process to understand how each of you experiences these different expressions of love and not only recognise those differences but incorporate relevant and realistic changes into your relationship.
(P)erformance: The next stage is performance, you use the “Forming, Storming and Norming” principles of team development to create a highly performing team for decision making and problem solving effectively and to have a high level of intimacy and interdependence. Another useful approach is tune into each other empathically by communicating and recognising each other’s needs and look to reduce conflict due to mis-communication about your needs using a four stage process:
1. Making neutral observations.
2. Expressing a feeling without justification or interpretation.
3. Expressing needs.
4. Making a clear, realistic request.
(L)earning together: In this stage you adopt a positive psychological approach by looking at problems as an opportunity to learn together and the “Soul Mates Model” is a useful positive psychological approach. It approaches your relationship as a life-cycle with 7 stages: dating, commitment, intimacy, building a life, integrating shadow, renewal, completion. Problems occurring in any of these stages are seen as a means of developing the skills and resources to strengthen the relationship as a whole.
As part of learning together, reflection and critical thinking is employed to challenge you on your assumptions and to develop different ways of viewing things on how you perceive, think and act as a couple and how social and environmental factors both impact on your relationship and shape your responses.
(E)volution: This is the final stage where you consolidate the performance relationship that has been built up and strengthen the ways you co-operate and work together as a couple. The focus is on renewal and completion by continued re-evaluation of your relationship, life outlook and goals.
This is an extremely powerful framework for couples relationship coaching to strengthen and enhance the relationship, create more openness in how you communicate and give greater understanding of yourself and your partner. The success of this though resides in your willingness to engage with the process and to put aside your individual agendas, at least for the time of coaching, to focus on the agenda for the relationship.
 Ives Y. and Cox E. (2015) Relationship Coaching: Theory and Practice of coaching with singles, couples and parents. Hove, UK: Routledge.
Mark Sutton July 2016
Coaching for singles
A lot of people spend a lot of time, effort, money and heartache trying to find the perfect partner. So while many singles would like a relationship it is not something that happens, it is something that you both actively participate in and experience. So perhaps the first question to ask Yourself is “What is getting in the way of my relationship?” Relationships are generally a flow from the search for self-happiness in dating to the mutual happiness of a relationship. However, at any stage this flow can get blocked and it is the lack of awareness of blockages that causes many of the issues in establishing and maintaining relationships. The aim of coaching for singles is to create awareness on the blockage which then allows it to be resolved, sometimes quite easily.
One coaching model that is a framework for approaching coaching singles is the GREAT Model :
(G)oal: This includes establishing both a general goal (A relationship) and the identification of specific goals in keeping with your values.
(R)eality: Using past experiences a guide to highlight a comprehensive picture of the present situation and separating facts from emotional responses that may provide important information for the client.
(E)xploration: Looking at the past experiences in terms of underlying reasons, key events and lessons with the aim of specifically identifying the current blockage.
(A)ction Plan: What needs to be done both in terms of changing attitude and behaviour, learning new skills and practical outcomes.
(T)aking action: Once the action plan is agreed, then it needs to be implemented. Not only that but I as the coach make you accountable for implementing it, though viewing the inability to implement or partially implement the plan, not as a failure, but as an opportunity for learning and progress to a more effective means of implementing plans for relationship success.
While the concerns that people present with are unique to that individual, general patterns appear and where repeated events occur these are linked to a specific issue rather than being a series of unrelated events. Generally though, there are several common themes:
Impatience, Anxiety and Insecurity: Manifesting as obsessive or clingy behaviour, a rush to a relationship which overwhelms the partner. Impatience occurs as, with the advent of online dating, we have more access to potential partners and new, but not necessarily advantageous, technologies for instant communication which can result in the drive for efficient communication rather than personal communication. New boundaries need to be established to manage obsessive behaviour, along with a focus on the essential priorities, such as personal communication, and not just surface appearances and obtaining the balance between sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy. This brings clarity on the difference between love and attachment and on not entering the relationship merely for the sake of being with someone.
Priorities: Where these are conflicting, confused or plain unrealistic they may reduce both opportunities and the chance of success in finding a partner. For example do you want someone who is the same as yourself yet look for someone who also holds the promise of being different? Looking to prioritise what are your most important values and releasing others is something that takes skills and self-awareness. There is also the conflict between parts of Yourself: the real self, the ideal self and the social self all of which requires an awareness of the subconscious processes that compete with each other to create relationship blockages as they determine how you act. In these situations, coaching looks to explore this conflict and align and balance all these hidden aspects.
Presentation: In the dating stages you tend to present yourselves in the most appealing fashion (or more rarely, as in the case of one client, in the worst fashion so that their partner would eventually see their best). This leads to partners being encouraged to like them for who they pretend to be rather than who they are. Eventually of course, the real person begins to show through. Many singles complain that they have been evaluated on a single facet of their character rather than themselves as a whole person and yet are entirely unaware of how they are contributing to the process. Coaching looks to ensure that the persona presented (including online dating) broadly matches the real person and to help you raise your own self awareness around how your behaviour may affect other people, not by telling you, but by shining a light on it and letting you establish your own conclusions.
Disappointment: When you date and enter a relationship it is common to see only the positives of the other person. When reality bites disappointment sets in and you rush from the highs to the lows and you panic and leave or the relationship grinds to a halt. Understanding this cycle of high, low and panic helps to manage the inevitability of it, as well as helping to understand why you may be a “commitment-phobe”. Unrealistic expectations are a large part of this and viewing a relationship as not settling for less than perfect but from the frame of what you truly need can help mitigate this cycle. There is also attitude: You may have the attitude that all should be absolute bliss, so dealing with disappointment becomes a major issue when fantasy meets reality. In this case reflecting on perfection and the significance of it in terms of the issues that arise are an important part of establishing a healthy response to the inevitable disappointment.
Avoidance: Many single people avoid relationships because they want to avoid failure, the attachment styles you develop as a child also impact and leads to, often subconsciously, sabotaging your relationship. While an awareness of the relating style you have is useful, it is more important from a coaching perspective to be aware of, and modify, your behaviours and attitudes by making conscious and healthier decisions.
Inflexibility: You may date as a single and see yourself as a single so your flexibility in regards to another is compromised. Relationships though are interdependent and it’s important for you to realise that in such a case, you may have to adapt or give up aspects of your life to obtain the balance between autonomy and self-sufficiency, and closeness and intimacy. To relinquish aspects of your life by simply saying it won’t work: you have to appraise what you stand to gain from the relationship in relation to what you are giving up.
Communication and Conflict Management: Seemingly trivial issues between you and your partner explode into major events. Ask yourself this: are you dating like a single or with the aim of being a couple? Or are you getting upset with your partner because you assume they know your needs? Do you rush to reveal all about yourself or not reveal at all? Working with how you express your needs, disclosure and effective communication, especially around sensitive topics, is important in nurturing intimacy. Also, conflict in itself is not damaging to relationships, it can be creatively healthy. It is how we approach communicating around conflict that causes the damage. Effective coaching enables you to explore alternative strategies for communication to resolve conflict healthily.
We have looked at the common reasons why single people come to coaching and it is important to note that the focus is always on your needs. A part of that can involve recognising when to leave a relationship for your health and the other’s. The GREAT model provides a framework to do this and provide a platform to understand the patterns and behaviours that, unless altered, would continue on into your future relationships.
 Ives Y. and Cox E. (2015) Relationship Coaching: Theory and Practice of coaching with singles, couples and parents. Hove, UK: Routledge.
Mark Sutton June 2016
Understanding adult development.
One key to understanding how your relationship changes with time is understanding how you yourselves develop as adults. In general there are two broad categories of theories to explain this, those which are concerned with the psychological development of the individual (ego development and life stage theories) and those involving sociological triggers for learning and development (life event and transition theories).
While there are several life stage theories, all seem to be focussed on an end-point where the adult attains wisdom, wider perspective and autonomy. In one theory, there are certain conflicts as various stages which, when successfully overcome by balancing opposing sides. At the age of 19-40, for example the conflict is between the need for intimacy and isolation and this is resolved by finding love and successfully allowing deep intimacy into the relationship or risk relationship difficulties and isolation. But as we age into the 40-65 age bracket our focus is more on being creative and contributing to future generations. Another theory looks at dreams created early on 18-22 years of age, which if blocked or unmodified, leads to significant crises in mid-life. These life stage theories can be useful in understanding relationships of all types and their issues: from modifying the dream of the ideal relationship to couples growing apart as they reach mid-life. There are issues with these theories as there may be significant variation in the age ranges and sudden life events can affect the ranges. Cognitive development theories on the other hand put forward that the age related component is important until we reach maturity. Most people reach the stage of the “interpersonal self” in the teenage years where fitting in with others and mutuality is important, but not everyone moves beyond this stage into other stages which culminate in the acceptance of others based on a sense of the self. Conflict then occurs as we develop both the need to separate from others and be an individual identity, while simultaneously need to be connected to others and know our relation to them.
With Life event theories individual development relies on a variety of factors not only the life event itself: It is a complex interrelation between specific events, individual attributes, the socio-historical context (e.g a recession), the development stage or age of the individual, how the individual assesses the situation and how they adapt to it (e.g have they seen it before) and if there is support from outside sources. These life event theories then view life events in the wider context of being useful for personal development and not only as issues to be overcome.
Understanding how we develop as adults in broad terms can be very comforting to clients as they know that there is a generational aspect to their presenting concern and that others are going through the same thing. It can enable couples to understand the effect of where they are in their personal development upon their relationship. For example, people who are stuck in their interpersonal stage begin to realise that, for them, fitting in is important and may bring awareness to why they avoid conflict as their need to be liked is a major part of their self-identity. Understanding our needs to be both included AND independent may help re-frame the current situation for those who are single and find themselves in an overwhelming need to be included or in a relationship. Similarly for those feeling cramped or frustrated in a relationship, seeing that part of their development is to be more independent or that realising their youthful dreams (or a modification of them) is a natural phenomenon associated with development as opposed to being selfish or self-centred. This can explain erratic or unusual behaviour and re-frame the relationship for both people in terms of getting the needs met and the dreams realised. Similarly, two dependent people in a relationship may, to all intents and purposes appear to be getting along as they are both accommodating or tolerating each other. In this relationship though when conflict or relationship stress occurs then this is usually due to the influence of an external event or third party (work or family for example). When one partner moves to independence then for the dependent partner, working with them to understand this in terms of adult development allows them to see that it is not due to neglect or a lack of love, or that the relationship is over but needs to be re-evaluated in terms of shared qualities and individual qualities. It can also allow for the development of the relationship as by moving forward into interdependence a couple can enrich and deepen their relationship by improving acceptance and focussing on the whole rather than the two parts in it. The exploration of situations that occur in relationships, like marriage, divorce or bereavement in terms of life event theories and taking the whole series of overlapping factors into consideration allow for personal development under a process called transformative learning by critically evaluating our current frames of reference, learning new frames of reference, changing our points of view and the way we respond to events from our beliefs and assumptions.
Whatever the developmental theory adopted or explained to a client, a coach’s knowledge of them can be a very useful tool when fully explained and used with clients.
Mark Sutton May 2016
Procrastination (Noun): the action of delaying or postponing something.
Are you putting of what you know you should do? And do you do that regularly? If so then you may be suffering from procrastination.
The impact of procrastination on your relationships can be devastating both sexually and in the relationship as a whole. It lowers your self-esteem, self-confidence and how you inter-relate to your partner, subsequently damaging your partner’s view of you. Relationships and marriages are all about teamwork and when one member of the team routinely does not contribute then the whole relationship unbalances and becomes unequal, your partner feels less important and responds with criticism, anger leading to you both feeling isolate and alone and an increase in conflict and withdrawal
The reasons for procrastination may be varied: poor self-discipline, family styles (you may be from a family of procrastinators and have picked it up from your parents) or perfectionism. One of the forms of procrastination which can be hard to determine is what is known as the “comfort of discomfort”. That is your current state is familiar compared to the fear of change of change.
The causes of procrastination fall into three general categories: 1) anxiety due to a perceived loss of self-esteem should you engage in the activity, such as lovemaking or dating. 2) Low frustration tolerance due to the perceived ability to endure what it takes to achieve the goal and 3) Rebellion: it is a way of expressing anger towards others by delaying important tasks or ffrom a sense of victimisation.
Typically the behaviours that accompany and rationalise procrastination consist of contemplating what you need to do without doing it, leaving the task until the last minute or until tomorrow, or making the tomorrow task contingent on something else that keeps you from facing the real problem. Additionally, you may prioritise unimportant tasks to keep the unpleasant task in the background and do pleasurable activities for the same reason, looking for any even remotely viable reason for not beginning or deferring the task. Chronic procrastinators fall into general types, perfectionists, dreamers, worriers, crisis makers, argumentative and passive aggressive types and those who are always doing things while avoiding focussing on the important issues. However, it has been suggested that the one common denominator for all who procrastinate is an emotional issue, which they may or may not be aware of due to the avoidance behaviour which protects them from it.
The ABC cognitive model I use in sessions provides a very useful means of releasing such emotion by enabling you to face the situation and uncover your thoughts and beliefs that are maintaining procrastination. However, this can be uncomfortable to do as you are looking at the root causes: your beliefs. It is however important to get through the discomfort phase and to explore it as it will highlight what is holding you back. Rather than dealing with practical goals, such as lists or time management, or making time for each other it is first important to deal with emotional problems. It is also vital to note that procrastinators become emotionally upset about their ability to do things or face the problem. However, such emotions are “secondary” as they are the result of the procrastination, and not the underlying cause it is the thoughts and feelings that should be the main focus. Realising that Procrastination is a safety behaviour protecting you from an unpleasant or feared experience, which may work in the short term but in fact maintains the underlying problem and exploring the “way in” in terms of irrational thoughts helps to reveal the ideas which are self-defeating. One way of doing this is by Inference chaining using a series of “let’s assume...then what” questions which links the personal inferences to a situation or event and in so doing uncover the thinking producing the disturbance. Following from that we can design “stay in there” assignments designed to enable you to work through, rather than avoiding, a situation you do not like and so work through the ideas and feelings behind your procrastination. Such assignments may tackle major procrastination areas directly or gradually desensitizing by working with less unpleasant situations. Coping statements, along the lines of “I don’t like it, but I can put up with it” are a great aid in learning to tolerate the situations and the unpleasant feelings. Practicing imagining the situation reducing the feelings to manageable levels and cognitive modification from “I can’t stand feeling like” to “I can stand feeling like this” are very useful techniques toreduce the emotions when faced with a task.
Changing a behaviour pattern like procrastination requires lots of work by uncovering and forcefully disputing self-defeating thoughts and beliefs that insist the situation is too difficult to face. It is all about developing an Anti-procrastination attitude: making what appears to be unbearable, bearable.
Mark Sutton April 2016
“I've not come for what you've hoped to do. I've come for what you did.”- V
This is something that as a Coach I encounter continually: Promises that thing’s will change, that behaviour will be modified, that somehow a magic wand will be waved and all will be well. Actions speak louder than words and to effect change we actually have to take steps to make that change happen, further the actions to create change come from a place where both in the relationship want it to happen. It is common for me to encounter couples for whom the promises of change have not been upheld. The subsequent resentment, loss of trust and faith in the partner leads to at best negative perceptions of each other and at worst a complete withdrawal: the emotional flight from the relationship.
“You have done this so many times, I simply don’t believe you”.
“I learned not to rely on him for anything, he became a stranger who came home, did his usual stuff and I did what needed to be done without him even if he said he was going to do it.”
In the context of the relationship as a whole this is a dangerous place to be in terms of maintaining intimacy and general relationship health. This of course can suit the other party as they then do not have to change anything, but it stores up problems which then result in a real crisis later on, couples come to me when the pain of compromising and tolerating outweighs the pain of going to a therapist .
“He contributes nothing, yet when it comes to sex, he expects me to turn on like I had a switch regardless of what day I have had. I say well fuck that, a bunch of flowers or a quick back rub don’t cut it, start showing me some respect and I will start trusting you again.”
Thoughtlessness, differing expectations, values and priorities, making assumptions and complacency are all reasons why this occurs but perhaps the powerful is the passive/aggressive behaviour pattern which I have observed as the cause of much of the conflict and can be seen most potently in the sexual and intimate relationship on both sides of the relationship. The first inkling that passive/aggressive behaviour is present is the disconnect between what is said and what is done but it manifests in a variety of behaviours including resentment, procrastination, deliberate sabotage, hostility, criticism, withholding intimacy and the silent treatment.
