Monica: Now, I definitely moved into marriage basically having little to no clue about intimacy, both the mechanics and the meaning. What I do know now, almost thirteen years in, is that intimacy is a vital part of strong relationships and that it takes ongoing work and communication. It takes persistence, which is why we are taking this topic on during our month’s theme: persevere. I know that many of my listeners can relate to this learning that I have had, and with that, also relate to having periods of time where intimacy is not something that is enjoyable, or even worse, something that you hate.
Whether this is a season in your relationship that you are experiencing now or a longstanding reaction to sex, I know that the best person to take on how to persist in this important relationship is Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. Jennifer is a marriage and sex psychotherapist and coach, and she has seen it all. While this podcast is never designed to be exclusive, to go more in depth we framed our discussion around sex within marriage. Today, she will truly give you a hug and kick in the pants about how to shift from victim to hero with your own relationship to intimacy, and how with time and persistence, it can become a valued part of your married life.
Jennifer: So, I’m Jennifer Finlayson-Fife, and I am a coach and educator and licensed therapist, and I do a lot of work around helping couples – and specifically LDS couples – have stronger, happier emotional and sexual relationships. I do a lot of online teaching and workshops to help people to reframe their understanding of sexuality, intimacy and emotional intimacy and create stronger relationships.
Monica: I would say that’s exactly what you do, as someone who has benefited personally from that. And for so many in my community, you are by far the most listened to guest and the most requested. It’s been a while, and people are asking where you are [laughter], so I thought it was time to get you back on here.
We’re going to talk about something that comes up a lot, especially for women, and it’s not something we’ve ever talked about; it’s how people feel towards sex. We’re going to probably talk more specifically to women in this actual episode.
I feel like it can kind of be two camps when it comes to feelings toward sex: either people love it and it’s a really important, cherished part of their lives, or they hate it, and along with that, there are a lot of strong feelings. And you know that this month, we’re covering perseverance, and I thought that this could be another lens to that perseverance – this other piece of our lives that is easy to just keep hating, or neglecting, or shoving under a bed (maybe literally, I don’t know) and I wanted to know what you wanted to say about it.
So, first, how often does this kind of disgust or anger or hatred towards sex come up with your clients?
Jennifer: Well, you’re talking about it in terms of two different camps, and I know what you mean. There probably are a lot of people who are sort of in between those two experiences, but there certainly is a group of people that do have a lot of disgust or strong negative feelings toward sex, and they don’t fully know why they do. There are other people who tend to really enjoy it, or like it, or even be the higher desire person in their marriage, and can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t like it. I’m sure for people that have more of the disgust response - or deep dislike of sex - that can be confusing, and maybe even make them feel broken in some way.
But because sex is such a – especially for women, I think – a very core part of ourselves, it can also be easy to have a strong negative response if things are off around your relationship to your sexuality or your partner.
Monica: And that’s easy to overlook? And to not want look at it? Is that why it’s just easier to not want to-?
Jennifer: Exactly, so when someone’s having a strong dislike or a strong negative response, I think usually – well, I shouldn’t say usually, but often – people will handle it by just muscling through, stomaching it because they’re trying to be a good partner, or finding a way to shut the sexuality down in the marriage. But sometimes, because there’s such a strong reaction to it, it gets harder to kind of settle enough to really look at why, to ask “What is the strong negative response, and what’s happening that I dislike this so much?”
Because the persevering, if it’s just sort of white-knuckling or muscling through, I’m not sure that it necessarily is very helpful. It depends on what the meaning is that you’re bringing to the perseverance and what you’re sorting through to have a different relationship to your sexuality.
Monica: Hmm, it all comes down to that - that’s so much of what your work is about. I attended your workshop years ago on the art of womanly desire. I thought I was just going to learn about sex, but what I learned was myself, my relationship to myself, and how that greatly impacted my relationship to sex, and I’m hearing you say that now.
What kind of mistakes are people making who find themselves indulging in this “I hate sex” mentality?
Jennifer: Someone whose work I follow consistently is Dr. David Snarch, and one of the things that he talks about - that is really a foundational idea in response to your question - is that it matters more to us to belong to our sense of self than it matters to us to have sex. So as much as sex can be a source of pleasure, more important to us is belonging to our sense of self. And for women in particular, we are often socialized in a way that we are taught that sex is something we do for a husband.
Jennifer: Sex is something we provide; your body, your sexuality, your virtue, is something that you give as a gift to your marriage partner. Therefore, you give that gift, and then they’ll support you financially and emotionally. It’s a transactional model, even though we don’t usually want to put that kind of explicit language to it. That is the idea that many of us grow up with.
