Earlier today I attended a talk by a sexuality researcher who studies love and sexuality among teenagers and young adults who have intellectual disabilities. There were many interesting aspects to her work, but one moment struck me with intensity: that is, that although the parents and staff members who care for these individuals worry about the physical risks of them being sexual with other people, what worries the teenagers and adults most is the risk of never being in a loving relationship with a partner.
In different ways, we all deal with weighing these risks. It is an enormous risk to make oneself vulnerable to another person. You may have faced these risks of hurt or rejection when you asked someone to have lunch or dinner with you, dressed up for a date (possibly giving away how excited you are about the person), said "I love you" for the first time to someone, or made the first move with a kiss or a touch. Anyone who has had sex, particularly unprotected sex, has perhaps weighed risks of infection, pregnancy or physical harm.
Or maybe you shied away from these risks, feeling uncomfortable or not yet ready to make yourself vulnerable to a certain person in that way. Maybe you stayed "safe" by acting like a friend, not reaching out, or sitting home at your computer rather than getting out and meeting others.
Part of navigating relationships in a healthy way is, of course, making sense of who you feel comfortable making yourself vulnerable to. There are some people who, when you share something very personal with them, may make fun of you or make you feel stupid (intentionally or not). Those people, of course, are perhaps not the healthiest people to take risks or chances with. However, it can be a wonderful affirming experience when you put yourself out there - vulnerabilities and all - and the person you are with makes you feel okay, good or joyful about it. When you go to kiss them and they kiss you back. Or when you ask them out and they say yes - or even if they say no, but do so in a way that feels all right.
The image I chose for this blog post is from an iconic moment in the 1989 movie Say Anything, which many of you may recognize. There are quite a few moments in the movie when the characters Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court (played by John Cusack and Ione Skye) took risks in the direction of love or romance. Lloyd took a risk by asking one of the most revered girls in school on a date. She took a risk by going out with a practical stranger. They took risks by expressing love. And then, of course, there were times when they hid from each other's phone calls and avoided those risks. One of many women's favorite scenes in the movie is the one depicted above, when he takes the risk of looking like a desperately in-love stalker-ish guy who stands outside and holds up a boom box blasting the song that played when they first made love.
We have no way to calculate risk versus reward in precise ways, though we know from research that many romantic and sexual relationships reflect these subconscious and sometimes conscious calculations that we all make. So we do our best. My suggestion to you - in trying to give you information about how to live a more pleasurable or satisfying sexual or romantic life - is to consider ways that you might go out on a limb in an expression of love, desire or friendship. If you're feeling lonely even though you are in a relationship, living separate lives under one roof, how might you suggest to your partner that you'd like to spend more time together? How you can feel safe reaching for a kiss or a hand or the chance to sleep in the same bed, or to be sexual in a way that feels safe enough or pleasurable enough to give it a try?
One of my favorite quotes by writer Anais Nin has long been the following: "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
When it's your day to blossom and reach out, I trust that you will know it.
Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is a research scientist at Indiana University, a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, and the author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction. Her personal blog can be found at MySexProfessor.com