The coaching framework I employ with couples looks at not only the presenting issue, but what is happening in the relationship as a whole to get an picture of the overall health of the relationship. It is action based in that there will be specific tasks and goals to achieve, while I look to determine in the first session the commitment to change, it is in these between session tasks that this commitment is challenged and passive/aggressive behaviour manifests. As a rule I always agree to check in between sessions on an agreed date to see how the couple are faring with the goals: it is useful for tweaking and questioning what is happening or where there are difficulties or blocks that need to be explored. In general though a couple who is engaged will either respond positively or detail where and why difficulties have arisen. Where patterns of passive/aggressive behaviour arise then there is either no engagement in the tasks (even though verbally the commitment has previously been agreed) or no engagement to my contacting. The subsequent session can then be used to challenge that behaviour without triggering the passive/aggressive state. As a guide for you, here are some tips on challenging passive aggressive behaviour, based on my work as a coach:
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. Use assertive communication to avoid triggering the passive aggressive behaviour: ask open ended questions and avoid blaming or criticising
Be specific about the issue at hand. Don’t get dragged into generalities which allow them fall into passive/aggressive patterns.
Figure out what it is they want. Frequently the passive/aggressive does not believe that they are being listened to, so give them the chance to come up with their own solutions and use open ended questions but don’t be overbearing.
Challenge the fear of conflict. Passive/Aggressives tend not to be able to express or show their feelings so don’t personalise, don’ get sucked into the temptation to attack back and stay calm. I will always look to re-frame conflict as a healthy part of a relationship where misunderstandings can be explored and both look for a solution.
Recognise it for what it is. A power struggle and enable them to both realise that it is a form of self-sabotage and to understand what it is they want. The passive/aggressive is looking for a reward for their behaviour: getting their needs met, making you feel bad, venting their anger on you, escalating so as to make you appear bad for example. “What is the likely outcome?” “What are you hoping to achieve by this?”. All open ended questions designed to illicit a response and it is important for you listen to that response to understand the meaning and feelings behind the words.
Understand what historically may be behind passive/aggressive behaviour : This can at times be due to core beliefs around sex (upbringing, society and religiosity) or excessive parental control. But I frequently find that in addition, historical expectations have been attributed to actions. For example “every time you touch me, you try to kiss me, I know you want sex at the end of it” would be a common type of statement which compounds the already present inability to express feelings, wants, needs and desires in a healthy way. Understanding that this is a historical issue being carried into the present enables you to communicate and set appropriate boundaries.
Set healthy boundaries and commit to follow through: Resistance is triggered when the passive/ aggressive is challenged directly on their behaviour but setting boundaries and consequences going forward can compel a passive/aggressive to re-think their behaviour. Initially, though this may seem to escalate the behaviour as they try to get their reward, but staying firm and committing to following through eventually will cause the behaviour to decrease. Be aware that when setting boundaries and consequences around intimacy and sex these should not be coercive, but a healthy expression of your own needs.
Mark Sutton March 2016
Remember when you first started dating? Did you count the days until you saw each other? Did you make arrangements where there were only you two, where you could talk and make love without distraction? Do you do that now? Or did life and the pressures of raising a family, mortgage, jobs encroach on it? Did you, as you became more familiar and settled with each other , begin to take each other for granted and those moments where you as a couple could connect become fewer and fewer until sex and intimacy became something that was a distant memory?
It is one of the common issues that I work with in couples coaching that people had become familiar with each other to the extent that that the intimate side of the relationship was put on the sideline. The roles you take on as care-givers, providers, family members and partners assume a different set of priorities. If we are not careful these roles can conflict with our values and can “bleed-through” and interfere with our other roles. When this conflict occurs, then it is a sign that there is an imbalance in the relationship: The person who sees their role as provider may see the role of their partner as homemaker and care-giver - with those duties being the other’s sole province and yet expect their partner to be in the mood for sex when they are. The primary care giver may focus all the attention on their children to the exclusion of the needs of the partner in terms of time, intimacy, sex and affection.
In a balanced adaptive relationship while there is a clear differentiation of the roles we take in relationship, there is flexibility both in them and in some of the roles both partners able to share in terms of the responsibilities and tasks of the other. In an unbalanced and maladaptive relationship these roles are fixed and one of the common issues I find is that of time and couples “do not simply have time for each other”. In such a relationship, where roles are rigidly defined or the priorities are skewed then even before we can look at ways of enhancing, rediscovering or maintaining intimacy the issue of time needs to be addressed.
It’s common for me to hear resistance to that suggestion and the must’s and have too’s and cant’s come into play. “I can’t because I am always busy at work and I am needed” (will the place really fall down because you leave an hour earlier in the evening?), I have to look after the kids all the time (Is that really the case?), I can’t because I am always managing all the family matters (what would it be like to look at shared duties?). Sometimes we are conditioned to believe that these are now our roles, sometimes our internal value system sees it as actually being an expression of Love and caring for our partner, even if we are working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week.
It comes down to the simple question: How important is your relationship with your partner for both of you?
If the answer is very, then it’s time to look at where your various roles are conflicting and also to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, even to look at Time management and the work of Simon Covey and his quadrants : what are you actually doing that is Urgent and important, Important but Not urgent , Urgent and not important, Not Urgent and Not Important. This can be applied to all aspects of your life with the last two being where the most savings in terms of time can be made. If you find that everything is Urgent and Important then you need to look at why you believe that this is the case as you are constantly fire-fighting and being put under a lot of stress. It is in quadrant 2: Not urgent, Important that the health of your relationship lies, it is planning those times for you to be together. Walking in your partner’s shoes enables you to understand where they are coming from and the pressures they may be under and look to ways of easing that pressure: Sharing the family chores in the evenings, taking the kids to practice or helping file the tax returns for example. Honestly reflecting on your roles and the priorities you put on them: Ask yourself whether work is so important that if I asked you where you see the relationship in 1 year, 5 years or 10 years then the answer isn’t “there won’t be one” or looking non-plussed when I ask “when the children are gone, what do you see for your relationship should things remain as they currently are?”
All this takes some self honesty, honesty and communication with your partner, and with others: Being assertive with the boss for example or with a family member for whom a long phone call to you, to moan about their relationship, is simply a necessity. But if things are to change, then changes need to be made: What are you both prepared to do to make time for each other and what changes are you willing to make? As Einstein is attributed as saying that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”
Mark Sutton February 2016
Are drugs affecting your intimate relationships?
Even the most happy of marriages and relationships do not necessarily correlate with a trouble free sex life, nor is a sexual issue linked to a marital one. This month we are going to look at one specific aspect which may save you a lot of time, trouble, heartache and the cost of a therapist.
Many couples therapists avoid dealing directly with sexual issues, working with the interpersonal issues that they believe are the root cause of the sexual issues. By clearing the basic relationship difficulties, they believe, the sexual issues will clear themselves. It is ignoring one basic fact though: Biology underlies our sexual functioning.
There are many reasons, other than psychological why sexual functioning may be impaired: For example with disease: Impotence is often an advanced indicator of Diabetes Melitus. Drugs to treat high blood pressure also cause erectile dysfunction in upwards of 30% of cases. Overall it has been estimated that disease or drug usage (including recreational) is responsible for 40% of all sexual dysfunctions. Obviously where the link between the medication and the dysfunction has not been made, either by the doctor not explaining or understanding fully, or the partner who feels less attractive and desired and does not understand themselves, then it appears to be a clear case for the marital therapist, while all that is needed is a change of medication. If such direct links are missed then the risks of the impotence actually becoming a psychological dysfunction increases dramatically. It is important to talk to your doctor directly: sometimes they are as uncomfortable talking about sex and sexual issues as we are. Further a brilliant psychological marital therapist may be as lacking in the basic knowledge of sexuality and sexual functioning as their clients and the causative physical factors being overlooked in the rush to look at psychological factors is very real.
Knowledge is power is a very famous saying. However, when it comes to our sexual response and our understanding of sexuality the vast majority of us are very weak indeed. Couples, especially those over 40 can present with physical issues such as poor vaginal lubrication(with pain on sex) and continued loss of erection totally convinced that desire has gone, when in fact it is simply part of the normal ageing process (again we have looked at sex and ageing in previous posts). We have been poorly served in our sexual education that the simple facts of our own sexual biology are a complete mystery to us. Thankfully internet resources are out there: so use the resources out there to fully research and understand this fundamental part of being human. Then knowledge truly is power.... and it may save you a course of therapy.
Mark Sutton January 2016
When we think of emotional triangles in relationships we typically think of those within the relationship and a lover outside of it, but they are much more than that and are much more common or indeed may even be universal to all relationships. Maggie Scarf, Author of Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage, describes emotional triangles as “an ongoing, repetitive cycle of interactions that involves three people” and they form with absolutely anyone. Emotional Triangles result because of an issue or issues in the relationship that cannot even be approached which results in a focus of attention away from the relationship situation and towards a third party. It offers a way for couples to circumvent or avoid confronting the issues for fear of destroying the relationship completely, as Maggie Scarf puts it “while getting into a triangle inevitably commits the pair to a series of endlessly repeated skirmishes, it helps stave off the all-out battle which might well end in the total defeat of one of them or the destruction of the emotional system itself.” So instead of resolving the issue or breaking up, the addition of a third into the situation brings in more choices rather than just the two polar opposites. While this extra “leg” lends stability, unfortunately it does not allow for change. While Triangles can be temporary as between friends or work colleagues and are very useful in navigating difficulties, in intimate relationships roles are more fixed and so the triangles that form tend to be more rigid and repetitive in nature.
At any given time in emotional triangles there are two main players and one in an outside position and for the ever present Emotional triangles within the family unit between parents and children, typically the father is the outsider and the conflict occurs between mother and child. In reality they are the projection of the real conflict in the Parent’s relationship and can be repeated for years with the same outcomes but the role of outsider is not necessarily a permanent thing and again as Maggie Scarf says “A three-person group allows for a number of different coalitions. Any two of the individuals can join together, covertly or overtly, against the third member of the triangle”: A parent may project the relationship conflict onto a child or a parent and child may undermine the authority of the other parent or both parents may be in conflict with the child. This last typically revolves around the behaviour of the child and has all the outward appearance of the parents having a united harmonious front when faced with the behaviour of the child there are in fact shifting alliances and unconscious dissention occurring. Of course as a child begins to develop and seek autonomy, then this threatens the stability of the triangle and in so doing expose the real issues in the two person relationship and as a consequence “the triangulated child becomes involved in either destructive or self-destructive behaviours, and lo and behold, it is not the spouses but their offspring who is deeply troubled and disturbed” the couple then unites in either supporting or fighting with their child. Emotional triangles of lover and spouses follow a pattern that is similar as the “other” provides a way of stabilising the relationship and avoiding or distancing one half of the relationship and reducing the pressures experienced via a secret alliance with an outsider.
As emotional triangles are a means of stabilising situations, disengaging from them is not easy and may increase anxiety in the short term. The first step is to understand that the formation of emotional triangles is an automatic emotional process, identify the triangle or triangles you are involved in and their impact upon you and the effective functioning of your relationship. It is important to understand that it is emotion involvement that feeds and drives the triangle and so disengage from the emotion or change the repetitive nature of what is happening and so change the emotion that arises. It is also possible that this new emotion is actually what you as a couple in the relationship need to resolve, but it is important to develop the communication skills to be able to deal with the underlying issues directly to your partner without the involvement of the “other”. Triangles are also repetitive and intergenerational, so recognise that you are exhibiting repeated patterns which may have been in your family then seek to differentiate yourself from them and to develop the skills to stop yourself either being drawn back in or stopping someone from stepping in and forming a triangle. But remember, there is always the potential to form triangles and the more repetitive the more dysfunctional and harder to resolve the situation becomes. It is when the triangle is removed that true dialogue and healing can begin.
Mark Sutton December 2015
Our Sex Fantasies
In a previous newsletter, I talked about your fantasies or more precisely their origins and how to talk to your partner about them. But what are our fantasies and are we unique as individuals in having them, does having a fantasy make us any way odd or strange? The University of Montreal recently published a study asking the question what is an unusual sexual fantasy (1). They looked at 55 fantasies in 1517 Quebec adults and took a hetero-normative approach (799 men and 718 women. 85.1% heterosexual, 3.6% homosexual, the remainder identified as neither). Fantasies were ranked: Common fantasies were those above 50% of respondents and unusual at 16% or less.
The top fantasy for both men and women was quite simply: feeling romantic emotions during a sexual relationship and closely followed by fantasising about both the atmosphere and location which could be romantic, or in an unusual place like outdoors or in public.
But for both genders other common fantasies included:
· Giving and receiving oral sex
· Masturbation: Both giving and receiving from spouses, strangers and acquantainces, though men were more likely to fantasies about strangers and acquaintances
· Exhibitionism and Voyeurism were significant fantasies with sex in public being common, though there were differences according to gender. For example: 44% of men fantasised about being filmed during sex as opposed to 32% of women.
· Domination and submission fantasies are common for both and individuals could have both types of fantasy. Spanking and whipping were more unusual as was being forced to have sex (24%-43%)
· Having sex with strangers, or someone other than the spouse is another common fantasy as is sex with someone famous. But there was a large difference in those fantasising about interracial sex, it was extremely common for men (62%) but less so for women (27%)
· Having group sex varied: having sex with two women was a typical male fantasy (85%) but only 37% of women fantasised about this. It doesn’t come as a surprise that having sex with three or more women was also high on the list of male fantasies it was a fantasy for 28% of women. Having sex with three or more people of either gender was a common fantasy for women (56%) it wasn’t for men (16%) though couples swinging was more popular among men
· 31% of women fantasise about gay or same sex with one other but only 20% of men did so, but what is interesting is that when it came to having sex with two men 45% of men fantasised about it and 65 % fantasised about anal sex, but topping or bottoming was not clarified neither was the gender of the person doing or being done.
· Men too had a common fantasy of ejaculating on their partner and women of being ejaculated on. But men have common fantasies of having sex with both someone younger than them or someone older and also of breast size, but more men fantasised about sex with a prostitute or stripper.
· Over 26% of both men and women also fantasised about sex with a fetish or non-sexual object.
Remember “unusual” fantasies were classed as those being below 16% of respondents. A lot of the fantasies I have highlighted here were between the ranges 20-50% beyond which they were classed as common, so a lot of fantasies are shared by a lot of people to a greater or lesser extent. People have groupings of fantasies and in addition fantasies that you thought may have been contradictory: Domination and Submission in the same individual for example were shown not to be so. It is also worth noting that for many people these fantasies were to stay as just as fantasies and not be acted out, but it is clear that there would be significant groupings of people who would share complimentary fantasies if they chose to explore them. This is a fascinating study and it did show is that the vast majority of us have fantasies which are a normal part of human sexuality. So look at your fantasies and where they correspond to this study: Are they more common than you thought they were? Do you feel more or less reassured that your fantasies are simply part of what it is to be a human sexual being? or do you think that, now you are not alone in your fantasies, you would be willing to share explored fantasies? Whatever your answers, enjoy exploring.
Mark Sutton November 2015
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Eyes open orgasm
Soul gazing is a simple Tantric technique for establishing connection and intimacy with your lover. It can be a formal ritual within the sacred space at the beginning of a tantric session, as a neutral holding space during a session, and as a means of experiencing the afterglow. But what about at other times I am going to ask you a question: Do you open your eyes during foreplay? If you kiss with your eyes open then foreplay’s natural negotiation process is used in a deliberate way, it also brings you into an acute awareness of Yourself, especially when you are beginning as it brings you into contact with your own thoughts and feelings. If that seems too challenging, and for many couples it is, then kissing with pauses for eye contact is a very powerful way of enhancing intimacy. But overall many couples have foreplay and sex without actually seeing each other’s eyes either by having their eyes closed or only glancing inadvertently at each other, of course you do not have to completely look at each other all the time, but during foreplay even occasionally allowing yourselves to see and be seen can make your sex electric. But if you find the thought of looking at each other with both eyes overwhelming, then think to start by using one eye occasionally and building up from there. But do not stop at foreplay, following through to orgasm maintains the connection and synchronisation that eyes open foreplay has established and it becomes an extension of your emotional link. Eyes open orgasm highlights both how close people can get and how far apart they can be. Think about the number of times you have had eyes open sex, and the differences, or look at some of the imagery and photos that are around showing a couple reaching climax: How many are climaxing with eyes open, or how many have the women with eyes closed, tuned out and the man with his head buried in the shoulder lost in his own orgasmic reflex? Eyes open orgasm is about inviting each other into yourselves, about vulnerability and yes it challenging to do, but gets easier with practice. Neither is it a necessity, you can still have a connection without opening your eyes and NOT having an eyes open orgasm is not a sign of failure or that something is wrong or bad. Consider eyes open orgasm to be an exploration of your sexual potential or an invitation for your partner to see into you it is “I-contact”, “I to I” or “I-open” it is a chance to reach your potential and a pinnacle of human development.
