Sexual problems are opportunities to actually get deeper with each other. Cohosts talk about a man with ED and how he feels alone, alienated from his own body for fear of failure as well as alienated from his partner thinking he will let her down. George shares how withdrawers strengthen their muscle memory to go away when they don’t share their “ouch” or what hurts, denying themselves the comfort that their partner might offer. Laurie share how vulnerable sharing actually draws a partner in.
Laurie: Last time we talked about what makes for great sex. Today we want to talk about what’s redemptive when we have sexual problems.
Laurie Watson: Hey, you’re listening to Foreplay Radio, for couples in sex therapy, and I am Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.
George Faller: And I’m George Faller, your marriage therapist.
Laurie Watson: We want to take a wide lens on sexuality and talking with you about what we’ve learned as experts in the field, on how you bring your body, your mind, and your brain to the sexual experience.
George Faller: We want to expand people’s perspective of just talking about sex, but it’s not something to be avoided. It’s actually something to embrace, and to lean into with an openness to be changed by what you hear.
Laurie Watson: So, G, you don’t like talking about fluffy things? You’re not good at a cocktail party where you got to do all the small talk?
George Faller: I want to squeeze in as much life as possible in the moments I have. So I tend to want to go deeper into meaningful conversations.
Laurie Watson: You’re saying you suffer at cocktail parties?
George Faller: I can suffer. Well, I could always fall back to talking about sports or something [crosstalk 00:01:06].
Laurie Watson: That’s good. Sports and politics.
George Faller: That’s an easy one [inaudible 00:01:11].
Laurie Watson: And how’s your team doing this year?
George Faller: We won’t get into that. But I guess what I’m looking for is that emotional engagement. So even politics or sports, how could you not have emotions when you’re talking about sex?
Laurie Watson: Right. Okay. So we’re going to talk about why sexual problems do something for us. What’s redemptive about them?
George Faller: There is too much focus on trying to have a sex life free of problems. That’s the gold standard. We should never have problems. It should be easy and perfect and spontaneous, and how boring would that be?
Laurie Watson: Two sexual pursuers fantasize just always being together, and always wanting it, and it being great all the time.
George Faller: It’s a nice fantasy.
Laurie Watson: It’s a nice fantasy.
George Faller: Right, but there’s so much growth, there’s so … The beauty to me about a sexual problem is, if you listen, it’s trying to communicate, it’s trying to lead us to change and to grow and to do something differently. Organisms that don’t grow, die and stagnate. We really need to keep being open to change and doing things a little bit differently. And that’s why we need problems.
Laurie Watson: Right. And I always think about it when a couple comes in, sex is this fragile place in their relationship, and it replicates whatever is truly happening in the rest of their relationship. I don’t know how people don’t talk about sex, how therapists don’t talk about sex most of the time, because it’s so illuminating in terms of what is actually going on with people. Because this is the most intimate, vulnerable place. How they’re getting connected in their bodies. I think that the sexual problem reflects the deepest struggle of the person. And how they feel about being vulnerable, how difficult it is to be naked really, both in body and spirit, coming to another person. Working that through, is so amazing and gives them such opportunity to deeply be seen, and deeply be known. I’ve been married for a long time, and I still feel like there are breakthroughs that we have with each other in terms of increasingly understanding what sex means to us, and what sexual problems mean to us. My husband told me something the other night, and it was brand new.
George Faller: What did he say? It’s just my curiosity, I can’t help myself. You don’t have to answer that.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. He was talking about what passion feels like to him, and it was beautiful, and something he had never told me before. It just drew me right into him. So it was very exciting, and I just think sexual problems and sexual exploration, and communication in depth, gives us this opportunity to be intimate, and as I said, known.
George Faller: I just want to highlight what you say. It’s so important that the problem offers the doorway into these places of vulnerability.
Laurie Watson: Right.
George Faller: Where we get to know ourselves better and our partner gets to know us better. And if we avoid that, there’s just a lot less to engage with. But I also want to zoom out for a second, and I don’t want to paint the picture that this is the way sex always has to be. That sometimes you do just want a quickie, and sometimes it is just focused on a physical, and there are just lots of different ways that we can connect and have sex.
