Unconventional Wisdom: Full Sexual Disclosure and More

Image: Hara Estroff Marano
HARA ESTROFF MARANO askhara@psychologytoday.com
Hara Estroff Marano
An Imperfect Body

I am 40 years old, childless, and newly divorced after a 15-year marriage. I underwent several significant surgeries to avert colon cancer. I look normal, but surgery has altered my body, although a future partner would never know this until we become intimate. I am not yet dating, but wonder whether I risk rejection and outrage (for presenting a misleading physical package) unless I disclose my impairment the moment I know I want to pursue a relationship. Men are physical creatures, and I hope to catch one of substance who will accept my body, although I am not optimistic. When should I disclose the physical impairment?

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There is no way to know for sure where a relationship is going until it gets there. For that reason, and many others, including good old-fashioned discretion, there is no need to blurt out every bit of personal information to strangers, no matter how much the subject, and fear of rejection, is on your mind. Nor is there a fixed timetable for disclosure. It depends not solely on you but on the nature of the guy, the situation, and where you are in the course of a relationship. Definitely tell him before the moment of truth; surprises can be painful—to you as well as to a potential partner—and can produce an outcome that might be avoided by more timely and thoughtful disclosure. Not all potential partners are created equal. They have differing levels of tolerance for anomalous situations and differing thresholds for disgust. Before you say anything, you need to know whether you are dealing with a person who can handle anomalous experience that holds the possibility for revulsion. That takes observing the nature of the person you expect to be involved with. Some people are terrified that stepping out of the Officially Socially Sanctioned Picture for anything in their life implies something negative about themselves; they feel contaminated by the experience. They might lash out at you for making them feel threatened or less than perfect. And some people have a level of discomfort with physical realities that precludes such life necessities as changing an especially soiled diaper or mopping up their own kid's vomit. You must be prepared for reality, too. Disgust might be one possible reaction. But disgust is an emotion, and like all emotions it can be controlled. When a relationship seems headed toward intimacy, go especially slow. A partner should have as much freedom to continue or not at each step of the way. When you do bring up the subject, it is important how you speak. Matter-of-fact tones are best. Your attitude is a big signal cueing others how to react. Be prepared to tell your story succinctly but with context. You don't need to provide a detailed medical history at this point. You had operations that saved your life. The threat is gone, but there are consequences of the surgery. Just the facts. Rehearse your presentation. When you avoid putting a boyfriend on the spot, he can then process the information in his own best time. There is always the possibility that he will choose not to continue the relationship. But if he is able to titrate his own comfort level, he is most likely to give weight to all his feelings, positive as well as negative. Do consider his perspective. It may be awkward for someone to immediately broach all the questions that come to mind, yet those questions will need to be addressed so they don't hijack attention. And be sure to allay concerns about your future health.

Comfort vs. Character

I am a 31-year-old female who came to the U.S. to study eight years ago and decided to stay. I soon met the man I thought I would marry—a fellow countryman who made me feel at home. His friends were not my type; I thought he was not good at assessing people. I thought I could change that. We made plans to marry, bought a condo, and started a business together. I worked hard. He spent more time socializing. I was shocked when, after a year, he was arrested for having cheated people financially. He begged me not to leave; I helped pay for lawyers and visited him in jail. Eventually I broke off the relationship, got a new job, and kept studying. He was subsequently released, got married, and is expecting a baby. I met a wonderful man who saw me through what proved a very emotional time, and we are now enjoying a normal relationship. But my heart isn't in it. He is very wise, but I am more of an adventurer; I like to travel, read, and dance. I'm into healthy eating and exercising; he is not. Our intimate relationship is not very satisfactory either, and we are of different races. I'm desperately looking to be happy and it's not happening. Is it me?

Well, since you ask—yes. Neither your heart nor your head has been a particularly reliable guide to men or happiness in your life, so it's probably wise to call a moratorium on searching for either until you get a better grip on yourself. It's understandable that you would enjoy the company of a countryman; the shared cultural history and ease of communication eliminate so much of the effort of daily life in a foreign country. But when it comes to intimate relationships, where the fate of two people is inextricably linked, comfort is no match for character. Unfortunately, the desire for comfort blinded you to the value of character. The inkling you did have of your ex's nature—his friendship with distasteful people—should have been a giant red flag. Instead, you cast your entire livelihood with him. Oops. Not only did you abdicate responsibility for yourself, you ignored a fact of human nature that transcends borders—you cannot change another person, only yourself. It sure took a succession of bad events—conviction and imprisonment are way up there, along with you working while he played—for you to get the message about your ex's nature. Whew! Now there's another guy, one who "saw you through" a difficult time (notice a pattern here?), with whom there are significant value and lifestyle differences, and you still can't find happiness. Whatever you think happiness is, you're responsible for your own. The fact is, you are the one who got yourself (and Mr. Jailbird!) through difficult times. It's time to stand up and take credit for it and stop looking to offload the responsibility onto someone else, especially when you're doing all the hard work. Do not subordinate the things you value most—exercise, healthy eating, reading, travel—to another person just to be in a relationship. Instead, pursue them. In that pursuit you will not only find meaning and satisfaction but are most likely to meet kindred spirits with whom you can find lasting comfort.

Finessing Feedback

I've been seeing a man I like for several months, but we just seem to be on different sexual tracks. I have yet to have an orgasm (a real one, anyway). How do I tell him what I want in bed without killing the mood or wounding his pride?

Before we get to what, there's the issue of when. It may be best to have the conversation on a very mellow evening before you get to the bedroom. What you say may very well inspire him to put your words into immediate action. Admittedly, it's a difficult conversation to have, because criticism, even of the implied variety, could be a real turnoff. Negative feedback is especially to be avoided; like all negative information, it has an outsize impact on the brain—but still doesn't help him know what to do in making love. The focus, therefore, has to be on what turns you on, not at all on what he's doing that doesn't quite do it for you. It's best to begin with a soft, warm statement of all you like about him, about being with him, and about being intimate with him. And describe, with as much detail as you are comfortable with, what you most like sexually. That may very well arouse him. Which is good, because then you can lead him into the bedroom, where showing is often better than telling—showing in the form of appreciative positive feedback, as in, "I love it when you touch me there." Even better: Vocalize your pleasure in moans and whimpers of joy rather than in words. Instead of negative feedback (such as "No, not there."), consider gently guiding his hands, his head, or his hips. And do ditch the ersatz orgasms; they're worse than negative feedback, they're false feedback. They may very well be misleading your guy, encouraging him to believe that you are perfectly content with the way things are. He may be only too happy to expand his repertoire.

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