Mark Sutton October 2015
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Emotional fusion and differentiation
In his book “Passionate marriage, Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationships” Dr. David Schnarch reveals the importance of differentiation in relationships. He describes differentiation as “Developing Self-in-Relation” and shows how it weaves through all aspects of a relationship. Differentiation is the balancing of individuality and togetherness, maintaining your sense of who you are when you are physically and emotionally close to others and in particular when they become increasingly important to you. It’s opposite he calls emotional fusion, it is still a connection, but one without individuality. It is where we become consumed by the other person and the subsequent emotional hunger and neediness to be loved and accepted, commonly attributed to an absence of emotional connection, is in fact due to the presence of this type of emotional fusion.
People who have little differentiation exhibit a reflected sense of self and a need for continual contact and validation from others which restricts growth and change in both partners as their identities pretty much depend upon the relationship. Other forms of emotional fusion include Jealousy and the phenomenon of borrowed functioning: that is maintaining the functioning of our “pseudo self” by perpetuating poor functioning in our Partner.
Differentiation, however, can be easily misunderstood, for example those who say “I need space” are not differentiated as they are avoiding emotional engulfment and differentiated people, when their partner is away do not fall apart. It shouldn’t be confused with individualism, which sets people apart, as differentiation is about embracing and maintaining intimacy and having emotions and feelings without being swept up by their partner’s or controlled by either or both. It is also about being aware of the impact their actions and choices are having on others and accounting for the others needs and allowing people to change without losing their identity. Consequently, differentiation it is not about putting yourself first all the time but being able choose when to, leave your own interests aside and go with your partners, but not doing so from a “have to” or resentful “ being controlled” approach, but from the realisation that the other has interests and needs which are just as valid as Your own.
It is important to consider with differentiation, that the basic level of differentiation we achieve is close to that our parents achieved and that we pick a partner who is at the same level of differentiation as ourselves. There are, Schnarch states, implications to this: you both have the same tolerance for intimacy (it may be expressed differently), you both make excellent sparring partners and stop assuming that you are more differentiated than your partner, you are emotional “equals”.
Raising the level of differentiation is not easy but when it begins it occurs on many levels and in many areas at the same time, not just say in sex. It is a core transformation involving many steps though he process may not feel good, but as Schnarch says, you undertake it because it becomes “less painful than other alternatives”. What it does offer, in the process of growing with your partner, is the ability to self-soothe and calm your anxieties. Poorly differentiated people find it difficult to handle anxiety and often emotionally fuse in the relationship to achieve a temporary relief from it, resulting in highly dependent relationships and often leading to the outcome of trying to control the relationship and partner as a means of getting control of themselves. This fusion allows the ready transmission of anxiety from one to the other. This can have the appearance of functionality but when the level of anxiety in the relationship goes beyond defined limits, then issues become visible. The commonly such anxiety in relationships occurs when we disclose sides of ourselves that don’t agree with each other and where we cannot self-soothe your anxiety ourselves, then we attempt to do so through the relationship by reinforcing the common traits and masking the differences . This may cause a temporary resolution, but in doing so you are misrepresenting yourself in order to find an accommodating position leading to self-presentation as opposed to self-disclosure. The frequency of occurrence increases the more poorly differentiated you are, as the anxiety level arises and you both adopt stances that keep the situation relatively quiet and stable. However, ultimately, you cease to erode your sense of self and integrity further and in any event a point is reached where anxiety cannot be reduced by this means. With the lack of accommodation of your partner and subsequent unwillingness to confront yourself, emotional gridlock ensues. Schnarch believes this is an entirely natural process within relationships due to “Dependence on other-validated Intimacy, a reflected sense of self and regulating anxiety through the relationship”. However, the act of emotional fusion and subsequent gridlock has within it the solutions. As your ability to accommodate disappears and your ability to manage anxiety through the relationship fails, all the strategies you have been employing no longer work, then your options become limited and you are pushed towards differentiation to resolve these issues. While for many couples this may have the appearance of “falling out of Love”, it is at this point that the ability to love truly develops as you are pushed to your own essential self and subsequently become more accepting of yourself and everyone else, including your partner.
Mark Sutton September 2015
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At some point in our lives we will be rejected, this is a natural phenomenon as humans are diverse with a diverse set of experiences and interests. Rejection can have adverse consequences in terms of loneliness and loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, it affects our moods and our emotions and can have effects on our physical health. Emotional rejection, especially in romantic and sexual relationships, ranks as one of the most potent and distressing events we can experience. Just as when we are physically attacked, when we experience emotional rejection our mental processes and emotional states look to remove us from the situation. This is a natural response and our subconscious mind does not differentiate between physical or emotional hurt: it is all hurt to us. If we experience enough repeated instances of rejection, then we feel the need to protect ourselves as much as possible from being further hurt, this is simply as it is, it is not right or wrong, it is a matter of deciding whether our responses suit our needs. Further, we can begin to experience the fear of rejection, the causes of which can be varied: from physical causes which we believe will cause us to be rejected, traumatic experiences of rejection, or a lack of healthy self-concept. Generally when we operate from a fear of rejection the net result is a damaging pattern of behaviours and emotions that lead to a vicious cycle with ongoing negative results and projections.
Sexual rejections in long term relationships are fairly common and initial responses include expressing disappointment, off-hand comments or resorting to passive-aggressive behaviour. Eventually most end up not bringing up the subject altogether and a pattern of avoidance becomes established within the relationship though self-esteem continues to erode and satisfaction continued to drop as does happiness and emotional well-being. It also occurs that there may be a valid reason for sexual rejection, but the person receiving the rejection responds unhealthily by rejecting in their turn, starting a downward spiral of negative thoughts and behaviours
One of the steps in dealing with rejection is to know the reasons for rejection so that you can understand the problem and look for alternatives. You have to remember also when you are rejected don't think that, you are not good enough and there might be many reasons for rejection. There are some steps to take:
Talk where you will not be interrupted and have their full attention. Be non judgemental, emotional and sexual rejection can cause you or your partner to be defensive, so the use of I statements are an important way of presenting the facts. It is important to allow your partner to respond without interruption. Be assertive in stating your need for change, it sends a clear message that you deserve better and are worthy of more. Making a plan of change, not only for your partner, but for yourself as well and ensure that any changes are reasonable. Initially, make the changes small and simple it is also useful to ensure that there are regular check-ins to make sure that things are implemented. Sometimes it is also important to accept the reality, especially if there is an insistence that nothing can be done, and you can begin thinking about whether situation is acceptable or whether you need to think about alternatives to prevent further damage to your self-esteem and self-worth.
What can you do though if you find the fear of rejection is stopping you from establishing a new relationship, or improving your current one? Fear of rejection can make you act in a way that ensures rejection will happen, in fact our thinking is such that we end up being proved right in our thinking. The first step is to look at your beliefs around your behaviours and your actions arising from those behaviours. Often clients come to me saying what they don’t want to feel, and it can be challenging for them to look at how they actually want to feel. Change the focus on how you want to feel as opposed to how you don’t want to feel by taking a few minutes to write down what you do want to feel in your emotional and sexual life. It is very useful to look at the historical roots of your rejection, it may be a specific instance, a trauma, something physical or emotional, but examining the roots of the rejection and how that relates to how you are now can be an important step in overcoming the fear of rejection. Understanding the difference between feelings and emotions is an important step, emotions can be described as a survival response. Cognitive rehearsal, breathing techniques and cultivating presence can affect our feelings, which occur in the present moment, and subsequently affect change in our thinking. Sometimes we need to let go of our assumptions as they may be cognitive distortions around for example what your partner is thinking or the outcome. Accepting that you don’t know what is going to happen releases the rigidity of “knowing” what will happen which in itself results in the fear of rejection. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy any fear, be it fear of rejection or any other fear, often results from catastrophic thinking: that is if we are rejected, our world will come to an end. Ask yourself is that the case. Also ask yourself this, what is rejection anyway? A friend Joe gave me this image, which I use frequently: Imagine someone is pointing at you, how many fingers are pointing. The answer is one at you and three at themselves. Using that Imagery, does a person’s rejection of you tell us more about yourself or the person doing the rejecting? Rejection gives clear feedback, not about you, but about the person doing the rejecting. It does not follow that because you have been rejected that you are unlovable or are going to be alone forever, it is a reflection of how the other is reacting to you. Of course we are all human and working with fear of rejection takes practice and time, we may need the help of the coach in using the techniques and altering our thinking and behaviours, but use the pointers given in this post to enable you to begin to explore making the changes you desire in your emotional and sexual life.
Mark Sutton August 2015
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Locus of Control Orientation
Do you feel that if you work hard to achieve the relationship you desire, that fate or destiny does not determine your relationship, that luck has little to do with it and that in the long-term you will get what you deserve? And can choose your sexual behaviour? OR do you think that you have little or no control over your relationship, rarely get what you deserve, are unable to influence it, are unable to establish the one you want or are unable to control your sexual behaviour?. If you feel the former then you are generally working from an internal Locus of Control Orientation and the latter from an external Locus of Control Orientation.
But what is a locus of control orientation? Zimbardo put forward the following definition: "A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)." It should be noted that this is not an either or for most, if not all of us, but a spectrum.
As examples, those with an Internal locus of control within relationships are more effective in communicating and engaging in relationship issues as well as achieving a higher degree of relationship satisfaction as opposed to those with external locus of control generally feel powerless and there is a distinct connection between an external locus of control and aggression. Those with an external locus of control tended to engage in higher risk sexual behaviour, seeing themselves as having no control over themselves or under the control of others while those with an internal locus have a higher degree of sexual satisfaction with reduced incidence of risky sexual behaviour. Similarly, those with an external locus of control find themselves avoiding relationships, in inappropriate relationships or feeling victimised. There are other factors at play as well, for example, low self-esteem can adversely affect an internal locus of control, but working to establish an external locus of control is an important way of establishing healthy goals, sex, and relationships.
It is important to note that none of these loci are fixed and it is possible to create and maintain a realistic internal locus of control (in this context realistic is in reference to your current competence levels). While I work with clients’ specific issues, here are some general guidelines for establishing an internal locus of control: Recognise that you always have a choice, sit down and make a list of these choices. You can change your situation even if none of the choices are appetising at this point in time. Set realistic goals and develop your decision making and problem solving skills and monitor your negative self-talk.
Remember too that while developing an internal locus of control is important, an external locus of control is not necessarily bad, especially in situations where you need to be more considerate and easy going, in these situations a strong internal locus of control may result in the trampling of others feelings. Further overly developing an internal locus of control can lead to difficulties in taking directions and opinions as there is a desire to control everything and finally it is worth remembering that random events DO just happen and its is managing these that is important. It is all about balance, understanding your natural tendencies and then being willing to adapt to specific situations you find yourself in.
Mark Sutton July 2015
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The Minds eye
What we imagine we see can have a profound effect on our emotions, this is mental imagery and is a quasi-perceptual experience that while resembling perceptual experience occurs in the absence of any external stimulus. It can be both a positive and a negative, it can lead to pleasure, high motivation and success or anger, fear and anxiety. How we see something panning out in our minds eye, be it adaptive or maladaptive is the reflected in our emotions or behaviours: for example when a couple argues, if one sees the argument is going to end badly this is reflected in the argument. If they see the argument ending with both having their values respected and the conflict resolved, then this leads to a more positive outcome. Distressing mental imagery has been identified as an important factor in the maintenance of anxiety: The man suffering from Erectile Dysfunction or Premature ejaculation, for example, sees himself ejaculating too soon or not having an erection long before sex begins and becomes anxious and worried and effectively creates the issue repeatedly. Such imagery usually reflects the fears of the person having them: from distorted negative self perceptions where the person believes themselves to be seen as anxious by others, to the spontaneous generation of images tied to earlier aversive or traumatic situations which happen in the “here and now”.
As an intimacy coach, exploring a client’s mental images can give an understanding of the underlying causes and cognitions which are behind their presenting concern. It is looking at the script of the movie that is playing on the screen in the client’s head. But just like a real movie script, this script can be changed by using guided imagery to replace the negative imagery with compassionate mind imagery and Positive future self-imagery. There are many self-help materials and tools to enable you to use guided imagery for relaxation, well-being and stress reduction, but for specific issues working with a therapist has greater benefits. We work from an understanding of the mind-body connection, we create an altered state of consciousness to facilitate rapid healing, growth, learning, or performance and with which we have a sense of control in what we do. Whether it is feeling state, end state, energetic, cellular, physiological, metaphoric, psychological or spiritual; guided imagery is best employed in a multisensory fashion and provides a powerful technique for overcoming distress, anxiety and blocks which have stopped held you back.
Mark Sutton June 2015
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“I’m Spartacus”, “No, I’m Spartacus”. You will be surprised at how often that image pops into my head during the beginning stages of couples coaching. The couple square up to each other as gladiators in the arena (either in and/or out of the bedroom). Both standing at opposite sides, gladii drawn and ready to inflict wounds on each other, both convinced of their own sense of rightness, attacking, defending and striking out until one lies bleeding and backs down or both withdraw to nurse their cuts.
This adversarial style of going head-to-head may seem like a way of clearing the air, but it is rooted in false premise, unhealthy beliefs, the breaking of unwritten rules and the need to see conflict as a win/lose situation and can eventually spell the death of the relationship. A large part of effectively navigating conflict is communication, but another key is the ability to compromise. Before looking at ways to compromise in relationships, it is important to understand that healthy compromise is not a one-sided sacrifice of things with little or no return, neither is it a sign of weakness, it is a way of respecting each other’s needs and values to obtain a common goal in the relationship.
In healthy compromise both parties place something on the table, not just one side, creating fairness and balance. Effective compromise requires a re-evaluation of the expectations you are both bringing into your relationship, a balancing of your individual values to obtain a new, shared set of values. It requires you both to understand and communicate what you need in such a way that you work as a team by understanding and each other’s perspectives and feelings. It important to look at what I call the “rules of the relationship” where have they changed? What needs to be put in place to reflect these changes? And be mutually appreciative: acknowledging each other’s efforts, even if not perfect , can go a long way in establishing a flow in the relationship and maintaining effective compromise.
Of course not everything in the relationship should be compromised, though their usage may be negotiated for balance: Your own interests and hobbies, self-esteem, family and friends, career and alone time for example are aspects which are intrinsic to the individual and necessary for relationship health. The ability to Compromise is an acquired skill, but one that is developed over time all it takes is the willingness to sheath the sword.
Mark Sutton May 2015
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Identifying with another's feelings
One of the most important skills for a coach to develop is the skill of Empathy. But what is empathy and why is it important not only as a professional coach, but in all life relationships?
Empathy can be described as the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes it is the ability to share and understand another person’s feelings, needs, concerns and/or emotional state. While the basis of both sympathy and empathy is the same: Compassion, empathy differs from sympathy in that sympathy is the ability to express culturally acceptable condolences: you feel sorry for them, pity them but done necessarily understand what they are feeling whereas with empathy you feel with the person.
Empathy can be divided into cognitive empathy (Appreciating someone else’s feelings without feeling them) and emotional empathy (feeling the same feelings as your partner) and in relationships empathy can bridge the divide between individuals regardless of the differences. Without empathy however, we are unable to make any real contact but with empathy we can introduce many benefits into our relationship. For starters, it feels good especially when we feel that we are being empathically heard and understood. Empathy reduces stress, enhances resilience, healing, trust, growth, creativity, effective conflict resolution, collaborative action and change.
