The Mormon Therapist on “I don’t feel safe talking to my husband about sex.”

John Dehlin LDS, love, marriage, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, religion, sexuality, women 27 Comments

Natasha Helfer Parker is a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist and a member of the Church with 13 years of experience working with LDS members. Here she shares with us representative cases from her practice and insights she has gained from her work as a therapist.  She blogs at mormontherapist.blogspot.com.

You have mentioned the importance of communicating with our spouse about our view of sex–not just the fantasies. I don’t feel like I can do that with my husband. He is not a safe place to go for me. We have a different opinion about how and how often we should be having sex. Part of my opinion on that is because of insecurities that I have about my body, that sadly, he has made even worse. So when I try to express my opinions on the subject I feel like he has just gotten defensive. And his defense mechanism is to just shut down. It has been going on for a long time. In other areas of our marriage, I feel like we are doing pretty well, but this issue has lately begun to seep through our whole relationship and I feel like if we don’t take care of it soon, we won’t be able to at all.
We all come to marriage with our own sexual histories, sexual expectations and sexual taboos. And there is no magical guidebook given to us after the marriage ceremony to help us navigate through these complicated thoughts, feelings and frustrations. Here are some thoughts I had as I read through your experience:

  • Sexuality is closely tied with our egos, self-esteem and for many a sense of shame or embarrassment. This is why it can be difficult to talk about and most of us could use some help in this department.
  • Our religious framework often has much to do with the “hows” and the “how oftens.”  Having frank and open discussions in a respectful setting regarding sex is pivotal to any couple of any faith.
  • The “how oftens” also have much to do with differences in biological drive.  Knowledge of how biological drive will affect your sexuality as a couple is also important.
  • One recommendation is to go get couples counseling. Make sure you go to someone who is qualified to do couples work, which is different from individual therapy. You may also consider going to a specialized sex therapist who is even more qualified to deal with sexual issues.  The biggest mistake that couples make when it comes to seeking professional help is to not get it early enough. You say your marriage is primarily in a good place. It will be much easier to do this work now before you add years of resentment, mistrust, and anger.  A good therapist, whether LDS or not, should respect your religious values regarding sexuality.  Since the sense of safety is so important to whether or not a couple can successfully resolve issues, this should be one of the main themes around the work you do in therapy.
  • The only person you have control over is yourself. And the only person who can work on your self-esteem is yourself. If your partner is making comments that put you down, it can be extremely difficult to NOT have it affect your self-esteem. However, your self-esteem is your own responsibility and I would recommend doing some self-esteem work. If your partner refuses to seek help with you, it is your right to seek help anyway.
  • There is a big difference between constructive feedback and putting somebody down. Unfortunately in marriage we can often belittle our partner or find ourselves being criticized in an unproductive way. A common self-defense mechanism is finding faults in others when we don’t feel good about ourselves. Your husband may be struggling with his own self-esteem and be putting you down as a result. Obviously in a marriage, this negative pattern can spiral to the point that affection and intimacy are greatly affected. It is perfectly reasonable to set appropriate boundaries around hurtful or negative comments (i.e. “I am not ok with you putting down the way I look. It affects my self-esteem and it is not healthy for our marriage.”).
  • It would be helpful if we could remember that pointing out to our spouse things that we don’t like about them (especially in a critical or demeaning fashion) usually has the opposite effect of getting what we want.
  • When it is difficult to talk about something, especially with a spouse who withdraws from conflict, it can be useful to write a letter instead. I would include the following elements (and notice the use of “I” statements which help keep you away from blame):
  1. These are the things I love about our marriage…. These are the things that I think we are good at….
  2. At the same time (not however or but), I feel like we would both agree that we’ve been struggling in this area…
  3. I would like to get some outside help so that we can look forward to increasing the level of intimacy and trust in our relationship…. These are some options that I am considering…
  4. Please let me know your thoughts on the matter…..
  5. I believe in us…..
  6. I love you and my desire is to be closer to you…
  • If I was going to work with you as a couple some information that would be helpful to know about you would be:
  1. is there any past sexual trauma for either partner?
  2. what are your sexual histories? have you been honest with each other about your sexual histories?
  3. what are the patterns of previous generations? what kinds of relationships were modeled? how was sex education and messages communicated about in the families of origin?
  4. how has your religion framed your sexual mindset? how do each of you see the purpose of sex?
  5. is there any past or current sexual behavior that would cause shame or secrecy (i.e. pornography use, affairs, ruminating thoughts, etc.)?
  6. what’s the level of self-esteem work that needs to be done for both?
  7. are there any eating disorders involved?
  8. what correlation do you see between emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical intimacy?