Laurie Watson: Right, it doesn’t have to always be deep and meaningful.
George Faller: Yeah. I’m afraid we’re scaring somehow our listeners. If this isn’t the way it always is, this deep vulnerable talking about problems.
Laurie Watson: Yeah. Sometimes it’s just a good way to go to sleep.
George Faller: Well, most of the world sees vulnerability as the traditional definition of being open to attack, and weakness, and failure. Most people don’t want to be vulnerable, so we’re just trying to expand that definition and say, there are some times you need to protect yourself from those kinds of weak places. But there’s also an opportunity in going into those places to really not be alone. And all the problem is, is the signal of your body saying, hey, pay attention. Something’s not going right here. I’m afraid. I’m feeling bad, I’m feeling hurt, scared. There’s some pain. It’s your body trying to embed it in the problem, is the solution, if you’re willing to listen to the information.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, and I think what you said about when we have sexual problems, it’s representative of our aloneness. And sex, when it’s good, when it’s connecting, it is such an effective way to be connected. It is such a deep way, any kind of sex is connection, if you bring your heart and your soul to it. So you had a couple, a guy with ED. Can you tell that story about what happened to him and what he was feeling?
George Faller: Sure. Unfortunately it’s too common of a story, that a partner will come in, and in this case, Billy came in with a lack of desire and a history of ED problems. Which you know earlier when you get their sexual history, when they met, sex was great, because sex for bill was totally performance based and about the orgasm. And when they were young and everything was working fine, it was a an area he could connect in.
Laurie Watson: So how old is Billy now?
George Faller: Billy is in his late forties.
Laurie Watson: Okay.
George Faller: So I think around his thirties Bill started to have some problem, because sex became … As his wife, and they had kids and there was less opportunity for it. And he started to turn towards porn, which a lot of times is a way of just finding an outlet and trying not to put pressure on your partner. But before you know it, Bill had a harder time performing for his wife. Porn offers a sure thing, no pressure, an easy release. So now this-
Laurie Watson: And then she’s getting frustrated with him.
George Faller: She’s getting frustrated, more pressure. So it’s too common of a story. But what started off as Bill not knowing how to do vulnerability, not knowing how to be present emotionally in his body, just focus on the orgasm, sets Bill up for these ED problems. It’s pretty predictable. And then when the ED problems get worse, now he no longer wants to really have sex with his wife. He wants to avoid the sense of pain that he’s failing. So it gets harder and harder to engage sexually, it’s going to turn him more and more towards the porn.
Laurie Watson: So it’s not that he doesn’t desire it, it’s that he is failing in his performance, what he believes she wants. And so then he stops initiating. So he still has desire, and maybe she’s angry, because he’s looking at porn and she’s like, why doesn’t he want me? She’s probably mad and feeling unattractive. Feeling distance. Feels the difference between how he used to approach her with some regularity and now he’s not at all. And they’re young.
George Faller: Right.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, that’s rough. And you’re right. It’s a typical story.
George Faller: What I remember so vividly, was Billy describing to me actually how lonely he felt during sex. That he had so much pressure and he was just trying to please, just make sure everything works. He was cut off from his body, didn’t listen to his emotions. He had so much pressure. He was totally lost in his own head.
Laurie Watson: He’s telling himself this story that is so about how good he is or how not good he is, he’s not really enjoying sex. No wonder he has ED. He can’t feel anything at that point. Anything that would feel good.
George Faller: How does that not break your heart, that here he is, in the most natural way of being connected and become part of something bigger than yourself, and he is feeling utterly alone?
Laurie Watson: I know.
George Faller: He’s literally touching his wife and he can’t even feel her presence. He’s not engaged in the moment. He is totally locked down in his own anxieties.
Laurie Watson: And I think that when a partner feels that kind of touch, that’s the difficulty, you can’t receive that, because it doesn’t feel like it’s about you. It doesn’t feel like it’s coming your way.
George Faller: And it wasn’t that his desire was fading. It’s just that anxiety kills desire.
Laurie Watson: It does.
George Faller: So that’s so often what we’re trying to do and we’re trying to just help reduce the anxiety, and then that desire can come back online.