Unfortunately empathy does not come naturally for everyone for a variety of reasons and particularly with men. The good thing though is that empathy can be practiced and learned. First and foremost though before we can be empathic with others we need to be in touch with our own feelings and learn to love ourselves as imperfect human beings. While I work with clients to develop empathy, here are a few tips for you if you wish to attempt to develop empathy in your relationships:
Ask: One of the simplest and most direct, but most underused means of understanding your partner is to ask them to explain their position.
Try to see things from the other person's point of view: It helps to realise that your partner is simply reacting to the situation with the skills they have available.
Recognise that your partner is separate from you and validate their viewpoint: They are humans in their own right and entitled to have their own separate feelings and desires. Acknowledging your partner’s viewpoint does not necessarily mean you agree with it, it shows an acceptance that others can have different opinions from your own.
Refrain from always having to be right: This requires you to look at your attitude and ask yourself is my primary objective to win, be right or get your own way. What other priority would best suit the shared relationship needs?
Listen without Interruption: Take note of the entire message: what is being said and how, look at the body language. Do you get the impression that something is not being said, can you think about what your partner is feeling?
Mark Sutton April 2015
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Moving our of your comfort zone
Change is constant throughout our intimate relationships. What is important is our ability to manage change appropriately and effectively as this has a direct impact on our physical, emotional and mental health within the relationship. Change though is cyclical and can be broken into four Zones: The Comfort Zone, The Challenge Zone, The Creative Zone and the Content Zone.
The Comfort Zone within a relationship is a passive state of automatic pilot, characterised by unconscious activity, routine, habit, a sense of staleness and boredom with no challenge. While secure, feelings of discontent exist which don’t go away as the situation does not pass. We may blame others for this, focus on distractions or find new distractions. At some point however, we realise that we need to change and take charge as our relationship is no longer automatic nor secure and the gulf between what we are doing and what we need to do is becoming ever wider.
The challenge zone within a relationship occurs when, though self-awareness, we rise to the challenge of making the changes we need to. It is an active zone, where we meet our self-doubts and fears, we may feel panic and confusion, suffer uncertainty, self-esteem and trust issues. Look for and find new resources within or rediscover old resources we have not used for years. It is a time of change where we look at the relationship and challenge our values, priorities and roles we have. This may ripple out into other aspects of our lives, but as we gain clarity and focus we move into the next zone.
The Creative Zone is where we create the relationship we envisioned, developing goals, creating action plans. Learning about ourselves by assessing and evaluating our responses, feelings, thoughts and behaviour and assessing, evaluating and learning the skills necessary to expand and explore this vision for our relationship. This is an active zone which leads to growth, inner and outer change, it is rewarding and fulfilling and leads to a sense of achievement as we move into the Content Zone.
The Content Zone is a passive state where we are now enjoying the benefits of all the hard work we have put in, the relationship has changed. There are new perspectives and understandings and new insights gained. It is important to fully engage with these new perspectives and enhanced intimacy and contentment within the relationship, it is important to do this, we have worked for it. Inevitably though, as life is in a state of constant movement, we begin to become complacent and move once again into automatic pilot and we Re-enter the Comfort Zone.
As a coach the majority of clients who come to me are actually in the two active zones: The Challenge Zone and The Creative Zone. They may be aware that changes need to be made and the individual or couple is looking for me as a coach to help them identify where they are and where they are going using my skills, knowledge and resources used appropriately to support and coach when self-doubts, confusion and uncertainty arises and to enable them to discover new, or re-discover old resources within their relationships. Alternatively, they may be in the process of actively creating the relationship they truly desire and my skills are there to support this journey, offering new perspectives and insights, bringing clarity and choice. All of this working from the client’s agenda and heightening their sense of direction, strengthen their sense of purpose and creating a future relationship for them that gives them a sense of achievement and fulfilment.
Mark Sutton March 2015
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Self love and acceptance
How, and the depth with which, we love another depends largely on the degree to which we love ourselves. Self-love is the ability to trust yourself, listen to your own inner voice and guidance of the heart. In relationships when you try to love another without loving yourself, possessiveness, jealousy, doubt and fear become the predominant emotions. You can become dependent on another for your feelings of self-worth and self-esteem: to feel whole (at least for a while) or you withdraw completely from relationships through fear of hurt or perceived lack of worthiness. Your boundaries become blurred or non-existent as you submerge yourself into the other or become rigid and fixed as you reject the possibility of loving another. Indeed these can swing through the opposing poles as you become conflicted between what you truly desire and what you perceive the reality to be. Self-love, self-worth and self-esteem are all linked and are specific aspects of ourselves in the bigger picture: self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance can be seen as the way in which we embrace all parts of ourselves, not just the positive parts of ourselves but the weaknesses, limitations and behaviours we have been told are unacceptable. Many, if not all, issues around self-acceptance stem from our childhood and early formative experiences: parents, family, peers, teachers and society and can vary widely according to the exact nature and extent of our experiences. But in general, we all enter adulthood regarding ourselves with only limited or conditional acceptance. It is this negative self-regard and criticism we bring into our adult lives that lies at the heart of most of our problems as adults.
Don Miguel Ruiz in his book the four agreements calls the resulting mind voices the inner judge (which judges what we do against the “book of law” or script or set of life rules) and the victim child (the part that listens). The constant self-criticisms and put-downs, our limiting beliefs lead to our lack of self acceptance and affect our self-esteem, self-worth and self-love.
In the tantra we explore our lover within, shining a light on the essential part of us that is already whole and capable but which has been suppressed and buried by the weight of the self-doubt, guilt and shame that we have been placing upon ourselves. We recognise that it is an inseparable part of ourselves and always present. In shining that light it also throws into focus the shadow parts of ourselves. Often we have the desire to repress or deny this shadow, we are aware of what effect it is having in our lives, our emotions, our behaviours and our relationships. But just as our own body shadow is a part of us, so is this type of shadow. We may repress it for a while, but it will still be there causing conflict and leading us into a cycle of self-judgement as it remains a split-off segment of ourselves which denies full self-acceptance. But whether you experience tantra or not the following dictum applies: "Tout comprendre, c'est tout excuser" (literally, "to understand all is to pardon all") rather than denying our shadow, we acknowledge it, understand it and accept or accommodate it even embrace it. We are not fixing it we are affirming that while it is part of us, it does not define us as a whole in this present moment. We are also acknowledging that indeed it was innate at that time to us, we were coping as best we could and that we really were not to blame. Indeed, would it not be cruel for holding ourselves in such contempt for acting in ways we thought we had to in order to protect ourselves from anxiety, shame, or emotional distress?
When we acknowledge all aspects of ourselves, our light and shadow, then we are on the way to generating self-acceptance and self-compassion. Indeed the very willingness to challenge what we have found most difficult to accept about ourselves in itself can generate self-acceptance and self-compassion. We then have ability to give yourself first everything you would give to your lover, welcoming all of yourself in your own heart as your own lover.
Mark Sutton February 2015
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I received a surprise, from a mysterious benefactor just before Christmas, a book entitled “How to Worship the Goddess and keep your balls”. So first off, thank you mysterious benefactor. OK so this book is aimed at men and has a hetero-normative approach, but it has some rather nice imagery contained within it. I feel that what I am going to talk about this month, though has it’s origins within this book, is applicable to everyone regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation as we experience ourselves from two different perspectives, or frames of reference: external and internal.
The external frame of reference may be described as the “social mirror” or “reflected sense of self”. It is one of the reasons we bond strongly into tribes as we are hardwired to do. It not only allows us to maintain the tribe, it allows us to be compassionate and empathic. Unfortunately, since childhood we have been conditioned to filter this through our fears of what we imagine other people think of us. Rather than being self-validating, we rely on others for our validation. With regards to our partner, this constant need for validation and need to reflect back the idealised us not only denies them the ability to express themselves genuinely, but also reduces the ability to navigate the relationship. Where this less than ideal image is expressed, we have the opportunity for honest self-expression and reflection. Further, when we have the need for our partner to validate us, we tend to manipulate the situation to get what we need, to withdraw from our partner, hang onto anger or resentments, panic, or seek to generate these feelings via distractions or addictions.
The other side of the coin is the internal frame of reference. Rooted at the core of us and independent of what others think of us, it comes from our deepest values, it is what we think of ourselves. Once we begin to become aware of our internal frame of reference we can begin to strengthen it, but to do that we have to know what we are feeling, then rather than compartmentalise our feelings, we can choose to integrate them and push away the false images of perfection and embrace all our flaws and become rooted in ourselves.
It is important though to realise that we need both external and internal frames of reference to maintain balance in our lives. It can be imagined as the “cat stance” in martial arts, with 60% of the weight on the rear leg and 40% on the front. If we are 100% rear weighted, we have a totally internal frame of reference and view things in terms of what we can get out of it or what is in it for us. If we are 100% front weighted we have a totally external frame of reference, we are doormats and governed totally by how we believe others perceive us. The 60/40 ratio of internal to external frames of reference allows us to be grounded and rooted in ourselves and to challenge our own scripts, while still being able to be empathic or defend ourselves.
So where are you weighted? If you stand sideways with your feet shoulder distance apart and your front foot pointing out from your body, your back foot turned at a 45 degree angle place your weight on the front and back foot to the degree to which you believe your frames of reference are balanced. How stable does that feel? Is there more weighting front and back, what does that mean for you? If you are feeling particularly insightful, ask loved ones and friends to give you the percentages for front and back legs, based on their perception of you and average the results. Again see what that feels like and ask what potentially that means.
Mark Sutton January 2015
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Sensual or Erotic touch.
One of the greatest gifts we can give is Touch, it is a powerful way for lovers to communicate feelings, especially when touched with sensitivity, awareness and Love. Sensual or erotic touch serves to awaken and connect us to the largest of our organs: the skin and does so on every part of our body. It brings our mind into contact with physical reality, sends messages and pleasure signals back and forwards and forms the point at which two become one. When the receiver allows themselves simply to enjoy the experience, the giver simply loses themselves in the moment to the touch and both are creating, nourishing and discovering each other and themselves. Such a conscious loving touch can be incredibly healing as well as incredibly bonding and heart opening. There is no need to be a fully trained massage therapist or have an in depth knowledge of skills: it is about the presence and awareness you bring to the touch and especially into the hands and fingers, the point of contact between the two of you.
Unfortunately though, we live in a society where we are not taught to touch in any meaningful sense, though as children we had this ability, it has been lost in many instances. Further for many, the words sensual or erotic have loaded meanings: the prelude to sex or focus on the genitals, orgasm and release. When these expectations are removed and sex and genital touch are optional or taken off the table altogether, then the power of sensual touch in intimacy and pleasure shines forth.
In Tantra the use of ritual encourages the spiritual element and creates a sense of relaxation, reverence and honouring that enhances the experience. The zone is created for exploration of the physical and a forum where open and effective communication around likes and dislikes, boundaries and expectations can occur before commencing the massage which enriches and deepens the experience. While people often say that spontaneity is important, it is worth noting the adage that “Spontaneity takes planning”. Having everything prepared: lubricants, oils, food, drink for example, along with checking in with your partner on where they are now, what they desire and the boundaries you both have, before commencing allows the whole experience to flow smoothly. There are many Tantric techniques that can be used to create connection and openness before the sensual massage takes place and these set the scenes for wonderfully intimate and beautiful experiences. In addition to the tantric connection techniques, we facilitate many forms of massage for couples in our programme: sensual body massage, sensual chakra massage and synchronisation of the breathing with touch are examples. While the presence and awareness you bring to the sensual massage is important, there are specific types of strokes that we teach you to use along with the part of your hands or fingers work the best in any given situation. The depth and pressure of the touch can create different sensations leading to different experiences and the speed with which the massage is delivered is an important factor. It is a constant surprise to people who come to us, just how slow a slowly delivered massage actually is and just how sensitive the skin is to the pressure of the touch and especially when the sensual massage includes, but does not focus, on the primary, secondary and tertiary erogenous zones found all over the body. Taking the holistic approach to sensual and erotic massage, as we teach couples, brings a depth of intimacy, rejuvenation, healing, bonding and love that is hard to quantify. It can reframe your relationship and how you view sex, open you to the natural energetic flow within your body and between you both and increase your potential for ecstasy and bliss.
Mark Sutton December 2014
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I was contacted by a freelance journalist from the Irish independent and asked on my views about comments Rosamund Pike had made recently regarding the “ridiculous” expectations that we have of mates in modern relationships. This month’s intimacy Guide will focus on my view on this:
If you are familiar with the work of Abraham Maslow and his Heirarchy of Needs then you are aware of five fundamental stages that drive human motivation. From bottom to top they are: Physiological (breathing, food water, sex, sleep etc.), Safety (security of body, employment , resources, of the family, of health of property) Love and Belonging (Friendship, Family, Sexual Intimacy), Esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others), Self-actualisation (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts). In America, roughly 50% of marriages fail and many of those in the remainder are unsatisfied in the relationship.
An American study by Eli Finkel et. al. In 2014, looked at the expectations that are brought into the marriage and whether these were creating the conditions for the marriage to fail. Previously we had the expectation that marriages would provide the needs for resources, safety and security and our need to feel loved and cared for. However the modern marriage/relationship, what is being called the “self-expressive” Marriage/relationship adds to these, with the expectations that spouses will also meet our needs for self-esteem and self-actualisation. Not only have they to be joint providers, lovers, supporters, but also counsellors and psychologists, confidants and care-givers: and that is too much. This is compounded by the fact that we are investing less and less time and effort to maintain the health of the relationship and that is all setting up the relationship to fail big time. We need to lower the expectations on what our partner is able to bring to the relationship AND make the effort to spend quality time together.
I have talked before about the responsibilities in a relationship: the shared responsibility for the relationship and the responsibilities we have to maintain ourselves. It is of course important that our partner has our backs, supports us and listens, demonstrates the shared responsibility important for relationship health. However, if we look to our partner to fulfil all our needs then that turns the partner into a care-giver, engenders emotional dependency and unhealthy attachment within the relationship and in all probability the spouse is not getting their needs met as they are constantly in support mode. That awareness of your partner’s needs as well as your own is vital to relationship health as well as showing the basic respect for your partner they deserve.
Could you imagine being told that for the next 40 years you will be the permanent caregiver, 24/7 to someone who will require you to validate them emotionally, physically, self-esteem wise and self-actualisation wise? Would you take that job spec?
Your spouse is also an individual in their own right but they are not you, they will never be able to see through your eyes and your spouse cannot merely reflect back to you your own life. It is important that you take responsibility for your own needs and emotions: Develop an important attribute, Emotional Intelligence (the ability to understand and work with your emotions). Healthy relationships are those in which both parties exhibit high emotional intelligence: this leads to better communication, intimacy, conflict resolution and the ability to express and maintain healthy boundaries. Further your expectations are more realistic: you see your spouse as a human being with all that beauty and frailty that goes with it. This leads to less conflict and higher relationship health as the expectations are modified in response to this awareness.
No one has the skills to do all that at the beginning of a relationship, certainly skills can be developed over time and over the years as you come to understand each other more fully, see each other as human beings and accept that you both are changing and growing as time passes. But nothing stays static and relationships are a process of change. Your spouse is human with human failings not a superman: there are going to be times when they are able to listen and support and times when they are not, they are not mind-readers or enlightened buddhas that is the reality not the fiction. A further consideration is that when you are making your spouse the entire emotional world you are effectively handing over to them the responsibility for your entire self-worth and well-being. The conditions are created for Emotional Dependency, Blame and a lot of unhappiness. There is another factor as well, how can we expect our spouse to understand our every thought and feeling when in all probability we don’t understand them ourselves. We live by unconscious rules and scripts that have developed over the years: Those drive our feelings and behaviours when faced with life events and situations. It is unreasonable to expect your spouse to understand what you are not aware of yourself. The key to this is generating self-awareness and ironically when you do that, you then take responsibility for your own feelings and behaviours, establishing a higher degree of emotional intelligence. Then the relationship as a whole naturally improves and it is down to you and not your spouse.
Mark Sutton November 2014
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Last month I touched upon the importance of symbols in relationships and they fall into two general categories of meaning: Respect V Disrespect and Caring versus Uncaring. Both aspects are important within relationships: for example you may feel loved but not respected by your partner and that may lead to bitterness and resentment.