For the readers of MM – what have you found useful in your relationships when talking about topics that don’t feel comfortable or safe?  How have you struck a balance between offering constructive criticism instead of belittlement?  How have you taken constructive criticism yourself?  How do gospel principles help or hinder us in this department (i.e. stand up for yourself vs turn the other cheek)?  Do you feel safe talking to your spouse about sex?  Do the church education programs prepare us to talk to our spouses about sex?  How do we best handle differences in the “how” or “how often” departments?  When should compromise be part of the equation and when shouldn’t it?  What about issues of physical attraction when one of us gains weight for example?

Comments

comments

Comments 27

  1. I thought we had this same discussion last time 🙂 I must not have explained myself very well.

    When I work with LDS couples, so many of their issues surrounding sex and even general emotional safety have underlying themes tied to their religious beliefs ( ie. role of priesthood in the home, role of sex in the marriage, what type if sexual activity is sanctified by God, how sexual libido is perceived usually to the detriment of man’s base nature, etc). By no means are all of my posts going to deal with sex. But since a majority of the questions I deal with on my blog have a sexual undercurrent, I will be addressing this often. I hope many can find these discussions useful and thought provoking. I apologize up front to those who won’t.

  2. GBSmith, you would rather the post be, “I don’t feel safe talking to my bishop about sex” right?

    Natasha –
    I totally agree (big surprise) that this couple probably needs counseling to get out of this cycle. The husband freezes up/shuts down for ostensibly valid reasons, but it’s not at all helpful to the relationship. A therapist may be able to create enough safety for these things to be discussed. Good luck though, as in many cases people are quite resistant to going to therapy, despite the fact that they’re suffering so much. I would also the woman in the OP if she is able to tell her husband how difficult and scary it is to talk about sex. Not to actually talk about it, but just tell him how scary it is, and how alone she feels when he shuts down.

    Just make sure the therapist works with these types of reactive negative patterns rather than just with specific problem solving.

  3. I see the discussion as helpful, even entertaining considering the way one of your last posts morphed into a discussion of God’s bodily functions and the likelihood of sexual activity in the CK. It’s just that you have a financial interest in these posts. This is your profession/business and I’m not aware that any other poster has been in the same postion. My concern is not the topic but if this is part of your marketing plan.

  4. So goes one of the fundamental problems with health care – charging people for it. Natasha was invited to post here, and never once (I think) has she said on THIS blog, to any commenter, “hey, you could really use therapy. Why don’t you give me a call.” Sure, if it ends up marketing her services then great, but I don’t see these posts as negative in terms of soliciting potential clients. Then again, if you see this kind of indirect marketing as something to be concerned about, I understand, but disagree. I have known therapists who would do firesides or 5th Sunday stuff, and talk about counseling, but never say, “hey, come see me” but they would ALWAYS get business from it, just from people looking them up in the phonebook.

  5. Actually, it’s over 70 now, but there are different payment options. Out of pocket, of course, but insurance also, and if you go through your bishop and have the need the ward will usually pay half or more.

  6. LDS Family Services offers free counseling to expectant mothers who are planning or want to consider the option of placing their child for adoption. Everything else is at a cost that compares to other agencies.

  7. I think the notion that Natasha is soliciting business is a bit far-fetched. On the contrary, in providing free advice, she is providing a service based on the valuable experience she has as a professional. To me, it’s more like those leader advice columns / case studies that the WSJ does. You pose a tough question to someone who has been there / done that. They aren’t hawking any seminars or anything, and neither is Natasha. I can see a few very positive outcomes to this kind of blog post:
    1 – discussing these issues openly can provide help to those who opt NOT to pay for therapy (in this way it runs counter to her financial needs)
    2 – destigmatizing therapy for those who really need it. I doubt we’ll go so far in destigmatizing it that people who don’t need it will start going just because Natasha is so cool.

