In the second of two blogs reporting on Ellyn Bader’s recent therapist workshop on Confrontation, Paula offers an in-depth and advanced exploration of a very common issue for couples:
In the workshop Ellyn showed us how to skilfully challenge subtle (and not so subtle) patterns of symbiotic regression which prevent couples from continuing relational development. She notes that typically this pattern is entrenched and unclear to the client, so the process is likely to take time and involve a number of challenges in the journey forward.
This can be especially true when there are problems surfacing in the area of sexual connection. An area that crops up regularly in my work as a couple and sex therapist is the lack of responsibility taken with nurturing the sexual connection. I hear one partner (and this is not always gender stereotypical) complaining that they are dissatisfied with the frequency and/or quality of “sex” in the relationship. Sometimes this includes complaints that they are “always the one to initiate sex”. This complainant often also reports that they are the one who has the higher desire (HDP) whilst their lower desire partner(LDP) “controls” what happens (or does not happen!).
In considering Ellyn’s presentation in which she details confrontation options, we can look to a variety of “graduated” choices to confront either partner who wishes to maintain the status quo. This status quo reflects a dominance to wanting their way (self-defined but symbiotic in that they behaviour signals the lack of consideration for their partner’s sexual differences). Hence regressed and disconnected honestly from the sexual relationship.
Using Confrontation Skills, steps you could use include:
- Firstly, working out clearly what the hypocrisy is – e.g. how each partner says they want to have an improved sexual connection but do not factor in their partner’s reality (be that of the protester or that of the lower desire partner)
- Then, gently describe what you see – “I can hear you want to improve both the frequency and quality of your shared sexuality but you seem to disengage when your partner talks about their struggle (or you seem to change the subject when your partner brings up what is bothering them) are you aware of that pattern?”
- Repeat the confrontation in a way that avoids pitting you against them – “a part of you really wants your sex life to improve, while another part of you seems stuck and unable to see how/what you could change to improve things”
OR to pace the confrontation process to prevent regression, other choices include:
- Develop an understanding of each partner’s historical sexual pattern by closer direct discussion of that partner’s learning history. Perhaps they are seeing “sex” in a limited closed down way, rather than being open to consider the many layers of possible connection and therefore opportunity to increase both frequency and quality.
- Explore openly how their pattern is now playing out in the current relationship. How much of this is old vs current relationship history?
- Expose their fears more directly – if they did take more responsibility, how hard do they think it would be to do this, to learn to come forward sexually( LDP), or to manage high desire sexual feelings differently (HDP).
- Support clearer differentiation of self – what could sexual connection look like for them and what do they think that their actually partner wants and if so, how do they really react/feel about this, what is that about for them.
- Hold the tension by exploring the ongoing implications of maintaining the (regressed) status quo – highlight the feelings experienced when the high desire partner complains, (or the low desire partner refuses) and explore this in earlier relationship learning.
- Confront the unspoken hope – what does the regressed partner want you as the therapist to do in this situation e.g. change their partner, make them relent to their wishes, tell them there is something wrong with the way they are sexually.
A challenge for me when working with such situations in the past has been to be overly mindful of the issue of sexual consent – which can accidentally facilitate colluding with the low desire partner. Deepening understanding (using the I2I) of why the regressed partner holds that position, what they aspire to be as a sexually connected partner, what has to change in order for them to move out of that position and what is required by them to bring about these changes have been helpful in managing the issue of consent which is directly confronted rather than been seen as an acceptable boundary. This paves the way for collaborative team effort to co-construct their sexual relationship vs remaining in a painful/angry standoff.
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