(8/19/13) Ask just about any therapist what it takes to improve someone’s sex life and at some point you’re bound to hear the infamous, “Communication is the key.” Good advice, yes? Well, it sounds pretty basic, straightforward and even simple when it’s parroted about so unanimously, but if it’s so good, why do people have such difficulty in discussing sex?
While such wonderful counsel makes perfect sense intellectually, people are funny animals when it comes to matters of meaning. Emotional filters usually get the upper hand, sorting messages into one of three bins: If we believe that we’ll get something useful from a conversation, we’re all into it. If we think that it’ll result in some pain, the barriers snap up. If neither is the case, then it’s a quick trip to Ambivalenceville. It’s a natural process—part of being human—but it also impedes communication in ways that few are genuinely conscious of at the time it’s happening.
Yes, communication is the key, but in many cases, it’s also the lock. Since adults have been generally socialized into specific (and usually predictable) emotional response modes based on values, norms and immediate moods, communicating about subjects that involve some measure of discomfort will usually provoke default resistance. As this applies to sexual topics in particular, if the nail isn’t hit squarely on the head right out of the gate, the resulting awkwardness can create real obstacles that become more and more difficult to overcome. Once that ball is rolling, the more one party tries to break through, the deeper the other party will tend to dig in–until the impasse causes an unbreakable lock.
Additionally, talking about sex these days is a lot like dealing with one of those autocorrect apps on your smartphone. We may think we’re saying one thing, but for some strange reason, it seems to come across as something else. Unless, of course, you really meant to say that you’re taking a trip to “Dizzy World,” the peril of emotional autocorrect (aka: interpretation) is that it often makes things worse, even when all intentions are good. A common example of this: One partner tries to help the other by being more specific about what they’d like in their sex life. They think they’re being positive and helpful, of course, when they calmly state, “I would like it if you did “X” differently….” but the other partner, applying their emotional filters, hears the message as, “You suck at this and I want something/someone else.” If this sort of communications zigzag isn’t nipped in the bud, it’s likely to result in insecurity, stubbornness and defensiveness–none of which will support improvement. The problem is that it’s incredibly difficult to stop dead in the tracks once emotion ramps up, so any additional discussion becomes increasingly heated until it eventually boils over. If enough of these occur, eventually the incentive for trying diminishes until, well, you know.
Why does it have to be this way? It’s easy to say that it doesn’t, but that’s a completely intellectual response. Sure, people could follow the many 4, 6 or 9-step methods out there for better communication but most would agree (probably through significant personal experience) that it’s highly unlikely one is inclined to stop and pull out a checklist in the heat of a competitive moment. If they were so inclined, the business of sex and relationship counseling wouldn’t be as booming as it is today. Yes, resolving to practice better methods in advance is a possible option, but the reactive nature of emotion-based communication seems to effectively counter most proactive efforts. These may be excuses, but they’re perfectly reasonable given the state of our collective socialization in recent times. The bottom line is that it’s a complex problem with no clear cut, one-size-fits-all solution, but here’s a somewhat radical suggestion: Embrace the chaos.
Clinically applying an intellectual process to such a highly personal and emotional subject as sex may make some sense in a sterile vacuum, but real life is rarely so neat and tidy. Accepting, understanding and positively leveraging the chaotic and often illogical nature inherent in interpersonal relationships significantly increases one’s chances of succeeding in them–especially when a high-risk, high-value matter is at hand. By recognizing and actively addressing the emotional elements as the priority, patterns will emerge from the chaos and become exceptionally useful in building a more stable communications bridge. Perhaps it’ll be a matter of using specific vocabulary that they’re more comfortable with. Maybe it’ll be based on making something into a fun bonding experience instead of a challenging critique. Conceivably, it could even be something as simple as ensuring the “right” emotional mood is set before tackling the matter in question (or smartly holding off if the circumstances aren’t favorable). The approaches are as endless at the possible scenarios, but the basis is the same: Work with–and even feature–the specific emotional factors involved rather than against them.
Oh, and make it a point to turn the emotional autocorrect off.