If you don’t think your sexuality belongs to you, or your body belongs to you in a really fundamental way, then having sex is like the price you pay, but not a function of sharing yourself or belonging to yourself and being with a spouse. It’s a way of servicing, and a lot of women also grow up with the idea that men have sexual needs, and if they don’t get fulfilled, the men will go off and look at porn, or worse. Therefore, you kind of have to put out to keep him faithful.
Those are the kinds of meaning frames that are going to make you hate it, because you have to betray yourself.
Monica: You don’t in the beginning.
Jennifer: Exactly, even if you can stomach it at first, over time, if that meaning frame stays in place, you will like it less and less because you have a sense of self-subjugation that is connected to having sex. Any time that you’re going to subjugate yourself to be sexual, you’re going to dislike it.
So then the way to belong to yourself is to disown sex, to distance yourself from sexuality. Also, if you don’t feel connected to a sense of yourself, your own body, and your sexuality that you’re sharing with your spouse, but instead you’re servicing, you’re going to have a strong disgust response. Meaning, it’s kind of adaptive; the meaning is highly impacting how the body responds, it impacts how things feel, it impacts how aroused you get. The body knows, right, and the body knows the meaning that your mind is operating in, and so if you’re in a sense of obligation and “I have to” and “I resent” and “I don’t want to”, it’s going to be not only undesirable, but it will feel aversive. It can even be painful, because your body’s not lubricating and doing the things it would do if you were in more of a free-flowing desire.
Then it can become a cycle – “that was painful, that was the worst experience I’ve had; my spouse seems happy, what’s going on for him that he’s somehow okay with me being in this very negative experience?” It can create and entrench a meaning that can be really hard to break out of, because you almost can’t see how you’re in it and why you’re in it. It’s the world you know; it’s the water you have been taught to swim in.
There is this piece that you’re talking about, Monica, which is the indulgent – I say it a little bit cautiously, because a lot of times we’re in meanings, and we really cannot see them, and we don’t even know that we’re keeping them alive through our choices - but there can be a kind of indulgence where sometimes people can claim a moral high ground that sex is disgusting. “You’re the hedonistic one that wants it; I am so good because I put up with it and I service you.” But it’s a way of claiming a kind of righteousness or superiority; you’re doing something unkind and indecent in the marriage and not really dealing with your participation in a meaning that is hard on and bad for both of you.
Monica: One bit of positive news I see in this, actually, aligns with what you talk a lot about – having integrity to ourselves. For those who are listening, and they have those feelings towards sex – maybe the anger, the dislike, the disgust, even – I can see this also as a pathway to having more integrity, if you’re willing to look at, “what is this trying to tell me? Am I participating in a framing that is harming us both? What can I do on my side to fix that?”
Jennifer: Yes, because a lot of the time we come to these things saying “I’m broken.” I can’t tell you how many clients have said that to me. And really – and again, this is another idea that I’ve read in one of Snarch’s books – nothing’s going wrong. That is to say, given the meaning you’re operating in, or what’s happening in your marriage, the response you’re having fits perfectly. That is to say, it’s an exposure of something else and so if we just pathologize it and feel terrible, or resent our spouse, or whatever it is, it just locks the meaning in place and puts it underground, so we can’t get at it. But what any good therapy or good coaching does is to help you go in and say, “well, why do you hate it? Let’s start with that: what’s going on within you, within your relationship, within your relationship to your body, within your relationship to pleasure.” Those are all potent avenues for uncovering operating beliefs that would make the response you’re having make perfect sense.
Because then, you’re more able to get in there and think about, “Okay, what is going on and is there another possibility for me here, in how I relate to this question? Or to my own self? Or to my own body?”
Some people – I’ll start with this version – some people actually like sex, but they don’t like sex with their spouse. That is to say, they maybe know about their own capacity for pleasure, they may actually want to have good sex, but somehow the dynamic between them is making that not work, and that can be because they have a really entitled spouse. It could be they have a spouse that’s too apologetic for his sexuality: too careful, too uncertain, and insecure. That can make them feel like they have to carry the sexuality, and they can barely carry their own, much less his, which makes it burdensome and not fun. It could be that there’s a lot of resentments, or anger that’s going on in the marriage, and it’s infecting. There’s plenty of research on this idea that women tend to be pickier about the sex they’re having, and there are a lot of biological reasons why you would want to be picky as a woman about who you reproduce with, and who you open your body up to.
Women like sex, and they have a lot of sexual capacity, but the canary in the coal mine is often sexual desire. A lot of the time, if there are things going on in the marriage that are making them frustrated or unhappy, sexual desire can often take the hit. A lot of the time, the desire is getting suppressed by issues that are happening either in the sexual dynamic or in the marriage that need to be addressed.