But we have symbols all around us: a national flag, a religious icon, sporting teams, all represent examples of symbols. What makes them symbolic though is the personal interpretation and investment we put on them. If you were to ask a representative group of individuals what a particular symbol meant to them you would get a range of responses: A religious Christian individual would attach more meaning to a cross than a religious individual of another faith or an atheist.
Symbols of love such flowers, chocolates, jewellery may seem to be universal but again it is open to individual interpretation and investment. The issue arises when the symbol becomes confused with the emotion: In essence we become conditioned to relate the depth of emotion (love) with the number and quality of symbols becomes we receive. That then causes conflict and distress where there are differences in individual interpretation of such symbols which is not particularly aided by the conditioning we receive from society, media and the like.
Sometimes the symbolism can produce a huge investment of emotion, time and thinking. Take for example the word “marriage”. A woman I knew invested a lot of personal self-esteem, time and effort in being married by 30. It became for her a symbolic key performance indicator for success alongside her career. She married quickly, only to find that the person who she married had a different set of expectations on what marriage actually meant. In her haste to achieve and hold onto the symbolic dream she had created, she skewed the actual reality and conflict arose around their differing expectations of marriage from starting a family against continuing a career, roles and responsibilities and in pretty much every other aspect.
From a CBT standpoint within a relationship or marriage, when an action (or activating event) consistently provokes personalised meanings then that is a strong indication that it has become symbolic. Just as in all other symbols it is the personal meaning that has become attached to it that is important. So if a partner held the belief that “during sex we should orgasm every time, otherwise it showed they did not care, were falling out of love or thought they were a failure in bed”. Then that particular symbol: orgasm, is looked for every time they have sex and it becomes an internal fixed rule, part of what Beck calls the “Tyranny of the Shoulds”. Where the relationship becomes distressed then symbols are framed as negative statements about their partner (your frigid, you don’t care) and the relationship (It is falling apart, there is no love) and the response is excessive (withdrawal, hostility and anxiety).
In the vast majority of cases though, misunderstandings arise because we interpret symbols differently and assume that the other automatically “knows” what our interpretation is. It seems obvious then that when we can communicate our different interpretations around symbols then we can see where the “Tyranny of the Shoulds” is active. However, and most importantly, before we can communicate our view, we need to fully understand and be aware of the emotions and thoughts behind our own symbolic meanings. So if you find yourself being triggered by an event or closely related series of events in your relationship, it is worthwhile looking at what is symbolic about that event for you. It is the first step in understanding the role of different expectations and internal rules that are the cause of so much conflict.
Mark Sutton October 2014
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What are the building blocks of a good relationship?
What are the building blocks of a good relationship? It is something than many couples tend to lose sight of and it is worth spelling them out. In the infatuation phase of a relationship we tend to positively bias our view of our partner, as the reality dawns we may begin to view the same attributes with a negative bias. For example: That open, lightness we cherished at the beginning now seems to take on the aspect of frivolity and irresponsibility. But if there is a standard pattern to infatuated attraction followed by our sense of disillusionment as our expectations are not met by our partner, what then are the ingredients we back together to enable us to move into the phase of mature love?
Firstly it’s important to understand that feelings of warmth replace the intensity of infatuation: Some are addicted to the highs and lows of infatuation, the need to be idealised by and to idealise their partner, the ecstasy of togetherness and the agony of separation. But the loving bond that naturally replaces the infatuation is the mortar that binds the long-term relationship together. The bricks in the relationship I am going to summarise and should be imagined as the interlocking pieces that form the relationship:
- Caring: Believing in and letting your partner know how important they are to you, that you are concerned about them and are ready to act to help or protect them.
- Affection: Linked with concern, affection is important in showing caring for your partner expressing affection is an important part of this. It may seem obvious, but for many as the relationship progresses the simple affectionate gestures decrease, become limited to the bedroom or disappear altogether.
- Acceptance: In a mature relationship acceptance tends to be unconditional. Differences in views and opinions are respected without criticism. Your partner’s flaws are accepted without judgement and vice versa. This is an important factor as it also leads to a greater sense of self acceptance and a lowering of barriers and guards. Of course this doesn’t mean ignoring shortcomings, but in an atmosphere of acceptance you can work together to explore overcoming them.
- Empathy: We have talked about empathy a lot in previous articles and the ability to tune into your partner’s feelings and experience them is an important brick in the mature relationship. Importantly though, when we are feeling worried, stressed or emotional (of any type: Joy or fear) we can lose the capacity for empathy. Many couples present to me with issues which, when explored, stem from misreading signals as a result of a temporary loss of empathy, for example the partner who is excited at a promotion fails to recognise the sadness in their partner who is having a poor day and vice versa. Both feel uncared for and worthless or abandoned and disrespected and an argument ensues.
- Sensitivity: Being sensitive to your partner’s concern’s and vulnerabilities is an important component to reduce needless pain and suffering. It is a quality that can be cultivated but if your partner overreacts to something you do what is your normal reaction to it? Is it defensivness, or being critical or is it stooping for a moment to consider what the underlying problem might be? Then exploring your partner’s fears and concerns together.
- Understanding: This takes sensitivity a stage further in that your partner feels understood without having to go into immense detail. It is unfortunate though that mutual understanding is usually one of the first bricks to go when arguments arise and entrenched positions and accumulated misinterpretations of meanings and actions. One way to counter this is to look at your automatic thinking about your partner and test their validity another is to check your mind reading of your partner’s intentions.
- Companionship: this tends to fade with time as outside pressures accumulate. This, however, can be improved simply by good planning and in the simple exercises of daily living which can create a sense of togetherness .
- Intimacy: All of the above attributes combine to produce intimacy and it is undermined by misunderstanding, constant criticism, blaming and insensitivity. When intimacy is lost a major force in the relationship goes with it.
- Friendliness: This is essentially the interest your take in your partner as a person. Unfortunately in relationships this can be one sided or subdued.
- Pleasing your partner: While crucial to a relationship, this should be a mutual pleasure. You not only satisfy your partner’s needs, but share in their satisfaction. This should also mutual in the sense of it being a two way process, with boundaries respected. One excellent way of doing this is the Tantric Ying-Yang game.
- Support: This gives the sense that you are dependable. At times of need you are a supporter, aide, prop or guide. Being too neutral can be misread as being indifferent or uncaring. It is important to note that being supportive is a little bit of a trial and error process, but asking questions, awaiting the responses will help in determining what support is required.
- Closeness: This is not simply about physical proximity but is about being present with your partner. You can be physically close but simply not there, being preoccupied with other problems. Taking time to be present generates closeness automatically, it can be tantric: through your awareness but is not limited to sex. Being present together with the mundane, sharing plans and goals all fosters a sense of closeness.
For some reading these may be obvious aspects of a relationship, but in relationships under strain and pressure they are the first pieces to be knocked out of the wall. Importantly though, they can be recovered and being interconnected, changing or improving one leads to improvements in all of the others. For some the changes are easy to implement but for others, particularly where things have progressed far down the road, the guidance and intervention of a coach is required to bring the individual pieces back together.
Mark Sutton September 2014
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Distortions and errors in thinking
By drawing attention to distortions and errors in thinking, cognitive behavioural therapy, highlights how they affect communication within our relationships. In general open, honest and unambiguous communication strengthens relationships. However skewed, unhealthy and negative thinking damages relationships.
Aaron Beck indicated that the following reasons were the cause of such distortions:
Mind-Reading: While it is impossible for us to know with certainty what our partner is thinking, their motivations, beliefs, thought processes and attitudes we have a tendency to assess their internal mind state based on the most cursory observations and inferences. This is a common occurrence as we are “programmed” to look for patterns and rules to simplify our lives. However when our assumptions are faulty, the conclusions inaccurate, and they lead to negative predictions and generalisations. This type of mind-reading is potentially destructive in relationships as the view our partner has of us is important to us and where this assumed reality becomes confused with objective reality our self-esteem suffers.
Misreading the Signals: We rely on our partner’s signals as a guide to their attitudes and intentions, however, these are often vague or confusing and are subject to a range of interpretations. We often decipher the signals with our own bias and filters and attribute meanings which are not there or attach repeated personal or symbolic meanings to them. When the symbolic meanings are framed as negative statements, the response is often excessive. Beck believes that there were two mains types of symbolic event within a relationship which evoke an excessive response: Caring versus Uncaring and Respect verses Disrespect, both of which are important within the relationship. We also present with expectations on our relationships, however, these are open to interpretation as each of us would bring our own set of meanings and expectations. In a normal healthy relationship we accept as valid our partners’ interpretations and re-appraise and modify our own on an ongoing basis. However, issues occur when expectations become rules and the violations of these rules becomes symbolic breaking the Caring/Uncaring and Respect/Disrespect meanings and misinterpretations were more likely to occur when in a highly emotional state. Our interpretation of our Partner’s meanings is also influenced by the biased or prejudicial thinking we apply to them: It is a rigid way of framing them within our lives and affects how we interpret how they act or talk. Further how we view ourselves affects our interpretation of our partner in terms of ourselves personally. Beck refers these tendencies for prejudicial and bias as “The Power of Negative Thinking”. Thus the strength of our belief as regards our partner’s attitudes and motives is not necessarily related to the accuracy of that belief and we tend, when we attach a personal meaning to an experience or event, to regard it as valid regardless of its accuracy.
To overcome this in a relationship it is important to change our perspective and see our partner more objectively rather than rigidly frame them according to our bias. In order to accomplish this it is useful to understand that discord in relationships is not typically the result of malice or selfishness, but arises from a sequence of misunderstandings arising from different perspectives and expectations. Similarly, traits framed as “bad” are actually morally neutral and arise from different perspectives and underlying beliefs. If this is then all due to differences in perspective and interpretation then no-one is right and no-one is wrong. That leaves room to view each other objectively, to remove negative attributes that have been distorting the view of each other and to negotiate around the situation.
Mark Sutton August 2014
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There is a theory in psychology that sexual fantasies reflect what stimulus we were exposed to in our childhood sexual awakening (A form of Classical conditioning) and are also part of our balancing response to our daily anxieties. We often feel uncomfortable around having sexual fantasies, because we don’t understand where they came from or why we have them. A large part of this stems from the way society ignores or treats the natural sexual development of children in the former and in the latter a natural response to daily life in the latter. The key though is to remember that they are merely normal responses to our life experiences.
For some fantasies are private “for my eyes only” events for when we masturbate and for others they may wish to share them with their partner. When in a relationship though, the former can lead to feelings of guilt and shame as we somehow feel that the relationship is not enough for us sexually or that we are somehow cheating on our partner. However if you consider that the brain is a complex sexual organ and is quite capable of providing the extra arousal for when physical stimulation isn’t sufficient, then fantasies are a stimulating outlet for a high or healthy libido and for those with healthy boundaries are seen as such.
For those who wish to sharing their fantasies can be stimulating when used as part of foreplay. Hearing a fantasy can be a great way of finding out what turns your lover on, but the fantasy should not reach the stage where the fantasy becomes more important than the reality. While sharing fantasies can enhance intimacy, equally sharing them can have the opposite effect. So how do we do share fantasies without risking rejection or judgement? And how do we handle when we don’t like what we hear?
Don’t jump in! Regardless of the popularity of “fifty shades of grey” and the number of magazine articles describing the “10 best fantasies”, immediately plunging into all your sexual fantasies is highly risky. It depends on the depth of communication, connection and understanding, particularly if the fantasies are edgy. Float the idea generally if you wish: Feel free to mention the copy of “10 best fantasies” and look at the response, then be clear between the two of you about your objectives are: are you looking to share them to share the thought as an understanding what floats you boat even more? or as part of role-play? (Officer and Gentleman: swept of feet scene anyone?) or to act them out? If you fantasise about a threesome, for example, then the talk about it can be highly arousing but acting it may not be. It is an important point that generally fantasies are not meant to be acted out (If they are they more accurately fall into the category of unfulfilled sexual desires or wishes). Respect both sets of boundaries: if you have healthy boundaries and open communication then neither of you should you disclose more than you wish to after all fantasies are our own personal property. Use common sense: Sharing a fantasy about Johnny Depp may be exciting, but sharing one about your partner’s sister or brother may not be.
If you don’t like what you hear understand that for the most part fantasies aren’t meant to be enacted, it is the imagination behind it. Also, if the fantasy is edgy understand that in telling you, your partner is opening and being vulnerable and it takes a lot of courage to do so. If you have your objectives clear it enables you to stay open and loving, your partner is expressing their own internal imagination, it is not a judgement on you or your relationship or them. Whatever the fantasies, take an attitude of enquiry and rather than rejecting out of hand look at shared fantasies you can both enjoy.
In the end it comes down to this: It is how the fantasy is shared that is the determining factor for the couple. Fantasies are a natural part of the human experience, they are private arousal enhancers and you have a right to have them AND to keep them private if you wish. They are no reflection on you or the relationship. Sharing fantasies depends on the trust and communication you have with your partner, in honouring boundaries and exercising respect for your lover and understanding the scope of the fantasy within the session. After all that then there is no reason why fantasies cannot enhance lovemaking sessions for you and your partner as well as for yourself as a sexual being.
Mark Sutton July 2014
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One of the most common issues for those who attend my clinics revolves around the ability to communicate effectively around sex, sexuality and their relationship needs. In his book “Non-Violent Communication”, Marshall B. Rosenberg puts forward a four component process for effective communication: Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests. We state our observations on actions someone is taking which affect us and do so without judgment, we then state our feelings when we observe this action, we identify our needs in connection to the feelings and finally we request concrete actions which enrich our lives. When we work through this system, we can both establish a flow where we express honestly through the four components (what I am observing, feeling, needing and requesting) and receive empathically (what you are observing, feeling, needing and requesting). While it is a powerful system when put into practice between couples (and continued practice is needed before this becomes and natural flow), perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of using the NVC process may be in the understanding it gives us to enable us to generate self-compassion.
I met Margot Anand recently at the RDS Conscious Concerts and during her delivery, she simply stated this essential truth: “The degree to which we can love another is limited to the degree with which we can love ourselves”. So we will look at how our internal criticisms prevent us from seeing our own intrinsic beauty and disconnect us from our own divine self. The place to look is at how we have been taught to evaluate ourselves and in particular when we have been less than perfect.
Take this little test: recall a time when you did something you wish you hadn’t (or to put it more commonly you made a “mistake”). It can be anything, either in or out of the bedroom, write down what were your immediate thoughts or words to yourself?
Typically we use phrases like: “stupid”, “messed up again”, “how could you do it”, “it’s your fault again”. Unfortunately evaluating ourselves in such a judgmental moralistic way we engender self-hatred which leads to guilt and shame. Whether it be sex, intimacy or other behaviours in a relationship, actions taken as a result if feelings of guilt and shame are not free and joyful acts and have major repercussions around how the act is perceived by ourselves and others. In fact as Rosenberg points out, there is one word in the English language which encapsulates how we evaluate ourselves and is a major contributor to guilt and shame, that word is “SHOULD”. How many times have you said to yourself “you should do this” or “shoudn’t do that”. Words like should, must, and have to, all engender a lack of choice, resistance and, if we succumb to their demands, joylessness. When we are acting from a place of self-judgment, however, we are expressing our unmet needs and there is the potential for learning. If we can evaluate ourselves from a place of compassion we can understand what those needs are, enrich ourselves and act more in accordance with our values. If we look at our self talk around something that we did, we can ask ourselves what needs are not being met that are causing us to be so self-judgmental in so doing we can experience a different set of other feelings which are arising in response to those needs, whatever they are: Fear, Dissapointment, Grief and similar feelings may be experienced. Importantly though we are not experiencing these feelings from Guilt or Shame and their impact is substantially different. Further, when we connect to those unmet needs we may experience regret, but will not experience blame or self hating that we have typically experienced: Our awareness is focussed on our needs and this stimulates the creative opportunities. In contrast, our typical moralistic judgements close down such possibilities and lead to a cycle of self-punishment. When we experience and move past this form of regret we, empathically connect the part of ourselves that regrets the action and the part of ourselves that took the action and then we generate self-compassion and self-forgiveness. As a consequence we become free to move forward into learning and growing and when we can connect to our needs moment by moment we increase our ability to act in harmony with them. In embracing all parts of ourselves and recognise all the needs of each of those parts we become more self-compassionate and able to act in ways that enable all our needs to be met.
