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):
- These are the things I love about our marriage…. These are the things that I think we are good at….
- At the same time (not however or but), I feel like we would both agree that we’ve been struggling in this area…
- 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…
- Please let me know your thoughts on the matter…..
- I believe in us…..
- 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:
- is there any past sexual trauma for either partner?
- what are your sexual histories? have you been honest with each other about your sexual histories?
- 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?
- how has your religion framed your sexual mindset? how do each of you see the purpose of sex?
- is there any past or current sexual behavior that would cause shame or secrecy (i.e. pornography use, affairs, ruminating thoughts, etc.)?
- what’s the level of self-esteem work that needs to be done for both?
- are there any eating disorders involved?
- 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?