Sex Esteem

How to confidently navigate relationship boundaries

Renegotiating Sexual Contracts in Monogamous Relationships

How to talk with your partner about the sex you really want now

In the new upcoming play “The Goddess” produced by The Looking Glass Theater, the playwrights explore the non-monogamous relationship of a married couple and how they navigate the rules, issues, and boundary crossings that ensue along the way.

I have been asked to lead several talk backs after the performances on October 17th @ 7:30 pm, October 27th @ 3 PM and October 31st Halloween evening performance. To receive a discount on the tickets, use the code Cooper when you buy your tickets. Please come and bring your friends to learn how one couple redesigned their marriage and discuss the issues and questions you have about the alternative choices they made.

This month I want to discuss how partners can talk to one another about what their true sexual desires are when it breaks the code promoted in the popular culture of true love? In our popular American movies, novels, magazines, and television shows, the individuals who are in love are portrayed declaring to one another: “You are the most beautiful and most important person in the world to me.” And while there may be chemistry and sexual connection early on in a relationship, the chemicals that are pulsing through one’s body during the first 18 months to 2 years of a relationship begin to decrease as the relationship enters the phase of building a life together. So the question is: What happens to the erotic and sexual desires that may either not have been discussed, experimented with, or developed over the next years of the relationship?

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Showtime’s new series Masters of Sex is about the world renowned sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, in the first episode Virginia Johnson states: “Women often think that sex and love are the same thing, but they don’t have to be, they don’t even have to go together.” And while this was a revolutionary idea during this period of the late 1950s in the white middle class culture of the time, there are still many who share these beliefs in our country today. So much so that the discussion of one’s erotic tastes and interests may never come up when a heterosexual couple date and decide to marry. After the initial stage of limerance (that period of the first 2 years) has quieted down, the influx of obsessive thoughts, anxiety over the loss of that special person, higher desire for that person gradually fades to the background. In other words, the feeling of being “head over heels in love”.

What then comes to the foreground is the thought that we know everything there is to know about our partner. Included in this perceived knowledge is the sensitivities, old wounds, and non-verbalized boundaries around what can or cannot be expressed. So if one person has always wanted to try anal sex, or handcuffs or include a third person in the sexual relationship, he or she usually feels like the opening for that conversation is no longer available to them.

How can one say to one’s life partner that while you love them deeply you still want to explore sexuality with others? That is a hard conversation to have especially if you’ve agreed to a monogamous relationship way back when. The partner might feel devastated personally, feeling they are no longer attractive to their partner, they are no longer cherished as a special one. In our mainstream culture we are led to believe that to be in love with someone, one has to forsake all others and that you would want to forsake all others. This is inherent in most marriage vows. While there might be the understanding that your partner will be attracted to other people, the choice one makes each time one doesn’t pursue that attraction into action is a show of love, respect, and fidelity. I agree that this is the way one remains faithful to one’s spouse and it is a choice one practices each and every day.

Although I believe commitment to monogamy should be a daily practice I don’t see it as a gag order not to discuss what sexual innovations or improvements partners want out of their relationship. Why? Because we are human beings who change each day, grow as we go through different experiences and hopefully understand ourselves and the world better as we learn and grow through those experiences. While that may mean that each day you each choose to remain sexually monogamous, or have a similar sexual routine, or have sex the same day(s) of the week, it may also mean that you have to discuss these choices a few times a year or once a year to see if it still holds true for your partner. These are not easy conversations to have because partners’ don’t want to feel rejected or hurt nor do they want to tell their partner they aren’t satisfied sexually.

As a sex therapist I coach couples on a daily basis who are bravely forging ahead to carve out new understandings around their individual and joint sexuality with their partners.

I recently went to a celebration honoring Erica Jong, and the 40th anniversary of her bestselling book Fear of Flying, a book that broke barriers in 1973 because it unveiled the raw, uncensored sexual thoughts, desires, and actions of a white, educated, married woman. It became a sensation because before this time white, educated women were seen to have little desire or education around their own sexuality and were viewed as objects for men to lust after not as adventurers who wanted to pursue what they found erotic or sexy. Erica Jong created a novel whose ideas appealed to the masses in the same way Masters and Johnson’s research had done for the field of science and therapy. The prevailing term “zipless fuck” represented the sexual encounter about which the main character Isabel Wing continually fantasizes. The “zipless fuck” is an encounter with a sexual partner that is solely focused on lust and chemistry. One will know very little details about the partner because the focus will be about the sexual connection. Similar to the modern hook-up, the “zipless fuck” was a novelty when it was introduced and continues to be a lightning rod for writers exploring what women want sexually in a post-feminist society.

So are these just fantasies that coupled individuals have in their imaginations but when faced with the opportunity to try the act doesn’t live up to expectations, similar to what occurs in Fear of Flying? Or can a couple negotiate new boundaries around sex and love that include other people in their bedroom or outside of the home with a don’t ask/don’t tell policy? What if one of the partners falls in love with an outside partner while just playing? Can people be so disciplined that they don’t develop feelings for another person which might threaten the stability of a marriage, a home with children, or a partnered couple? What about bringing other lovers that become part of the loving family as some people do with Polyamory? In another Showtime series Polyamory: Married & Dating, we see different couples and groups navigate the complex feelings and boundaries that need to be discussed if one is going to bring other lovers into established relationships.

Most people do not have the confidence and communication skills to express their changed desires effectively to their partners. Some of the clients I work with instead stepped out on their fidelity agreement hoping that they could have their needs satisfied outside the home without upsetting their own and their partnership’s applecart of complex feelings by renegotiating their contract. We have certainly seen many examples of infidelity over the years with politicians, celebrities and actors that wreak havoc on their partners, children, constituents, and business partners.

After working with couples and individuals for over 20 years at various points in their relationships (dating, pre-marital, trying to get pregnant, with small children, and retirement) my belief is that no one in a love relationship gets away with hiding their fantasies, thoughts, desires, and unrest forever. At some point the truths are revealed and I encourage people to share them in a safe, respectful way so that wives, husbands, partners, and children are not faced with the heartbreaking debris upon discovering a betrayal. This choosing and contracting is not for the faint of heart, it requires courage and love to stay in the conversation. I also don’t believe that open relationships or polyamory relationships are the right way to go by any means. What I want to emphasize is the importance of keeping the practice of discussing one’s desires a regular event. That the conscious choosing of the boundaries is a regular practice that occurs without malice, criticism, or disdain but one that may be painful but also incredibly healing.

Hope you can make it to see “The Goddess” produced by The Looking Glass Theater on the days of my talkback to continue the conversation.

Sari Cooper, L.C.S.W., is a licensed couples and sex therapist and writer in New York City.

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