In addition to the above, there is a third aspect of self-compassion and that is to look at what is behind every action we take and to choose to take actions out of desire to enrich our lives rather than fear, guilt, shame or obligation. But how do we begin to recognise what activities we are doing are coming from guilt, shame or obligation?
Try this exercise:
Write down on paper everything in your life that you believe you “have” to do and that you do not enjoy doing.
Now after you have your list, in front of each write “I choose to” ....(you are acknowledging a choice to do them)
Next after “I choose to”...... write ”because I want”........ (you are looking at the need that this fulfils)
As you go through your list you may find there are valid important reasons, but you will uncover different motivations: Money, Approval, to escape punishment, to avoid shame, to avoid guilt, to satisfy a sense of duty, and (perhaps the most dangerous) “because we are supposed to”. All of these have a price tag and if they do not enrich your life then look at the knowledge that you can choose to do these things or not do these things, then you can stop doing those which are not enriching your life and alter others so you are doing them out of what Rosenberg calls “a sense of play” and in doing so enrich your life and be more compassionate and bring more integrity into our lives.
Mark Sutton June 2014
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Emotions and feelings in Relationships
3. Dealing with emotions
Over the last couple of issues we have been looking at feelings and emotions, what is the difference between the two, what are the sources of emotions and what impact do they have on relationships.
It is worth stating again that Love is a feeling and is ever present in us. Emotions erode the love we have between us so that it hard to return to the state within the relationship. As Diana and Michael Richardson put it: “love more easily reveals itself in an atmosphere of tranquillity and contentment than in a haphazard war zone.”
In this article, we will be looking at ways of dealing with, and transforming emotion. There are 5 keys to transforming emotion: See, say, separate, move, return. The first is to recognise that you are in an emotional state, the second is to admit and acknowledge this out loud, the third is to separate from the source of conflict and emotion and do it as respectfully as you can, the fourth is to consciously indulge in sustained physical activity and finally return to your partner.
Of course this does not happen overnight, it takes practice and the length of time that we can be in an emotional state cannot be defined. In accepting that it will simply take as long as it takes for you to move out of the emotional state and that mistakes will occur as you learn this new way of relating, then you are setting the foundation for the transformation of your relationship. With the view that emotions are unexpressed feelings, it is reasonable to assume that one way of becoming emotional is to express the feelings as they arise either in words or using the body. Also while it is acceptable to express the “positive” feelings such as love and to share them and it is good to do so, it is important to express what people may consider to be “negative” feelings such as anger. If you take the view that they are all part and parcel of the human experience and all valid then this acceptance allows expression to occur, though it is important to note that the feelings such as anger should not be directed at your partner and you take responsibility for expressing them. For Harville Hendrix, anger represents a corrosive element in relationship whether it is expressed or not. When turned on our Partner it is also by the workings of our subconscious turned on ourselves, however Anger and Love are two sides of the same coin, the same life force in two guises and is best released in measured doses, in a safe-environment and then converted back to it’s original life-giving form. The ability to communicate and express feelings is something that many of us have to re-acquire and I do a lot of work with clients and it is extremely common for people to reveal that there is a family history of burying and suppressing feelings. As has been said, starting statements with “I feel” is very powerful but it takes practice and the willingness to be open to change and facing the fear of expressing what you truly want and desire, communicating from the heart and from the present moment. Harville Hendrix favours a behavioural change approach, including exercises such as “caring days” and the continued use of such positive caring behaviours changes the “Old Brain” perception of the partner as “someone who nurtures” and erodes the beliefs that partner’s can read the other’s minds in terms of fulfilling unmet needs and defeats the tit-for-tat power struggle that can occur. For optimal effectiveness though when combined with learning about what unconscious motivations for behaviours can be consciously transformed into supportive behaviours and that by accepting the limited nature of your own perceptions and are receptive to your partner’s, then rather than a source of conflict their views become a source of knowledge. A good place to find knowledge on our motivations is within the spoken and unspoken criticisms we experience. Many of your repetitious, emotional criticisms of your partner are disguised statements of your own innermost needs: Some of the repetitive, emotional criticisms of your partner may be an accurate description of the disowned part of yourself and some of your criticisms of your partner may help you identify your own lost self and indeed some of your partner’s criticisms of you may reflect a disowned trait. Frequently however, this understanding our partner’s world is hindered by several blocks to communication, including denial, automatic defensive responses and indiosyncratic language. It is common to overcome these using a three phase communication technique: Mirroring (repeating back what is said to gain understanding), Validating (affirming the internal logic of each other’s remarks) and Empathy. Effective communication is about knowing when to listen, when to speak, when to be silent and what intention is behind what you say and do. It is also important to accept the other person, to not take what they say personally or rake up the past and to talk about yourself and not the other and never say that they are emotional.
They are of course all strategies to reduce the amount of time you live from your emotions, but for many the living in an emotional state can be very addictive but that ultimately it erodes the ability to build sustainable, powerful relationships built on trust, intimacy and love. It is also important to avoid the angry sex scenario, sex itself can be a potent source of emotions as well as a means of superficially release emotions, but sex in an emotional state is more a sense of a power play rather than a meeting of lovers.
Finally, I mentioned earlier that client’s had often said that the inability to express feelings ran through families. It is important to keep emotions away from children as they will effectively imitate the parents emotions and enable this passing down of emotions through generations. By keeping the emotions away from children and encouraging children to express feelings (and acknowledging them) and leading by example, then the link in the historical chain can be broken.
Mark Sutton May 2014
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Emotions and feelings in Relationships
2. The causes of emotions.
In last Month’s article we looked at the difference between feeling and emotion. In this month’s article we are going to be exploring sources of emotion. In general, there are several sources and before looking at some of the underlying factors I am going to reproduce them here:
Automatic Appraisal is the most common, it is usually the source for universal emotional responses. It’s immediate, automatic, and awareness occurs after the fact. Reflective Appraisal is not automatic and occurs when a situation isn’t directly related to your immediate safety. It occurs after the event when you consider what happened, and you experience an emotional response.
The mind is a major source of emotion and Remembering is a huge reservoir of emotional response. When we think about a situation that has been experienced, the emotion at the time can be re-experience the emotion however we can obsessively think and worry about the past we see ourselves as defined by it. In a similar fashion to remembering Imagining an emotionally evocative situation can elicit an emotional response, but we risk becoming addicted to an emotional state thinking ourselves into states of fear and doubt. Talking about an emotional situation can bring back the strong emotions, but telling same story over and over again simply recycles the old emotions. Empathy is powerful, watching someone expressing feelings or even reading about someone having strong emotions can elicit and emotional response. However, it may not be the emotion that they are experiencing: You may feel fear if the other gets angry for example.
Symbolic Appraisal occurs when we are told how to feel, or we see someone (like a caregiver) react emotionally to a situation and usually, this learning occurs when we’re very young. We also learn societal rules as we develop and accepted modes of behaviour. We can have an emotional response when we perceive those rules to be violated, these are Norm Violations.
. There was an interesting, very famous, psychological experiment published in 1920 which demonstrated how we can learn emotional responses and do so at an early age. So without further ado, let me introduce you to “Little Albert”. The “Little Albert” experiment was conducted by John B. Watson and Rosalie Raynor. At the age of 9 months, they exposed a child (Albert B.) to a series of stimuli: a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, masks, and burning newspapers, Little Albert showed no fear. The next time Albert was exposed to the rat, a loud noise was made and the child began to cry. After repeatedly pairing the white rat with the loud noise, Albert began to cry simply after seeing the rat. Further Albert feared not just the white rat, but a wide variety of similar white objects as well: Rabbits, fur coats and a Santa Claus beard for example. The ethics of this experiment aside, it demonstrated not only how an involuntary emotional response can be conditioned in response to an external stimulus (classical conditioning) but also how stimulus generalisation occurs (the same emotional response to similar stimuli).
Both Diana and Michael Richardson (Tantric Love: Feeling Vs Emotion) and Harville Hendrix (Getting the Love You Want: A guide for Couples) look to our childhood as an original source of our emotions. Both look in slightly different ways at childhood wounding: The Richardson’s theorise that as we as children are instructed what to do and say, when and when not to do and say it we end up repressing our feelings to please and to get our conditions met. Further in the absence of love, or the presence of conditional love we are left with scars in the form of memories and tensions within the body, what Eckhart Tolle calls the emotional and pain body (The Power of Now), and these are cumulative. Furthermore the childhood repression of feelings becomes a habit into adulthood and we carry these unexpressed feelings around as baggage in our lives ready to unleash the emotions in response to the right trigger. We hold memories of every psychologically and physically traumatic event we experience our body stores the fear, memories and unexpressed feelings. The Richardson’s argue that when feelings associated with the trauma, such as Physical and Sexual Abuse or Sexual Violation for example, are released and expressed at the time then the long term influence and “damage” is lessened. Unfortunately for many children, for example, such feelings are bottled up and repressed leading to a potent source of emotion in later life.
Harville Hendrix believes that even in a safe nurturing environment, there are childhood scars and that from birth we are complex, dependent creatures with a never-ending cycle of needs, which no caregivers are able to respond to totally. The infant exists in a state of “Original Wholeness” within the womb. Post birth the Child reaches out to the mother to recapture this original spiritual union or “eros” (Originallly Eros had a broader context and meant: “The life force” as opposed the more common definition of romantic love we give it). Later in childhood this reaching out extends to others in the family and wounding occurs, as we cannot meet infant demands fully, we also pass on our childhood wounds to our children as well as the emotional inheritance of generations. Thus the old brain, not having linear time may be considered to be still trapped in infantile perspective. With Socialisation, emotional injury stems from hiding parts of ourselves from consciousness, in response to being told that there were thoughts and feelings we could not have, behaviours we had to stop and aptitudes we had to hide, that we must cover our bodies in gender specific ways and not to talk about or touch our genitals.
The upshot of this for Harville was that we split into aspects of self: The Original self, The Lost self (parts of your being that you had to repress because of the demands of society), The False self (The facade that you erected in order to fill the void created by this repression and by lack of adequate nurturing) and the Disowned self (The negative parts of your false self that met with disapproval and were therefore denied).
The parts that you are aware of, that form what you would describe as personality, belong to the remaining parts of your original self and the false self. The lost self is totally outside your awareness, with almost all connections to these repressed parts being severed, and the disowned self lurks just below your level of awareness, threatening to emerge. To keep it hidden, you deny it actively or project it onto others. When we are looking for a relationship partner, we are looking for that original wholeness, looking for our lost self, our full range of feelings.
Remember too how the old brain works, past, present and future all co-exist: The infantile perspective, repressed feelings, yearning for wholeness of self, classic and operant conditioning all combine to give a potent mix of emotions lurking just below the surface of our consciousness ready to arise and temporarily take over our body.
In the terms of relationships it is important to recognise that Love is not an emotion. It is a natural way of being. It can be kept alive by separating it from the emotions. When an emotion is recognised for what it is, it is not dangerous. However, emotion that operates unconsciously can be enormously destructive. It is Important to develop an awareness of emotions and take responsibility for them Again the Richardson’s talk about awareness on three levels:
The Body level, The Mind Level and the most subtle of the three and most difficult to identify The Emotional level. Remember that emotions are so that they activate on the physical level: In the connective tissue and the solar plexus. But the awareness of when such sensations and feelings began to occur can in itself give pointers to the triggers that resulted in the emotional experience.
In next month’s article we will be looking at ways of Dealing with Emotions in Relationships.
Mark Sutton April 2014
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Emotions and feelings in Relationships
1. The difference between emotions and feelings.
Over the next three issues I am going to be exploring emotions and feelings and in particular how they relate to and affect ourselves individually and the relationships we have: the way we deal with our emotions and feelings has a significant impact, both good and bad on the nature of intimacy within the relationship.
I am going to start by asking a question:
Do you know the difference between emotions and feelings?
We tend to use the terms interchangeably, but what actually are the differences between emotions and feelings. One difference is that feelings can be a physical sensation: hot, cold, pain, pleasure emotions on the other hand are entirely internal “mind-stuff”- Many branches of science state that emotions are often caused by the release of hormones and neurotransmitters (dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, oxytocin, cortisol and the like), which then convert this emotion into feelings.
Another difference, and it relates to the first, is that feelings occur in the present and subside when the trigger is removed: for example if you feel pain, that pain vanishes when the source of pain is removed. In a similar fashion fear that subsides when the source of fear is removed is a feeling . Emotions are different, they reside in the past and may represent feelings we have not adequately expressed, so a constant (or repeated occurrence of) state of fear which may last years with no specific trigger represents an emotional experience.
To begin to understand how our emotions work it may be beneficial to look at the way our mind works. Harville Hendrix in his book “Getting The Love You Want” gives a simplified but effective breakdown of the brain functions. It is divided into three sections: 1) The brain stem (or reptilian brain) located at the base of the skull and which is concerned with reproduction, self-preservation and vital activities (breathing and circulation etc). 2) The limbic system which flares from the brain stem and generates vivid emotions and 3) The cerebral cortex which is the site of most cognitive functions and which is conscious and in contact with daily surroundings, it is essentially what we consider to be “us”. Harville calls this the “new brain” and the first two components the “old brain” (or the unconscious). The old brain is a hardwired component and is responsible for most automatic reactions and is primarily concerned with self-preservation. It has no direct contact with the outside world but exchanges and interprets information from the new brain. There is no finesse to the old brain either, all information is placed into general categories: Nurture, Be Nurtured by, Have sex with, Run Away, Submit to, Attack. Finally the old brain does not have a sense of linear time: Past, Present or Future. Everything experienced still exists and that includes unexpressed feelings, it also goes a long way to understanding how we experience emotions like fear and how such emotions can be totally out of proportion to the events that triggered them: It is the way the old brain interprets, perceives and responds to what information is being gathered by the cerebral cortex and fits it into it’s relevant category as if the original experience is still happening and then expresses that original unexpressed feeling as an emotional experience. Our emotions therefore exist in a subjective but complex inter-relationship with our memory, experiences, conditioning and beliefs. While this facility is in fact very useful (eating tainted food once, the emotional memory enables you to avoid doing so again), they may also lead to great difficulties and serious consequences within our relationships.
Diana and Michael Richardson explore the nature of emotions and feelings within relationships in their book “Tantric Love, Feeling vs. Emotion”. They also mention that the overwhelming emotional reaction to a slight provocation is a sign you are in an emotional experience. Additionally the move into an emotional state is usually quite obvious and happens very quickly, almost like flicking a switch. According to the Richardson’s, unexpressed feelings remain as tensions within the body awaiting a suitable trigger so that they may be re-activated in the form of Toxic emotions (The term toxic here referring to the effect that emotions have on ourselves, our loved ones and our relationships). The relationship becomes a war zone of emotion and the feeling of love is gradually worn away. In addition to the large devastating displays of emotion, we may unconsciously leak emotion in the form of constant nagging, complaining, trivial arguing, defensiveness and irritability or we may be in a state of low grade emotion where we have a sense of subtle disconnection on a permanent basis leading to ruminating, withdrawal, blaming and resentment.
While not attempting to give medical advice or diagnosis, I am going to summarise the Richardson’s “Indicators of an emotional Experience” or the “symptoms of emotion” that commonly were reported when people were asked “what does and emotional experience feel like?”:
- The sensation of separation or disconnection from the other person (this may last for hours and days). Blaming the other person for the situation and unhappiness.
- Using terminology such as “You Always” or “You Never”. Becoming withdrawn and closed. Body contracts, frozen or numbed out with narrow cloudy vision, exhaustion, low energy, wishing to sleep.
- Being protective and defensive and experience abandonment, rejection, loneliness or a sense of being incomplete.
- Feeling self-righteous, always right. Feeling misunderstood or taken for granted.
- Feeling the need to argue, discuss, fight and challenge the other
- An active mind, with many negative thoughts and doubts. There are recurring themes and experiences helplessness, feelings of victimisation. There is a sense of hopelessness and depression about life.
- Feeling tense and prickly and the other cannot do anything right. Trying to change the other person and acting in revenge: trying to hurt them.
- Reacting from ego and pride. Reacting unconsciously or knowing the reaction is related to an incident or experience in the past.
These are here to give you an indication that when these symptoms are present you may very well be in an emotional experience and are by no means exhaustive.