Laurie Watson: And he’s so fearful of being found to be lacking, to be bad in bed. I do think that’s the big fear when couples come for help finally, about sexual problems or any kind of problem. Oftentimes it’s the sense of I’m going to be discovered. The therapist is going to see that I’m really no good at all and I’m going to hear my wife say I’m not good in bed. I’m a terrible lover. It’s just so much fear and humiliation about approaching this, and yet it’s the opportunity to potentially reach deep connection and expose these fears. You were saying something to me this morning that I really liked. Say it again. You were talking about how a withdrawing partner, every time they withdraw …
George Faller: Every time a withdrawer pulls away, or protect the poles away, every time there’s an ouch, there’s a reason, there’s a fear, there’s a pain, something’s happening that they don’t want to confront, and they want to go back into that safe place. But every time they pull away and they don’t get any comfort or reassurance or any success with that ouch, it just strengthens that muscle memory that the safest place is to disengage. So what we’re trying to do-
Laurie Watson: George, you need to write a book on that. Just that’s your thesis, right there.
George Faller: Well.
Laurie Watson: I do. I really think it’s so important, because I don’t think that that’s being said enough, and it’s like I have to get it in my head. When they feel pain, like this guy Billy.
George Faller: It’s an ouch. Don’t use big words. It’s a little ouch.
Laurie Watson: Okay. It’s a little ouch. We can’t use big words with withdrawers.
George Faller: It’s so counter intuitive, when I feel an ouch, I really don’t want to share that ouch, because I’m afraid that’s going to make it worse. We’re going to get into a big conversation. I’m going to get reminded of more things that I don’t do right.
Laurie Watson: My wife is going to start saying, “I knew you weren’t attracted to me.” And I don’t know how to say that. I don’t know how to fix that.
George Faller: Now we’re going to totally kill the moment, now we’re talking about all this. If I can just numb out that ouch and persevere, then I’ll get to the promised land. And what most people are not recognizing, is to hide that ouch, the cost that it takes to hide that ouch, just continues to strengthen that belief, even unconsciously and those protectors that the best thing they can do with their ouches or their vulnerabilities, is to hide it.
Laurie Watson: Is to go away.
George Faller: So that’s going to be-
Laurie Watson: Away from their partner.
George Faller: Exactly, that’s going to be our critical moment. It’s when they’re going away. How do we get them to confront it and face it instead of going away? And that’s what we’re going to cover when we come back from this break.
Speaker 1: Speaking with certified sex therapist, Laurie Watson from Awakening Center for couples and intimacy. Laurie, what is an intensive?
Laurie Watson: An intensive is 12 to 14 hours of therapy all in one weekend. And it’s a way to really make fast progress compared to weekly therapy. There’s just so much more you can get done when you have a chunk of time.
Speaker 1: Overcome the challenges in your relationship and your sex life. Learn more about intensives and Awakening Center’s, other services at awakenloveandsex.com.
Laurie Watson: Hey, I want to let you guys know all about George. He’s written and contributed to several books, and I’d especially like to draw your attention to his book, Sacred Stress, A Radically Different Approach To Using Life’s Challenges For Positive Change. His book is about a mission on how you adopt new strategies, and turn stresses into a positive force in your life. And who among us doesn’t live with a lot of stress these days? We’ll keep you posted as to all he’s doing, but George and other EFT therapists all around the country, and the world, hold couples retreats called Hold Me Tight, which is developed by Sue Johnson. And it helps secure your own relationship. If you’d like therapy with George, find him at georgefaller.com.
So George, Billy, his penis is directing him into himself. It’s like this fantastic barometer. He can’t escape it.
George Faller: And he’s just following the rules that he was taught as a young man on what to do with sex. And what he doesn’t understand is that those rules lead to these problems. And then he’s made to feel blame, like it’s his fault why he has these problems. When it’s like a math equation, it’s pretty predictable.
Laurie Watson: And so we want him to say what to his wife? Maybe risk and be vulnerable and say, “Suddenly, I’m afraid I’m not going to get hard for you and you’re going to be mad at me.”