  8. I don’t read these posts as “marketing” opportunities for the therapist. Actually, GBSmith, you might read them as free (good, professional) advice. Whereas yes, this advice usually recommends meeting with a therapist to talk through and work on issues specifically affecting an individual or couple, I don’t really see any other paths to recommend. Therapy really is the way to work through issues such as the ones outlined in the OP. And yes, therapy costs money. I really don’t think therapists are trying to drum up a market for services that have minimal value; rather, a market exists already (most people have some relationship problems), and therapists are extensively trained to help people work through those problems and lead better lives.

    Note: I am not a therapist, but I have been to couples therapy in the past and I feel like it helped my marriage quite a bit.

  9. So, this is going completely off the original topic :), but I’m always happy to self-disclose about my practice and my intentions. (Maybe we need a post along these lines?).

    I started my blog a year and a half ago with several purposes in mind:
    – I saw a need for an anonymous venue and thought it might be both personally and professionally fulfilling to attempt to meet that need in some shape or form.
    – I’ve been wanting to get back into writing for a long time (possible even write a book someday) and I saw this as a good way to get started.
    – I wanted my practice to be more diverse than just the “in-office” setting.

    What I have found in the process is that I have received both financial and non-financial opportunities as a result of starting this blog (i.e. becoming a regular poster for MM, presenting at the Casual Blogger’s Conference in Salt Lake City last month, some new clientele, etc.). I find I have many more opportunities to think, write, research and engage in discourse such as this. All of these aspects benefit me and I’m thrilled that they do. In turn, this also benefits my clients and readers because I have more to offer.

    I believe I am providing a valuable service both to clients that pay for a more traditional setting of therapy and to readers who visit my blog. I believe in what I do and in what my profession has to offer. I have seen lives change dramatically for the better on the varying levels of individual, marriage, and family. I have seen quality of life improve. Going back to my econ 101 days at byu (I will admit a slightly painful experience), the basic idea I recall about healthy commerce is having both parties win. A service is offered that is of value to the consumer. An exchange is made and both end up better off. So, if my writing markets my profession as a whole, then yes – I’m all for it.

    Is my main incentive to post on MM to somehow market myself or my individual practice? No, it isn’t. Do I recognize that my posting on MM does somehow market myself or my practice? Yes, I do. And I do not feel any need to apologize for that.

    My main hope is that therapy in general will be seen as a resource to those who could benefit from it. One of the many tools that are available. If I’m part of that equation, great. If not, there are thousands of other resources available for members of our church through the internet, their local communities, their insurance panels, LDS Family Services, etc. If I have helped anyone reach out to these types of resources then the personal satisfaction that comes from that is incentive enough in this setting for me.

  10. Even though I sit here mostly as a lurker to Natasha’s posts, I love it that a professional will spend time and share what she has experienced with us.

    Natasha has asked for other topics. I hope we give her many, but I will say my wife has even read her sex-related posts and she thinks the bloggernacle is of the devil……

  11. GBSmith
    One last thing I just want some clarification on.
    It sounds like due to your concerns, the topic I speak on is not so much what is bothering you – more so the fact that I’m on here at all since my profession is related to my posts?

  12. hawkgrrrl
    My MBA husband agrees that much of my time spent on this type of work goes counter to my financial needs. 🙂

    But all kidding aside, it feeds other aspects of my life and that’s what my main purpose is focused on.

  13. “It sounds like due to your concerns, the topic I speak on is not so much what is bothering you – more so the fact that I’m on here at all since my profession is related to my posts?”

    That’s correct.

  14. GBSmith:
    So this is really something to take up with the producers of MM rather than with me. I’ll continue to post as long as invited.
    Thanks for sharing your concerns though because I think it’s a valid conversation to have.

  15. Natasha:

    I certainly endorse you continuing to be here. Blogs are precisely FOR the marketing of useful ideas.

    I mean, if we are concerned about marketing, we’d have to all sign declarations never to advocate tithe-paying, conversion of non-members to tithe-paying membership, contributions to charity, uses of public funding, etc.