It will of course come as no great surprise to learn that when acting from feelings and expressing the feelings in the present moment the inner experiences were almost the diametrically opposite to the experience of emotion: Connection and closeness, being able to acknowledge and express deeper feelings, using” I” statements, being open expanded and alive, positive and refreshed. Feeling accepted, complete, understood, appreciated, spontaneous, empowered, loving, trusting, relaxed, accepting, conscious and present. All of these were given as indicators of feeling experiences.
It is important to understand though that emotions are not intrinsically wrong and that we all have them. I certainly do, I can be dramatically arm-wavingly emotional. It is important to be aware of our emotions, to make the unconscious, conscious and in next month’s intimacy coaches hand-book we will be exploring the causes of emotion and the importance of being aware of our emotions.
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“Good Boundaries make good Lovers” Barbara Carrellas, Ecstasy in Necessary. This month’s intimacy coach article is concerned with Personal boundaries and their role in intimacy. But first of what is a boundary and what is a personal boundary? A boundary may be described as where one thing ends and another begin. In a personal boundary it is where we end and others begin: boundaries are the limits we set in relationships to protect ourselves from being manipulated by emotionally needy others. We have boundaries in all aspects of our life: from our workplace, our friendships to our intimate relationships. Boundaries are not only emotional but spiritual and physical as well. But the nature of the boundary is different depending on your situation. Would you have the same boundary with a work colleague as you would have with family and would you have the same boundaries with your family that you have with your lover? This month we are concentrating on intimate boundaries, with our lovers and sexual partners, though the concepts apply for all types of relationship. Understanding our own boundaries is an important part of developing intimacy, what we need and what we desire, what turns us off and what we don’t like, what we would like to explore and what for us is a no go. In essence it is the understanding of who we are in and of ourselves that enables us to set healthy boundaries. But what is a healthy boundary? The first thing to look at is what a healthy boundary is not: Unhealthy boundaries are those that are set for us by others, that are hurtful or harmful, that are controlling or manipulative, that are invasive or dominating and which are rigid and immovable (though distinguished from a fixed boundary: Think peanut allergy as an example of a fixed boundary). On the other hand healthy boundaries are those which are present, appropriate, clear, firm, protective, flexible, receptive, determined by US. According to Nina Brown there are four main types of psychological boundary: Soft boundaries and a person with soft boundaries merges with other people’s boundaries and is an easy victim of psychological manipulation. Boundaries may also be spongy and those with spongy boundaries are unsure what to let in and keep out. Rigid boundaries on the other hand result in a person being closed or walled off so that no-one gets close physically or emotionally. A subset of rigid boundaries are those that are SELECTIVE, they are based on time, place and are based on experiences in similar situations. Finally we have flexible boundaries which, though similar to selective rigid boundaries, allow for more control, the individual decides what to let in and what to keep out and is resistant to emotional and psychological manipulation and is difficult to exploit. The example of the peanut allergy is either a selective rigid boundary or a flexible boundary that has become “fixed”: in other words the individual knows that eating food containing peanuts will have serious affects and is able to say “no”. On the other hand, if we take for example sexual preference (which covers who we are attracted too and what activities we enjoy doing), that changes over the course of our life and rather than being viewed as black or white should be viewed as “rainbow”. Those with soft boundaries would find them manipulated by others into situations that they are not comfortable with, those with rigid boundaries would exclude the possibility for true ecstasy and Intimacy, those however with flexible boundaries could fulfil their intimate and ecstatic potential by adapting and changing boundaries according to their wants and desires, maintaining their healthiness, positive self-esteem and the health of the relationship by experiencing a sense of comfortable interdependence with their lover(s). At one time or another we have all experienced what happens when our boundaries are crossed and what feelings or emotions are generated when we feel that we experienced an activity or situation where we were unable to clearly define and express our need for safety or security, our concerns and fears and what we wanted from our partner: the sense that we could not say “no” to the situation for whatever reason. In previous newsletters we have talked about the importance of Trust and Communication in Intimacy. The respect for you and your partner have for your boundaries, the respect you and your partner have for their own boundaries are another part of this. Certainly as an intimacy coach we work with couples and singles to look at what current boundaries exist in the relationship, the nature of those boundaries, where they could be improved, how to say “no” effectively and how to explore emotional, sexual, and intimate possibilities in a safe, supportive environment. But before looking at another person and their role in intimacy and trust within your relationship, an important step in developing boundaries is to get acquainted with and take responsibility for yourself: This is an essential component before healthy boundaries can be set and maintained. As adults we are responsible for all our decisions we make, we have the choice to respond and limit the way other’s behaviour affects us. While some people refuse to set boundaries because they see them as selfish, are afraid, are unaware, are manipulative or simply need to be validated. Others use them to be selfish, to hide, to avoid living in the challenge zone through fear, to fully experience existence and the potential for intimacy. Both are wrong. Boundaries are about self-control. When you develop and maintain healthy boundaries in yourself, you respect boundaries in others, you generate trust and intimacy via communication of these boundaries and a reciprocation from your partner. But where are you now with your boundaries and intimacy? Try this simple quiz to look at your ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries: Answer A or B to the following questions.
A) Tolerate things that you would not tolerate in anyone else B) Have a flexible personal standard applicable to everyone
A) Feel Flattered and allow it to manipulate you B) Appreciate feedback and can distinguish it from attempts to manipulate you?
A) Find yourself obsessing about another? B) See your reaction to another as information?
A) Ignore personal limits to get sex? B) Integrate sex while maintaining integrity?
A) Believe the other is the cause of your excitement B) See the other as stimulating your excitement?
A) Feel victimized but not angry? B) Let yourself feel anger?
A) Are Compliant or Compromise? B) Use Agreement and Negotiation?
A) Cannot say No? B) Can say No effectively?
A) Disregard intuition? B) Honour your Intuition?
A) Feel afraid and confused? B) Mostly feel safe, secure and clear?
A) Believe you have no right to secrets? B) Protect and honour your privacy?
Look at the questions where you answered “A”, there may be boundaries within that aspect of yourself which need to be establishes, re-aligned, strengthened or altered.
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This month we are looking a little more deeply at communication. It is important to understand that effective communication engenders trust, trust engenders effective communication it goes around and around in a positive feedback loop, but what is effective communication to you? What does it mean? Here is a definition:
“Effective communication is a two-way process that includes sending the right message that is also being correctly received and understood by the other person/s who is receiving it on the other end.”
There are many ways of sending information: Text message, email, written letters, verbal telephone and face to face for example. Which of these do you use most often? In terms of the definition which do you believe is most effective?
Well in my opinion text speak is an insidious means of communication in almost every aspect of life (people writing exam essays in text speak: well LMAO, LULZ, OMG, FFS) but for emotional communication its worse than useless except as a means of conflict avoidance: Russell Brand for example, according to Katie Perry in Vogue, dumped her by text and she hasn’t heard from him since. Written material can be good for clarifying and teasing apart internal thoughts/feelings by placing them on a page or computer screen. The message may be mis-interpreted at the other end though due to the perception of the recipient and it always pays to double check that angry e-mail BEFORE you hit the send button.
You will find information that only 7% of communication involves the actual words we use based on the work of Albert Mehrabian, with the rest being non-verbal (7/38/55 rule), but in the interests of clarity, these figures are in doubt. However, what can be said is that non-verbal communication (our body language and the way we say the words) is an important component of effective communication, so to be most effective transmitted information should be verbal and face to face. The non-verbal component very much establishes if the verbal is accurate: are you saying yes when your body says no and vice versa. Or as the adage goes when the answer is “I’m fine” do you mean “fine” or “fine”?
But what about receiving information? How much time do we spend talking and how much listening? According to work by Adler, Rosenfield and Proctor when communicating we spend 30% talking and 45% listening with the remainder being reading and writing. But how well do we listen and how does that differ from hearing? Hearing refers to the sounds, listening requires complete attention and focus to tone, language used and body language. If you are familiar with Stephen R. Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, then you will be aware of Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. In it he talks about the absolute importance of listening and the way in which you listen. We are not told how to do this when we are developing and in trying to get our point across we ignore the other, employ selective listening, filter everything through our own perception and life experiences. Listening is then autobiographical and as he puts it we respond in one of four ways:
Evaluating: You judge and then either agree or disagree.
Probing: You ask questions from your own frame of reference.
Advising: You give counsel, advice, and solutions to problems.
Interpreting: You analyze others’ motives and behaviours based on your own experiences.
But are there other ways of listening? Well yes, when we bring our whole attention (and silence) to bear on what the other is communicating: words, intonation, body language and facial expressions, we can repeat and paraphrase, give feedback and we move into the ability actively listen. While this is an important step, this type of listening is empty of two-way emotional involvement with no identification of the other person’s feelings and emotional needs. When we seek “first to understand” we still listen actively but begin also to develop emotional identification, compassion, feeling and insight into the other person. We develop empathy (not to be confused with sympathy) and this powerful type of listening is not surprisingly called empathic listening and in employing it we are no longer in autobiographical mode, but within the frame of reference of the other, it is listening with the heart.
This listening ability has incredibly powerful positive effects in engendering trust and enhancing intimacy. Not only does the other person know you are giving them your full attention and has listened to and understood what has been said, but they understand that you feel what they feel and need.
Is it a hard skill to learn? There are simple exercises that we use here at TantraAwakenings to help to begin the process of developing empathic listening skills. Creating a space where you will not be disturbed, setting the intention within that space to listen without judgement. Exercises in repeating back what is being said, feeling what is being said, silence and emotional intelligence are all part of our toolkit to enable you to deepen communication. But essentially for yourselves it is the willingness to put aside time to listen, your need to put your side of the story, and the willingness to justify and defend yourself as a result of emotions and feelings arising. A simple way of determining whether you are empathically listening is to become aware of the language you use when you repeat or reflect back what is being said to you: do you use “I” or “you”. For example, in discussing an event if your repeat back “You are feeling angry” or “What you need now is” rather than “I think you are feeling angry” or “I think what you need now is” then the former statements indicate that you are within your partners space rather than your own head. If emotions arise and the urge to defend or justify arises: then breathe and let the feeling pass and simply listen, what is being said is not an attack but a means of communication.
I am listening, but what about me, will I get my needs met? Look at empathic listening as a win-win skill. When you listen empathically the talker feels more empowered, more open rather than shutting down, more aware that you are respecting them and truly demonstrates that you understand their wants and needs. It also helps them to clarify their wants and needs. Of course that means they will be more willing to listen to you when you express your wants and needs and they listen in the same fashion. In fact when you are empathically listening both of you are more likely to get your needs met, gain greater mutual understanding, resolve conflict in and out of the bedroom.
Whether its sexual expression, worries about the day or interpersonal conflict: Empathic Listening, face to face talking, honesty, respect and intention, all form the basis of effective communication around issues and desires. This the fertile ground for enhancing and deepening trust and intimacy. It may be a slow process initially becoming proficient in the skills, but the benefits for you, your partner and your relationships will far outweigh the effort you make.
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“I see you.” This quote from Avatar had a lot of people looking at each other and saying it. But did they understand how actually seeing someone can be a source of the deepest intimacy? When was the last time you looked at someone without judgement and let someone look at you? How do you feel when someone looks at you?
For us Tantra is about simplicity in its practice and symmetry and this month’s guide is centering around a powerful technique we use in all our workshops: Soul-Gazing. The simplicity is the technique itself and the symmetry is that you are both giving the gaze and receiving the return gaze. In the Tantric tradition the art of gazing is developed by focusing one’s eyes on a yantra — a geometric form symbolizing a certain energy pattern, or the image of a deity, becoming one with the form and experiencing the force behind it. Based on a technique developed by Oscar Ichazo, founder of the Arica school, adapted to the Tantric perspective, soul-gazing works in a similar fashion, your partner disappears and you experience the other person as part of yourself.
The simplest method is to sit facing each other, comfortably, back straight, spine relaxed. Sit close together. Touch each other’s hands in a relaxed fashion. Breathing deeply and slowly, through the nose, close the eyes go inside mind and body. When you feel quiet, squeeze the hand and wait for the return signal. Open the eyes and let the gazes connect. (Keep your eyes relaxed). Look into the left eye of your partner, the receptive eye. Direct your complete attention to your gaze. Slowly, notice the breathing of your partner and gently harmonize the inhale and exhale.
It is that simple, doing this for 5 minutes or 5 hours can have profound effects: A lot can arise, thoughts bubbling to awareness, fear of being judged and self-judging. Initially, there may be the urge to break contact, to wonder what the other sees in oneself, emotions and uncomfortable feelings and thoughts as the mind tries to intervene and it can be challenging. However, by continuing to breathe, and gaze without judging, keeping it soft and gentle the mind quietens and by continuing to accept the gaze of the other while gazing oneself, a calmness and a depth of connection can form. It is that willingness to be open, to let someone in, in the knowledge that they are doing the same with your gaze, neither are judging the other, but simply accepting and respecting which allows the both move beyond resistance, beyond the masks that have been worn and into a state of truly seeing and experiencing the other while seeing and experiencing themselves. In that state true intimacy naturally develops, flows and strengthens. It can take you out of yourself and into the other, to re-experience that connection and bond that has always existed but may have been buried. Within a tantric sacred space, this gazing may last for an hour or more, but even if you take 5 minutes a day to gaze at each other and feel the difference in your relationship. It could be the best five minutes you have ever spent.
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To date we have touched upon many themes and in last month’s issue once again mentioned communication as a means to deepen intimacy. We looked at Barbara Carellas’s Erotic playsheet to communicate your wants and needs at that present time in sex and we looked at creating the space to enable you to set aside time for intimacy to develop. This month we will be looking at this statement and how it relates to intimacy:
“Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” ― Stephen R. Covey
Perhaps the first questions we should ask are what does Trust and distrust mean for us? What feelings and emotions arise for us? And perhaps the most important question what do we trust /distrust in ourselves and what does it feel like when we trust ourselves? For me when I trust in myself I feel calm, grounded, Self-aware, non-judgemental, connected and open. That is enabling as it allows me to open to trusting Karen, the self-trust is in fact crucial as I take responsibility and ownership for my feelings and emotions and hence my actions, I realise that many of my trust issues belong to me: the way I view the world, self-esteem, past experiences, limiting-self beliefs, conditioning all influence how I trust another (honest self-reflection can often for me provide the clues to where this is coming from). Take the example someone who desperately wants a fully committed relationship but who’s past experiences have left them with a limiting belief. Outwardly, consciously they are looking for one thing, but subconsciously their belief is sending out another message, an expectation and hence creating a reality: that they will be betrayed, cheated on, hurt, that they could not possibly be worth receiving love and trust and this is totally completely unconscious. What is the most likely outcome to be in this instance, further what would be attracted into our life and potentially what it would be like to be present and aware of where such thoughts are coming from, how would that feel to consciously break the habit, how would that affect opening to trusting ourselves?
With this trust in myself (and of areas where distrust is occurring); then in my trust with Karen I can fully express, fully surrender, fully communicate my needs, wants and desires both in and out of the bedroom. I feel safe, open, secure that what I say and do is not being judged, is being respected, is being recognised as coming from a place of security of honesty. Then Karen opens from the same space as me. It becomes a positive loop, with trust engendering trust, intimacy naturally follows. Was this an intuitive process for me? Yes and, of course no. Yes the realisation that trusting another first started with trusting myself, but the self awareness took time to develop and then there were definite steps to take when building trust with another.
1. Do what you say you will do (or at least do your best in any given moment) and do not break promises, no matter how small and insignificant: people need to know you are dependable. Ever had the person who promises and never delivers? How does that make you feel? What message is that saying on where their priorities lie? Remember the sayings “talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words”. There are many reasons why people become habitually unable to fulfill commitments though one we will address in a little while, but it is a habit which can be broken.
2. Be Honest. In the case of the person who breaks promises what happens when challenged? Do they admit and explain or seek justification by any means possible? So then the ability to tell the truth even when the truth isn't comfortable is another cornerstone, it takes time and practice but it always helps to volunteer information and not to omit important details. Ever noticed what it felt like when you noticed contradictions in other’s stories? Why should it be different for the other person if you are lying? If you do lie though, admit to as soon as possible and explain your motives, honestly.
