Israel Helfand, Ph.D. and Cathie Helfand, MS
Human sexuality is an extremely complex subject and is for many couples a very tender and sensitive issue. It is because of this that some couples do not delve deeper into exploring their sex lives during their first Marriage Quest Retreat, but choose to return to us to do so.
While many spouses understand that emotional intercourse leads to physical intercourse this statement is also an example of just how complex sexuality is. Emotional intercourse, or sharing, commonly referred to by therapists as intimacy, can also be a roadblock to healthy eroticism. For some people security, commitment, and predictability does not evoke passion and could even be boring or a turn-off. It is complicated and takes a well seasoned and open minded marital counselor (or in our case two counselors) to know and understand the situation.
Our therapy culture, and most therapists’, assumes that there is pathology when they are allowed in their clients’ private fantasy lives. The truth is that our culture defines what is kinky, wild, and wrong. No wonder it is often those exact fantasies that are such a turn-on.
A quarter of the couples coming to our Marriage Quest Retreats are themselves therapists and are not tolerant of their erotic fantasies. Erotic imagination is not the enemy but a useful part of human nature and sexploration. Part of the problem is that in this goal oriented American society people are often afraid that if they imagine it… it will become reality.
The therapy culture we live in has sterilized sexual expression by trying to quantify and qualify the great mystery that surrounds our sexuality and eroticism. It is a complicated subject but many understand that it blows the mood to talk too much about it and builds the mood to flirt, gesture, and tease. Simply put this is because one is serious and the other is fun.
The fear of intimacy is assigned to far too many problems. How about the fear of letting go, being open, being naughty or good, being lusty or adventurous? Entering the erotic world can be a powerful, mysterious, and even spiritual experience, and when done within a marriage and with good intention can be very pleasurable and safe. Safe as long as we realize that fantasy is just that… fantasy!
Understandably without professional guidance couples fear opening a Pandora’s box. We have successfully guided many couples to claim their sexual freedom, increase their fantasy life, and accept the lust that sexual adventure has to offer. Most importantly, not feel threatened that in doing so they break the unconsious rules of proper adult sexual behavior. Rather that they feel free to take their marriage to a new level. The paradox is in doing so they cement their bond even more. It is even more complicated. What used to provoke jealousy and anxiety now feeds their libido as couples learn to “bring it home.”
More than half of the couples we work with have had an affair. They are more apt to experiment sexually outside the marriage than within. Uncomfortable to let themselves go within the marriage and half committed to a status quo, boring, even puritanical love life… it is no wonder that they feel erotic, lustful, and aroused as they fantasize outside of their marriage.
Furthermore, it is of little surprise that so many people are infatuated with cybersex, pornography, prositution, phone sex, etc. Like affairs, they offer an outlet for sexual and erotic expression which is depressed within the marital system.
Unfortunately the sex industry also gives a false sense of connectedness and may hinder the more essential and spiritual rewards inherent in embracing the great mystery that a commitment to a life of sexual pleasure offers. Finding a balance with what is new, exciting, erotic, and mysterious with what is safe is worthy of the time and energy it takes to do so. Couples often return to another Marriage Quest Retreat to address these issues after their initial work on getting on the same page over the first retreat. We help you to build emotional intimacy before sexual intimacy.
Couples must learn that their biggest sex organ is between their ears and that it is their brain, or rather their thinking, that sabotages their sexual pleasure. “He wouldn’t need fantasy if I were enough for him” is a self-defeating thought and not at all useful. Fantasy could be healthy and spouses need to challenge their assumptions that safety is inside their marriage and adventure or excitement lies outside.
Affairs are often a rebellion to the comfortable and dull life perceived by a spouse. The crisis that accompanies the affair and “stirs things up” offers an opportunity to go deeper and change the otherwise boring status quo. Sex offers a desirable distraction from the everyday stresses of work and family. It is a sanctuary that drowns out the anxiety and helplessness echoed by the news of the world around us. A spiritual possibility, through connectedness, pleasure, and all its wonder, awe, and mystery.
Some people need to review their childhood lessons and experience to understand, tolerate, and change their sexual views. Religion can play a negative or positive (though less often positive) role in a person’s sexual openness. People who have viewed masterbating or self gratification as bad, sinful, or dirty may have a harder time coming around. These people, in our experience, better appreciate the non-verbal language that entering the mystery can offer. Sex talk to them may be too big a challenge. Paradoxically, such a person could have fun playing with roles that include power and control, or weakness and vulnerability. Though these roles may or may not be verbalized, they are none the less erotic.
It is complicated! More often than not couples come to us thinking that they know everything about each other and that they are quite different from each other… like night and day. They often leave realizing just how similar they really are in who they are and what they want and how much there is yet to learn about their self, as well as their partner.
The assumptions, as well as the therapeutic culture which states that intimacy must exist before sex could be pleasurable, is of questionable wisdom. Our goal for intimacy could actually sabotage our love life, and perhaps more often than sometimes, good sex could lead to a deeper emotional connection with our spouse.