George Faller: That’s that pivotal moment, to get Billy to lean into his fears and listen to the ouch, and to share the ouch instead of trying to hide the ouch. It’s so counter intuitive. And again, we don’t have to get this perfect all the time. It’s just a matter of, maybe it’s after sex or maybe it’s during, we could figure all of that out. But can he say, “Hey, it’s hard for me to be present, because I’m afraid that I’m going to let you down.”? How do you think his wife might respond to that?
Laurie Watson: I think most women are going to be compassionate about that. They’re saying, “I just want to be with you. Just us being in bed together is a good thing.” I know one guy who I’ve seen for a while, and he has ED, and she says regularly to him, “It’s not about your erection. It’s really not.” And I’ve heard her say that probably 15 times. And he says, “But she would love me more if I had an erection.” I’m like, “No, she would love you more if you stayed present with her. Get out of your own head and say, it’s about you, it’s about me.” If a woman heard that, that vulnerability is exciting, frankly. Anytime that a man is vulnerable, it’s exciting.
George Faller: Well, if you’re getting him out of his head, what are you getting him into?
Laurie Watson: Right, when he’s out of his head, then his body is clearer, and he can feel again. I think the same thing happens with women. So many women, they hit a plateau, which is a normal stage actually. She’s kind of highly aroused and suddenly she becomes self conscious, and she just can’t get there. And she starts telling herself, it’s not my night, I’m not very good at this. All of that anxiety happens, and she tries to fake it. She tries to keep going. She tries to keep that inside, all her fear of what’s happening, rather than just talking about it and letting him comfort her. And I think that, that withdrawal happens with women as well. Especially sexually when they hit those places or it’s not happening for them, they’re not getting aroused. All of that brings this fear, especially if you have a partner who expects a performance, or expects you to meet them and feel the same thing that they’re feeling.
George Faller: If we listen to the signal, the problem, it tells us what we need the solution. If we avoid it, no risky, no getty. We’re not going to get what we’re needing in those places.
Laurie Watson: So the signal is telling us we’re anxious.
George Faller: If I’m anxious, I need reassurance.
Laurie Watson: I need comfort.
George Faller: If I’m feeling pain, I need comfort. Our body will tell us what we need. We just have to take that risk. And I agree with you, vast majority of the time, the partner not only wants it, feels so much more connected when their partner takes the risk. Because it empowers them to be the superhero of this story. They get to love their partner in their brokenness, in their fears, where they need it the most. Not just when they’re getting it right. That’s easy love. It’s easy to love your partner when everything’s perfect, but it’s actually when the problems start to happen that we need need it the most. So that’s when you can see in these dark places, people show up for each other. Their love becomes battle tested. It’s amazing what that can do to solidify the intimacy in a couple.
Laurie Watson: And once they feel that, you can almost sense their blood pressure coming down, in a good way. And their bodies sync up when they feel that comfort from their partner. Yeah.
George Faller: Right. And that’s what-
Laurie Watson: And that syncing up, is the entrance way into seduction and into flow for sex.
George Faller: It’s amazing what can happen when pressure and fear is reduced. So even though you get some reassurance and now your wife is hugging you, and you’re just feeling wanted in these places where you don’t even like yourself. But once the healing starts to happen, it’s amazing how the arousal can start coming up again.
Laurie Watson: Right.
George Faller: So that’s exactly what happened with Billy. He’s so ashamed, he’s waiting to feel rejected. And when his wife’s able to say, “I have some of the same fears, it’s okay to feel that way. I love you either way. If we can’t, we can just …” That reassurance from his wife, gets Billy back into his body when he’s feeling her hug, and he starts to feel her caressing his back. All of a sudden his body starts saying, that’s interesting. I never even noticed those things.
Laurie Watson: I didn’t even know I had a back.
George Faller: That’s right. And then all of a sudden, what do you think starts to happen for Billy?
Laurie Watson: I didn’t know I had toes.
George Faller: That’s right.
Laurie Watson: Yeah, that’s beautiful.
George Faller: We’re treating so many of these problems with medicine, and that can be helpful. But the root of this … The Irish have a great saying, everybody focuses on the drinking, and not the thirst. How do we get these people who are not in their bodies and avoiding themselves, to actually start to experience success in their bodies? That’s the best way to get arousal and desire turned back on. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we have to courage to face those problems and see the opportunity in them.