3. Everyone is entitled to privacy in a relationship. Clear boundaries generate trustworthiness while also maintaining privacy, the other has the chance to prove they are understanding and patient, but most importantly, they have a sense of security. If your boundaries are respected, theirs will be too! Knowing your own boundaries is important, they reduce what we tolerate in relationships, they clearly define our sense of self and allows us to communicate around the boundary. Importantly it allows us to define our values and priorities: take the habitual promise breaker we talked about earlier. Frequently making too many promises to too many people from a fear of saying “no” or making promises that go against values and beliefs stem from a lack of awareness around their own boundaries. That unawareness extends to other people’s boundaries as well and with all the aggravation and stress that causes.
4. Speak about our feelings. This is an ability we had as children and many of us lose along the way. Skills like these come naturally to some but can be learned by everyone. Expressing your feelings and show openness using structures like a sacred space or “I feel” statements, for example, open us to truth and honesty and in time it became a totally natural process in time.
For myself and Karen these four keys provides the base for our trust in ourselves and in each other, yes it takes time, but the mere fact that we are both involved in the process sends the message that we are continuing the process of deepening trust and intimacy.
Of course that works for us, perhaps some of the above resonates with you, perhaps some bits don’t. One way of developing trust is to look at what you believe the behaviours and attributes are required to create trust. The key is not then looking for those in others (they will almost naturally be attracted to you), but to develop them inside you. Be authentic, be yourself what you want others to be to you, seek to understand yourself and become both trusting and trustworthy. This lays the groundwork for attracting the type of relationship you want, for enabling others to open to you and to move into the cycle of increasing trust and intimacy.
OK having said that trust and trust issues are the responsibility of the individual themselves, another can break trust due to their own actions/awareness and let’s face it is a totally emotionally intelligent person who has never broken a trust, most of us have at one time or another. But what happens if trust is broken? Can it be regained?
If we can reflect on why and how it happened, then we have the opportunity to rebuild it, but of course the intent has to be there, the recognition of self-awareness. Patience will go a long way but don’t waste time trying to over explain or justify, take the steps to prevent this from happening again and focus on the future and changing the way the other may feel about your credibility. Never underestimate the importance of apologising and be sincere, insincerity will be the deathknell. All the pointers for building trust need to be shown now: be dependable, consistent and reliable, do what you say you will do and don't break your promises. Listen to the other person, show that you care about their opinions and feelings. Try to understand what the other person is feeling, how would you feel if the situation is reversed? What would you do, how would you expect the other to make amends?
What about the other side though? It's not easy to just forgive and begin to trust again. It takes the work of both parties for trust to be rebuilt. If you make the decision to try to trust again, stick to that decision, if not then don’t be disassemble, tell the other straight away. Remember the dont’s: Don't throw past events back at them, don't threaten or warn or give ultimatums, don’t be a doormat either: Explain what you expect from them and what your limits are. Both need to reaffirm commitment, listen carefully and be willing to share your feelings and emotions. Allow the person time to prove themselves again and both remember that this is a healing process and may actually take a long time and a lot of effort on both sides to regain completely.
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Intimacy, the lack of it and the maintenance of it is very common issue for couples who contact us. One of the first questions to ask, indeed even prior to a session to get both parties to look at is not what is going on between the couple, but what does intimacy actually mean or entail for both individuals. What does it mean for them to be fully intimate? What does it feel to have a lack of intimacy in the relationship?
Consider these lines from a poem by Rumi:
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
These indicate where our first explorations should begin. When we have an idea of what intimacy means to both involved, we then have an idea where there are areas of overlap and areas of disconnection. This raising of awareness and effective communication can often begin the process of bringing people together in mutual understanding.
There are however, many factors which can affect intimacy and sexual desire: The way we think about ourselves and our world view are major psychological factors. A lack of trust, anger, experiencing fear around sex, surrendering, or letting go or fear of being hurt can effectively shut us down and reduce our ability to be fully intimate or even simple familiarity and boredom. The effects of stress, money or job worries, living conditions, lack of privacy can all impact on our ability to be intimate, a new baby, a shift of focus in the relationship. There may be physical factors to consider as well erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, pain on penetration; anxiety following childbirth, anxieties about how we look our physical appearance can all impact negatively on our sexual intimacy. Performance anxiety, goal orientation and again negative self-image manifest as withdrawal and holding back, previous experiences: parental abandonment or control, previous abusive relationships or previous relationships where intimacy and affection was lacking form a large barrier to being truly intimate at any level when we bring our negative past experiences into our current relationship. Finally Society creates huge pressures from guilt, shame, generating feelings that somehow we are lacking physically or sexually as we are bombarded with media images. That there is the ideal way to behave, to have sex, to do what is expected within the norm that is imposed on us. Repressing and burying our needs or desires because of our inability to express those adequately for fear of being judged.
Ask yourself then, how much of that stems from our mind? Quite a lot right? Even physical issues can be overcome by reframing how you view sex and intimacy. It is again our own individual world view that is influencing our ability to be intimate. The keys for ourselves are awareness, self-perception and acceptance; when the mind stuff is brought to the surface of our consciousness, it can be dealt with by whatever means we feel will work for us.
Trust and communication are two keys to rebuilding intimacy between couples: trust that with this new found self-knowledge that our partner is there to support us rather than judge us, that in facing what is holding us back we can adequately express our fears, wants, needs and desires. In my experience, when this process begins it tends to generate more openness and enables the other partner to open and express their fears: very much like a snowball gathering momentum and mass it becomes self-motivating and organic. Of course the converse is true, when we shut down and close off, that can induce the same response in our partner and the accumulation can be devastating for the relationship.
OK we get it, it’s the way our mind works that acts as a barrier, but how can we begin to enhance intimacy between us? How can we stop this process of gradual separation? How can we begin the process of rebuilding or establishing trust? Exploring what we are frightened of and what turns us on? What can we do to begin this process?
In Tantra we describe the construction of what is called a Sacred Space. The space is as complex or as simple as you both wish it to be. Candles, food and drink, floor coverings whatever you desire. It is about setting an intention: using your will to both remove negative stuff like fear and anger from that space (complete with using arm gestures to “throw” such negative emotions out) and then bringing in what you desire from the session: Lust, conversation, openness, whatever you want that is positive in your life (again using arm gestures to bring such attributes into the space). That space is safe, secure and sacred; you have created a zone where you can both connect, talk, play, make love, and play games, touch, and massage, whatever you wish to do at any given time. Even if there is disharmony, by setting such intentions they are left outside that space giving you the freedom to explore the resolution of the conflict in an open and honest atmosphere. It goes without saying then that there should be no distractions for the duration of the space and that the creation of the space, even if for a short while should be the priority at that moment, regardless of schedules: That in itself can begin the process of enhancing intimacy, it gives the message that not only is the other person is important but that you yourself and the relationship is important.
Those simple processes can have profound effects, so make that date and create the space for both you and your partner! Until next month!
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What is an Orgasm?
This month we are going back to basic physiology. We are asking the question what is an orgasm?
A lot is said about the ability in Tantra to connect to, cultivate and generate sexual energy via orgasm. While at Tantra Awakenings we believe this is the beginning of the journey, for others a whole body orgasm is the pinnacle. Whatever your view, it is a fact that we have been asked many times what is an orgasm? What are we dealing with and what does it mean for those with penises to separate orgasm from ejaculation (and indeed this awareness of what an orgasm/ ejaculation cycle is very useful to know where premature ejaculation is an issue).
There are four stages of penile arousal: Lengthening, Swelling, Hardening and Heat. Physiologically speaking, the penile orgasm consists of the contraction and pulsating of the penis, prostate and pelvic region. These sensations are met by increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tensing, anal, sphincter and PC muscle contractions, and an increase in blood pressure, which then result in a sudden release of tension. Ejaculation however, is simply a reflex that occurs at the base of the spine, it simply an involuntary muscular spasm. The problem is that we have come to associate the ejaculatory spasm with the pleasure of the orgasm, when in fact they are two separate things. Energetically speaking sexual energy in generated during the orgasmic phase which is then released during the ejaculatory phase (the point of no return). There then occurs the recovery phase which can take minutes or hours.
The generalised vaginal orgasm parallels in many ways the Penile. Arousal draws blood into the pelvic area which causes swelling of the clitoris and vaginal lips. An excitement phase (plateau) occurs followed by the contractions of the PC and vaginal muscles during orgasm. Extremely pleasurable sensations radiate out from the pelvic region, breathing, heart rate and muscle tone increase and after orgasm arousal declines steadily with a sense of peace and relaxation occurring throughout the body.
Prolonging the plateau phase in both penile and vaginal orgasm, deepening the intensity and using techniques for cultivating and moving the energy all play their part in creating peak experiences, or becoming multi-orgasmic if you prefer: but essentially these are about increasing orgasmic potential. In penile orgasm, for example, the knowledge of the “point of no return” allows ejaculation to be delayed or avoided giving prolonged or enhanced or multiple orgasms (and hence generating more energy). A knowledge and awareness of your own body and what arouses you, what gives you pleasure, your ability to surrender to the goal orientation and move with the moment are perhaps even more important. There are many techniques and ideas for doing this that we facilitate at Tantra Awakenings, but the foundation is awareness: An understanding of your own sexual response and orgasm. An understanding of what turns you on and what turns you off and an understanding that physiology and sexual orgasm is only a small, but important, part of the Tantric Life path experience.
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The Erotic Playsheet
The date is set, tonight’s the night, the kids are safely tucked away, the phone is off: you are ready for a night of lovemaking or raunchy sex. But how do you tune into your own and each other’s moods, wants and desires? We deal with couples who frequently find their desires and needs are not fulfilled and look for a way of simply and effectively communicating them. This month’s intimacy guide will explore a simple means of doing this: Barbara Carellas in her book Urban Tantra outlined an “erotic playsheet” and gives examples of how it can be used. This PlaySheet can be downloaded from her website, barbaracarrellas.com, as a pdf file. This is a very useful and fun resource for you and your partner (I am choosing a couple scenario for simplicity) to use before your lovemaking or sex session. It enables you to describe simply how you are feeling and what you want that specific point and to base your erotic session around the PlaySheets you have completed. Of course you do not have to download Barbara’s PlaySheet, but can make a list of simple questions yourself. I have taken some of the questions from Barbara’s erotic PlaySheet and added others as an example:
- I am feeling:
- I want:
- I don't want:
- By the end I would like to feel:
- My intention is:
- Music I would like:
Right now I want to use the following techniques and props:
- Breath orgasm technique:
- Erotic activity:
- Cock massage strokes:
- Position to have sex in:
- Pussy massage strokes:
- Sacred space/ Bedroom Attire:
- Sacred Space Ritual Style/ Sex Scenario:
- Sex toy:
- Clothing I would like to wear:
- Food I would like:
- Drink I would like:
- Sensations I'd like to feel:
The list can be adapted but should reflect your reality. If you take 5 minutes to fill in the sheet, then answer honestly and compare with your partner. Look at the answers you have given: Where is there agreement? Where are the differences? In the case of the differences, which are negotiable between the two of you and which are non-negotiable. For example, if one of you wants slow sensual music and the other death metal, is it negotiable on both your parts or not? If it is what does that look like? (do you start the session with slow and sensual then work too hard and heavy as things heat up). If one does not want to be penetrated, what alternatives are acceptable?
But why bother with this? What is this doing? It’s raising awareness on what you are feeling, your mood and desires for yourself and communicating that to your lover. It’s also raising awareness on what your lover wants and desires, it is giving you the chance to explore and finally, it’s enabling you to negotiate a session where both will have their needs met while maintain the boundaries agreed at the start. Of course this requires both to be honest in what they write and in what they consider to be negotiable or not. It should be approached with the attitude that it will lead to a mutually satisfying session, where both are aware of what the other wants and are willing to explore and play. Have fun!
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How does your lover taste?
What colour are your lover’s eyes, does their skin flush in passion? What is the feel of their skin under your fingers, lips or tongue. What sounds do they make in arousal or approaching orgasm? How do they taste, what do they smell like as their passion rises? Can you answer any or all of these questions? Tantric Lovemaking cultivates presence and awareness, not only in yourself and your responses, but in your lover and their responses. It is a simple, but beautifully effective technique, to blindfold your lover and awaken their senses individually to make them aware of, and enhance, their own senses but are you aware of your lover’s responses? Can you move in a flowing state with your lover, following the currents of their passion without words?
When you are tuned into their response, the opportunities for enhancing and deepening intimacy, lovemaking and passion become infinite. There is no great secret to this, no great challenge. It is down to being total when you make love, employing all your awareness in all of your senses. Relishing how different touches at different times can stimulate and arouse, how their sounds as they become more abandoned take on different notes and volumes, the musky smell of arousal and the changes in taste of your lover as arousal amplifies. Unlike the sensory awakening, this use of senses does not occur individually, but are all employed simultaneously and when you are present in your body, present in all your senses and are not looking for an outcome, the lovemaking flows. Your lover becomes an extension of you, not another person trying to reach a pleasurable climax with you. Their senses are your senses, there is congruence. By centering your breath, by focussing on the senses and feelings rather than on the techniques to obtain an outcome, the mind and the ego are excluded. Your body learns about theirs: the fingers remember the touch, the eyes remember the passion, the ears the cries of pleasure and the tongue the taste of their arousal. Next time you make love, be total in everything you do, from stroking to penetration, kissing to fingering: experience everything with every sense.
Whats in a Kiss?
"What's in a Kiss
Have you ever wondered just what it is
More perhaps than just a moment of bliss
Tell me what's in a kiss"
Remember this Gilbert O’Sullivan song? I do. What is a kiss for you? Is it a chicken peck or a ten minute oral immersion? Kissing has major health, emotional and psychological benefits: from self esteem, endorphin release to weight loss (2 calories per minute!) kissing IS good for you.
Whether it’s your first kiss with a new lover or after years in a relationship, treat a kiss the same way. But what should go into a kiss? Care, attention, awareness, emotion and feeling: all go into the mix for a good kiss. Take your time, focus your intention and awareness on the other and simply surrender into the kiss, build up expectations. Be aware of the response. Have no expectations other than the kiss. Start softly, slowly and gently, lips open, stay light and explore, not with tongue or teeth, but with the lips themselves. Allow your lips to lock and the kiss to deepen and allow yourself to receive as well as give! Don’t forget to breath, breathlessness may be an end result, but breathe through your nose or take a break briefly. Maintain eye contact and use your hands (running them through your partner’s hair is nice). Be gentle with the tongue and explore before going deeper. Don’t pull back but allow the intensity to build by nibbling the lips gently and taking breaks to gaze and connect.
Look for the Beauty in your Lover
In 2011, 109 year old Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer was interviewed and asked what did she attribute her long life too. She answered “I See Beauty Everywhere”.
Your relationship, like your life, needs nourishing and cultivating if it is to have a long life. Listen to Alice’s words and see the beauty in your lover and your relationship. In the small things: the way they are, the way they look, the way they behave, what they say and do. Look for their beauty in the everyday, in the mundane and not just in the lovemaking (that will follow).
Perhaps most of all, look for the beauty when they are not their best: when they are down or angry or sad.... look for the beauty everywhere, in your whole life, in your relationship, in your lover and in yourself.
The Art of Touch #2
Does your lover know how you like to be touched? Never assume that your lover, new or old, automatically knows what and how you like to be touched. The key is effective communication, let your lover know when they are doing something right: oohs, ahhs, yeses and as giver listen to the sounds, be guided by your lover.
Try this simple exercise to enable you as a receiver to communicate without words how you like to be touched: Place your hand on your partner’s arm and ask your partner to place their hand on you. Move your hand on your partner in the way you like to be touched and ask your partner to follow. It builds trust, cultivates harmony and surrender, allows your partner to learn touch you in the way you like. Play with the sensations, speed, depth of touch and area of the body. Play together and have fun.
The Art of Touch #1
How do you like to be touched? Tantra is about the acceptance and cultivation of pleasure and energy. But what, outside of our penis or vagina, gives us physical pleasure? One way to explore is to draw a bath, or shower and take time for yourself. It doesn’t have to be long, 15 minutes luxurious me time would do it. Close your eyes and breathe. Begin to explore your whole body with your fingertips, the soap, the loofer or whatever you fancy. Feel what is happening. Play with pressure and texture, light to hard, smooth and silky to rough. Fully experience any sensations as they arise and as they differ, practice and enjoy as often as you like. Feel your body come alive under the touch and notice too what and where feels pleasurable, what touch works and what touch doesn’t.
Begin the process of connecting to your body through conscious touch.