Those of you who have been reading my blog for some time will remember that I started seeing a sex therapist last summer. I didn’t like it that I couldn’t make love with my husband–who has been nothing but patient and understanding–without dissociating, and my regular therapist and I couldn’t figure out any way to address it. In fact, I could hardly talk about it with my regular therapist. We finally decided that I could keep on seeing her as my primary therapist but start to work with Marie on this one focused issue.
I haven’t written about it much since then, but I figured this is a topic that might resonate with others, too. It’s not uncommon, after all, for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to struggle with healthy sexuality in adulthood. In fact, I think it’s pretty normal to struggle because whatever defenses we relied on to get by as a child are probably things that interfere with intimacy, openness, trust and connection.
So how do you change that?
Okay, that’s true, but perhaps you’d like to hear something more specific. Big picture concepts include body awareness, mindfulness, and attention to pleasure beyond sexual pleasure and orgasm.
From the very first appointment, Marie has had me pay attention to what I am feeling in my body. Tightness in my belly? Restriction in my throat? Pressure in my heart? Restless feet? Whatever it is, we just notice it. No judgment. No trying to make it go away. It’s just a sensation. There’s no good or bad attached to it. This has been a recurring theme, and it’s made it so much easier for me, over time, to identify what I am feeling. I am less tuned out to myself.
She’s also encouraged me to keep with my meditation practice (which, to be honest, has been rocky and often interrupted in recent months). It’s a great opportunity to observe my own mind, to notice when it wanders, and to gently, without reproach, bring it back to the present moment.
Then there has been the homework, things like writing words on each other’s backs. That reminded of games I played with my sisters and cousins when we were little and would write “Santa” and “candy” on each other’s backs when we were all crowded together in sleeping bags on big family holidays. It feels good, the light touch on our backs, but it’s not sexual and therefore not threatening. And in order to figure out the word, you have to pay attention to what is happening right now. You can’t fade out.
Early on, Marie asked my husband and me to agree to take intercourse off the table. This was another way to make me relax, so I could do the homework, or touch or kiss my husband without feeling like it had to lead to sex. It’s funny, because I was not conscious that I was keeping a distance to avoid sex, but I guess I was. Once it was clear that we would not be having sex, I started touching and hugging my husband a lot more. Really, a lot more. He noticed the difference, and so did I. It felt so good to play with his hair or just hold him for a long time.
It’s not that we never touched. We’ve always been affectionate. We often hold hands when we walk. But I realize I was holding back, especially on cuddling in bed.
Of course, not all that surprisingly, that connects back to my sense that I didn’t really have the power to withhold consent. At a deep level, I’d learned that it was the other person who decided if we were going to have sex, not me. So instead of getting into something where I “couldn’t” say no, I just avoided the closeness that might get me there.
To counter some of that, Marie has also had us play a sort of red light / green light game, where I could tell my husband “green light” as he touched me, if I wanted him to continue, and “red light” if I wanted him to stop. I was supposed to say “red light” sometimes, even if I didn’t want to stop, just so I could practice my power to stop things and learn that my husband really would stop when I told him to.
More touching, embracing, and cuddling has made me feel closer to my husband. It’s made it easier to talk to him about difficult things (and of course, both Marie and E have continued to encourage me to open up to him). In particular, Marie advises me to tell him when I have mixed feelings about something (“On the one hand, I’d like our touching to progress to be more sexual, but on the other hand, I feel nervous that if I tell you that, it will be the end of all of our simple cuddling and non-sexual touching.”) Every time, he’s been able to take whatever I say in stride.
During my last session with Marie, I tell her that on our recent trip to Scandinavia, we’d started out cuddling, then kissing, then having oral sex. I was happy because even though I had still dissociated some of the time, some of the time I could pull myself back to the moment.
Marie thinks that is good, but she is interested too is what it was that allowed me to let things get to that point.
“I guess I felt very relaxed and free,” I tell her. “It was the middle of the night, and we were awake because we were both jet lagged. No one else was awake, so we didn’t feel like we were supposed to go out and be social. We weren’t at home, so there wasn’t anything we needed to do. No distractions, so it was easier to focus.”
Marie tells me how common it is that having too much to do keeps women from feeling like having sex. Women multi-task even more than men, on average, and when their heads are one long to-do list, they can’t relax into their bodies. (On this topic, she recommends I read the book Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski.)
She asks me what I might imagine as a physically pleasurable activity, with my husband, or on my own, that I might engage in over the next couple of weeks.
I think about this a little, and I just come up with something simple, “Lying in bed with my husband, talking, touching, maybe having sex, maybe not.”
“Okay,” she nods. “Is it daytime? Nighttime?”
“Daytime,” I say. “I don’t know if morning or afternoon, but there is light outside.”
“And what else can you say about the context?” she asks.
“No cell phones in the bedroom,” I say, knowing I can get just as sucked in by my phone as my husband can. “And no dogs, either.”
“Excellent, no phones, no dogs. And what about the bedroom? Does it have to be cleaned first? Vacuumed?”
“No, that’s okay,” I say, not because my bedroom is already spotless but because I can tune it out.
“That doesn’t seem so hard,” she says. “What do you think your husband will say if you tell him about this?”
“Oh, he’ll be on board, I’m sure.”
And it turns out I’m completely right about that. He’s happy to set aside some weekend time for that and to say it can lead to sex, or not, and that’s up to me. It turns out it does, but that’s a story for another time.
CREDIT: Photo by Timothy Kolczak on Unsplash