    Thomas might be the only surviving commentor. And then he could sue himself for monopolistic practices. 😀

  16. Nathasha (and others) sorry to return to the original question, but…

    I think encouraging this couple (and others in similar situations) to seek counseling is an outstanding idea. There are many men who are totally unprepared to have this sort of conversation with their wife without feeling challenged or cheated in the end. I do not know why that condition exists, but it certainly does, and certainly among my peers.

    My wife for years resisting raising what she worried would be sensitive subjects in our marriage primarily because she did not want to hurt me. As kind a gesture as that may seem, it really signaled a far more serious issue, namely that she might have been afraid of my reaction to her.

    I’m happy to say that I think those days are behind us, but it is not a given, even in what is thought to be a loving and faithful LDS marriage that communication is easy, equitable or even adequate.

    Thanks for the post.

  17. I think intimacy is scary to people, and there’s more emotional intimacy in talking than in having sex. Their emotional intimacy is lacking, and it’s causing their sexual intimacy to be lacking as well. Whether they go to a therapist or just start talking more openly on their own (both of them), that’s where the solution lies.

  18. 24 — Yes, talking is valuable, but in the OP the correspondent has apparently tried that without success. A therapist can help to keep the interests of both parties protected while drawing both into mutually beneficial dialog.

    (I remember when a counselor in our stake presidency a number of years ago said in a Sat evening stake conference meeting that he and his wife had benefited greatly from couples therapy. A hush fell over the crowd, but everyone also knew he (and she) were terrific folks. His example went some distance to help break down the stigma of getting help when needed.)

  19. Post #24 (Hawkgrrl) – darn it, grrl, that’s twice in a day that you “stole” my thunder! Or…heaven forbid, R we thinking with the same brain? Aieeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!

    Seriously, couldn’t agree more about the issue of (lack) emotional intimacy and how it’s stymieing the poor couple’s bedroom life. (not that said ‘bedroom’ conduct need be CONFINED therein, LOL). “Communication Breakdown” is more than a LedZeppelin tune to them, unfortunately.

    Have often said that it doesn’t not matter what a married couple does BETWEEN THEMSELVES (I’m ruling out threesomes, spouse swapping, renting pornos, and other off-the-wall crap that should obviously be off-limits), it’s their own ‘dawggone’ business…PROVIDED…they’ve well-communicated their desires and expectations, and there is no coercion, manipulation, or other forms of ‘unrighteous dominion’ involved. If there is ONE area where both husband and wife need to be on the same page, this is IT. AFAIC, they can swing from the bloody chandeliers for all I care.

    Bravo to the SP Presidency member that admitted that he and he wife needed and got couples therapy. Takes humility in an organization where perfection is demanded.

  20. It seems we’re all more comfortable talking about you than ourselves,Natasha.Thanks for asking these questions,and our responses perhaps reflect how challenging they are to us.

    DH and I have found it really difficult to be as tender and undefended as we need to be in order to build our intimacy.We come from a culture that values self reliance and sees sex as a random encounter.There is no model for us of something deliberate and thought through.

    Speaking with my daughter recently,we observed how difficult it is to access models of real intimacy,worked through ongoing ordinary domestic sexuality.

    This stuff involves trust-intimacy-of the highest order.An attitude that helps is to see our sexual relationship as a shared project upon which we work together,rather than as the fault of either one or the other.We try to ask ourselves what our relationship needs in order to flourish,and try to be generous and open handed about that-why would I not do all in my power to give my darling whatever comfort I can offer him in our challenging lives?

    Deeply unfashionable to say,but sex largely needs to be an act of service to the beloved.Ultimately this is a more fulfilling path than seeing the beloved as existing for our own satisfaction.And of course,as has been observed,this needs to be within the bounds of the health of each.Anything else would simply not be loving.

    And I can honestly say that my greatest spiritual growth has come from addressing these questions.

    In practical terms,it has helped to have these conversations outside the home-maybe it’s less threatening when sex is not immediately available-also stokes the fires a little.

    I love the idea of teaching our kids that it is necessary for their spiritual journey to be wise and skillful lovers,and they become such through a process of learning together in their marriages and practicing.

    It’s free,I love it and it makes life worth living.

    I think it’s the gift of a loving,generous God.

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