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How an Argument About Body Hair Helped a Marriage

How therapy sessions changed the focus from the content to the process.

Key points

  • Therapy involves both content (the what) and process (the how).
  • When couples are stuck, it can be a result of not addressing process issues.
  • Healing almost always occurs when process issues are attended to.

In that day’s sex therapy session, the topic was body hair. But the process was about something else entirely. As we like to say in therapy, it is and isn’t about the content—and with this couple, the content was the heated topic of body hair.

Let me first explain some things. Therapy is about both content and process. Content is the what you talk about while process is how you talk about it. Any good therapist understands that powerful and effective therapy involves toggling between content and process, but ultimately, healing occurs on the process level.

For the couple in my office that day, the content was body hair—interestingly, both his and hers. She felt strongly about maintaining her body hair in a certain way. She said things like, “My body, my choice,” and talked passionately and critically about gender-biased ideas of beauty and femininity. It was important to her that she reject those things and believed that how she maintained her body hair was a personal and political decision that reflected her values. He had his own thoughts and feelings about how she maintained her body hair, which were difficult for her to tolerate hearing.

His body hair was also an issue. He wanted her to find him attractive, so he wanted to know how he could maintain his body hair in a way that she found pleasing. That was important to him. She had her own thoughts and feelings about this value of his and when she expressed them he felt dismissed.

He said he understood how maintaining her body hair was, indeed, her body, her choice, and supported her personal and political decisions completely. He liked her strength. However, he was hurt that she did not take into consideration what he liked about her body hair.

The crux of their issue was that she did not understand why he would not just accept how she maintained her body hair and drop it and that he did not understand why she was hesitant to tell him how she liked him to maintain his. This couple said they had been going around and around on this topic for literally years, and I believed them. Perhaps you can see the circularness of it just by my description. They were getting bogged down in content and could not find a way out or through.

So, instead of continuing to talk about body hair (meaning staying at the content level), I decided to shift the discussion to something deeper and intangible. Enter process. Upon reflection, I realized that when it came to her and the topic of body hair, she was framing the discussion to be about power. And when it came to him and body hair, he was making it about influence. Two different concepts, both of which required a nuanced perspective.

She perceived him expressing his opinions about her body hair through the lens she was relating to her own body hair—as an expression of his power over her—and she rejected that strongly. He was confused why she had such a defiant reaction and held so tightly to her preferences about her body hair.

Meanwhile, he was relating to the topic of body hair as an expression of influence. He wanted to know he had influence with her about her body hair even if she still decided to keep it exactly as it was. He also genuinely wanted to know how she liked him to keep his body hair because he was open to her influence. Yet she was hesitant to give her opinions about his body hair because she thought it was his body, his choice, that he was handing over his power to her, and she felt protective of him and feared negative consequences if he did.

We named this dynamic as one of power vs. influence and the conversation, and the feeling in the room, shifted almost immediately, with more softness and less friction between them. This happens in therapy when we accurately name the dynamics going on at the process level.

We were also able to identify that they were projecting their own motives onto their partner. She assumed he was seeking power over her. He was seeking to have influence with her because he allowed her to have influence with him. They each had a different motive (power vs. influence) and different values (my body, my choice vs. being pleasing to their partner).

Thankfully, for this couple, once we named those differences they were not a threat. They got curious and asked each other questions to help them better understand where the other was coming from and the reason(s) behind their values and requests. They could accept their differences with kindness and understanding. It was a powerful conversation for us all.

How did it resolve? She did not change how she maintained her body hair. But she did acknowledge his preferences about her body hair, understanding that he wanted to know he had influence with her —which he did—and as a result, he got what he wanted: he felt heard and considered. When he asked for her opinion about his body hair, she finally gave it, albeit tentatively, because she understood he was asking for influence, not handing over his power.

At the next session, I noticed he changed his body hair. She said that while it was his decision to change it, she really liked how confident this change made him. He smiled.

So, it is and it isn’t about the content. The content was body hair yet it was also about power vs. influence, projection, and understanding and accepting differences. They each learned about themselves as individuals and they learned more about how they are as a couple…all while discussing body hair. A process change occurred between them and they were finally able to put this issue to rest.

More from Diane Gleim LMFT, CST, CST-S
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