Speaker 1: I like that. Human sex is so complex, that if we didn’t have problems, if we didn’t have anything to work out, if we could just be like bunnies, that would be one thing. But this gives us an opportunity to have a richer, fuller experience of each other, that wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have different arousal patterns, if we didn’t have sexual problems. And if it all worked smoothly, fantastic and it is fantastic when that happens. But this opportunity of the problem makes us know each other better, gives us that chance to resolve things that might not have been resolved before. I think couples … One particular case that comes in a lot, is the couple who seems to be placid. They are often best friends, but they have so much trouble in the bedroom. They can’t get started, they can’t get aroused, they can’t find each other because there’s not enough flint and spark. [crosstalk 00:20:30] steel, there’s nothing there.
And so that is the opportunity where they start to realize, I have to be open. I have to tell my partners something controversial. I have to say I prefer this kind of touch, or something that is really scary for them, because they’re so afraid they’ll hurt their partner, or they’re so afraid that that kind of risk will make their partner go away. They’ve never had that in their relationship, because they’re trying so hard to be nice to each other. They’re trying so hard to get along, and it turns out that we actually have to have problems in order to make it be good sex. We have to face those things. We have to face our differences in the bedroom. We have to be open about things we like and don’t like, and that’s so scary. But this is the opportunity for them, particularly this type of couple who is the best friend, no sex kind of relationship, to have a much deeper relationship with each other.
George Faller: It’s so touching what they’re trying to do. They’re willing to sacrifice themselves because they don’t want to hurt their partner. It’s so loving, but they’re not recognizing the cost of that protection is the numbness. It’s the distance. It’s the lower levels of engagement. So yes, we need the flint.
Laurie Watson: It’s being able to know them.
George Faller: Right.
Laurie Watson: We can’t know each other if we don’t have any differences. If we just make nice all the time. And people try to do that, they particularly, I think, try to do that in the beginning of a relationship. They struggle with their differences.
George Faller: One of the most helpful things for me in my graduate program, I remember some of the work by [Ed Tronic 00:22:08]. And he’s looking at interactions in relationships. And he says there are basically three states. There’s a state of connection when we’re in this intunement synchrony, positive effect. It feels amazing. You just can’t live in that place. Eventually something comes along that breaks that connection. And the body lets us know. It sends us signals of negative affect, fear, pain, loneliness, whatever the signal is that, hey, we’re no longer where we need to be. The key is that third one, it’s that ability to repair. How do you get from this disconnection back into that place of connection? To repair you have to listen to the problem. You have to be willing to take in that information and use it. You’re 100% right. If there was no problem, what would happen in relationships, is they die. We need problems, as long as we can repair because that means we’re constantly growing and changing and doing it differently. So I love [crosstalk 00:23:06].
Laurie Watson: Right, the couple who doesn’t have the problems actually goes cold.
George Faller: Exactly.
Laurie Watson: There’s no heat between them, that is compelling between them.
George Faller: If we can help change our listeners’ relationships to problems, to start seeing the opportunity to embrace them, instead of seeing them as evidence that you’re failing or doing something bad. No, this is an inevitable part of the process. The more that you lean into it and say, “Right, here it is. Let’s listen to what’s happening.” It’s just going to give you so much more to engage with, and increase the passion in your relationship.
Laurie Watson: Yeah.
George Faller: Okay, thanks for listening to Foreplay Radio. This week we tried to really highlight the importance of seeing the opportunity in problems. Next week we’re going to go a little bit deeper into more severe problems. We’re going to talk a lot about trauma, and how that impacts relationships.
Laurie Watson: Hi foreplay fam. The biggest support you can give us is sharing our podcast with a friend. You can find us also on socials, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And we’d love your questions and feedback, and really do use these to guide our show. We’d also love it if you’d rate and review us. If you’re interested in learning more about us and our mission, look us up on our hot new website, foreplayradiosextherapy.com.
Speaker 1: Call in your questions to the Foreplay question voicemail, dial 833 my foreplay. That’s 833, the number four, play, and we’ll use the questions for our mailbag episodes. All content is for entertainment purposes only, and should not be considered as a substitute for therapy by a licensed clinician, or as medical advice from a doctor.