Last week, I wrote a post beginning my answer to a common question I receive in my academic or therapeutic role. That question is, “What book would you recommend for couples experiencing (enter any category) issue?” or, “I’m going to buy a good book for (x) couple, what do you recommend?” I decided to break the answer down into the top five “couples issues” areas I hear about most frequently, and first begin by addressing the “core three.” I named these as: parenting, financial struggles, and sex/intimacy. In my first post, I covered book recommendations and some discussion over parenting and finances. Today I’m going to talk about sex and intimacy issues, and then move into topic number four: developing yourselves as individuals within a marriage or relationship.
Sex or Intimacy Issues
To begin, let me just say that couples all seem to have their own strength areas within their relationship. I’ve spent a good amount of time with some couples who excel at sex and/or intimacy together, but have multiple challenges in other areas. However, I’ve seen just the opposite as well. Some couples I know are excellent at parenting as a team, managing their finances as a team, and seem to otherwise (at least from those on the outside) have a strong and capable relationship. But when it comes to intimacy (sharing vulnerabilities and deep-felt support) or sex, some of the seemingly greatest “power couples” run into problems. A lot of problems.
Many of these intimacy and sex related problems have to do with trust, or strong patterns developed from their own families of origin. I’ll cover these problems in the last entry. Some challenges, however, are simply a matter of thinking, learning, growing or communicating, becoming comfortable with each other and asking for (and meeting) needs. And many are simply the result of leading overscheduled lives in a stressful environment.
Okay, first – for general topics just addressing sex in marriage, I like two authors – David Schnarch and Michele Weiner Davis. Schnarch’s book, Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love & Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships, is based upon years and years of research. If you are insight-oriented (a thinker), then this is a good book. If you like a little more straight-forward talk (if you’re a “do-er”), try Weiner Davis’ The Sex-Starved Marriage: A Couple’s Guide to Boosting Their Marriage Libido. Both of those books are good and based upon solid research. However, you might want to peruse the pages online before you buy to see if one author’s style fits you better than the other.
For “talking together about sex” in general and perhaps what role it plays, there was a book published in 2008 written by Charla Muller entitled: 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy. While this book gets mixed reviews, I’ve read through most of it and I think it does one thing well. It intimates the various private interactions and conversations a 20th century couple might have about the topic of sex within a “marriage with children.” The basic premise of the book is that the author decided to give her husband a birthday present of sex every night for one year. He challenged her to really think about the reality of that gift, so she did – but stuck to her decision. Although the book is written by a woman, I think it would probably be a good read for either a male or female. And while I’m not recommending this book as a solution for any troubles in the bedroom, I am recommending it as a tool for discussion. Sometimes seeing what people go through is enough in our own lives to normalize what we perceive as unique and “only us” challenges.
Finally, in terms of specific problems with sex or intimacy, the book topic choices may have to get more categorized, or you might need to consult a professional. For example, there are individuals who have never experienced an orgasm yet have been married for years. There are individuals who have specific reservations about sexual interactions of one type or another with their partner. This might need to be worked out with the two of you and a professional. And finally, there are some professionals who are more equipped than others to deal with these issues. For example, many couples start a medical journey that could have been more easily solved in a behavioral health way. Or, vice versa. You’ll know you’re with the right professional when they are taking all your psycho-social-medical information down – not just one aspect. When in doubt, you might begin with a licensed marriage and family therapist (I suggest someone who is a member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy), or someone who is registered with the American Association of Sex Educators and Counselors.
Developing Yourselves as Individuals Within a Marriage or Committed Relationship
Okay, let’s move on to YOU. If I were to put my finger on the ONE THING that seems to trip up almost all couples, leading them into conflict and communication problems over and over, it is the “development of self” for the individuals making up the relationship. True story. Some people are unhappy but can only point to the other person for the source of their unhappiness. If two incomplete individuals connect and don’t work on themselves, I can promise you they’ll never be happy – even if their partner tries harder and harder to change in order to please them. Mostly, and almost always, it’s up to you. You have to be healthy, or open about getting that way, before you move on to working together with a partner…to then become more of a team. The funny thing is, though, that sometimes by the time one individual realizes more of their own potential, the problems with their partner seem to have disappeared. Couples interactions are sort of “magic” like that!
Now, in terms of self help, development, attaining your own goals (or goals with your partner)…I could probably recommend fifty or even one-hundred and fifty books. So, I’m going to break a short list down by telling you a topic, then the book. Hopefully this list will hit the “highlights” of many self-growth issues:
1) Being happy with life and making sure you are getting out of it what you need: The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch. Read it by yourself. Read it with your partner. Think, learn, dream…and grow.
2) Being happy with life, thinking about possibilities, AND getting perspectives from both a male AND a female within a relationship: The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, by Rosanumd Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.
3) This next one might seem a little offbeat, but sometimes we all just need a paradigm shift and need to learn to appreciate who we are and what we have. If this is you, I recommend reading: all our kin, by Carol Stack. This book is really a culture study and focuses on the resiliency of humankind. And, I know it’s about a black community, but you can gain something from it regardless of your skin color.
4) For men, (and obviously for women too since I’m just enamored with this book) I recommend John Wooden on Leadership. Wooden has an easy-to-read, clear and assertive style that helps the reader grow a backbone. If you need personal inspiration or to grow The Leader in you, read this book.
5) And for women (and obviously for men, because she talks to men in the book), I recommend The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner. Don’t let the name of the book throw you off…this doesn’t mean you’re “angry.” Rather, the book talks about how to be a whole person. Lerner also has two complimentary books, equally good, entitled The Dance of Connection and The Dance of Intimacy. Choose your term – it doesn’t matter. They’re all good and worth your time reading.
Well, that about wraps it up for these topics. I only have one topic left to discuss: Becoming really good at communication, conflict resolution, and understanding how to work together when things get rough. This is such a big area that it will be my entire “Part 3” post. Then you’ll have my list and you can make the recommendations…deal?
Have a good one, Kelly