The issue is not, “oh, you should just want it,” the issue is, “if I’m a woman who is really standing up for a good marriage and a good sexual relationship, what do I need to address and deal with directly so that we can keep having good sex, or so that we can begin to have good sex?”
There are those meanings, and in a lot of my courses I’m helping people uncover what’s happening that this isn’t working, and what’s happening in the couple that desire is low, or that there’s a big discrepancy in desire.
There might be an issue in the relationship and/or there can be an issue in one’s relationship to one’s own body, to one’s own sexuality, to one’s own pleasure. Especially – I’m speaking mostly to women right now, but this can certainly happen for men – if you grow up in a family where there’s a lot of ambivalence or anxiety about pleasure, the body, or sexuality, it can be very hard to be open to and comfortable with your own pleasure, your own eroticism, your sexuality, your embodiment, your sensual nature, which we all have.
We are, from birth, sensual creatures, but a lot of us feel like that’s a design flaw - like something’s wrong, as opposed to that being what it is to be human. How much can we really embrace that core sensuality, and how much do we shame it and try to get away from it?
In a lot of Christian interpretations, there’s this fear that sexuality is Satan’s pathway; it’s going to bring us down into debauchery and a kind of indulgence, rather than an understanding that sensuality’s just a part of the human experience, and it’s a way of communicating – potentially – love and desire. You think about a baby: the first language is the language of the body and of sensuality. That’s how you communicate love and affection and care.
A lot of us are afraid of it after we get out of that sort of early toddlerhood, that now we need to be covered up, distanced from, and managing those feelings. And while of course we must grow into a more adult relationship to our sexuality, have some impulse control, all of that – of course, we can’t be running around taking our clothes off like we do when we’re one – sometimes we go overboard and suppress the language of the body and the sensuality of the body. But then we really limit our ability to be in a peaceful relationship with ourselves.
Monica: It sounds like this is a super simple problem to fix, just really easy. And not to joke (if people can’t hear my sarcasm there) this is clearly a very multi-dimensional problem to be having and to go about fixing it.
Let’s say there’s someone who’s willing to try, and they don’t want to keep up the status quo anymore, and they also don’t want to align themselves with some of the culture we can have, too, around sex – where women just hate it, accept it, complain about it, joke about it; it’s status quo. Let’s talk to her, she’s ready to start, what can she do about this, where can she start.
Jennifer: Well, I know I sound very self-promoting right now. [laughter] I do think the Art of Desire course is a very valuable structure for helping you start to look at the meanings that you have inherited that have impacted how you’re in relationship to your own body, to your own desires, to your own sense of self, because as I talked about, this needing to belong to ourselves is more important than our sexuality. This is about repairing one’s relationship to oneself, and how one brings oneself into one’s relationship, because they’re very linked.
Let me see if I can name some of that, independent of the course. I think if it were in me, and I were just trying to unpack it, I would start with “Why do I hate it? What is it that I hate about it? What are some of the meanings that are operating in me, rightly or wrongly? Whether or not it’s the best meaning, or the only meaning, what is the meaning I give to being sexual? What’s the meaning I give to when my spouse reaches out and touches me? What’s the meaning that is going on in my mind? Oh, I have to do this. Oh great, he’s giving me a signal, now I have to sacrifice the next half hour of my sleep.”
Getting those things on paper can help for just starting to look at “I have this very much in an obligation to him,” frame, for example. Or another meaning might be “I don’t feel that this person loves me, so I may like sex, and I may be comfortable with my sexuality, but I don’t feel that this person loves and respects me, and we’ve kind of shaped it into how sex serves him.”
Start with what’s happening and what are the meanings, because if you can just begin to get some of that down, you can start looking at what is sometimes operating implicitly. Because the more explicit it is, the more you can really think about, “I don’t want to be in this sexual relationship that’s about accommodating a husband.”
In the course I try to make all of this much more explicit so people can kind of think more about, “yeah, I’ve been creating a relationship that revolves around my husband and then resenting him for it, but I’ve been participating in it more than I realize.” Because once you can see your own participation in a meaning – which we do unwittingly, because we borrow meanings and then we replicate them without even knowing – then you start being able to make different decisions and create different meanings through your choices that then your body has a different response to.
Monica: That seems both hope-giving but also still abstract, because it’s going to be so individualized. I know this is something you do in your courses and the coaching as well, of helping them rewire this meaning.
So, while we can’t really get into that as much, because we probably need another hour-
Jennifer: Or five! [laughter]
Monica: Or like, years of coaching and counseling. Is this possible? That’s what I think people really want to get from this, “can I go from this being one of the worst things in my life that I hate, that is bringing me down, to being the most wonderful part?”
Jennifer: It’s absolutely possible, which is not saying that it’s easy, you know, four simple steps and whatever. But on the other hand, I have seen people shift in dramatic ways when they start to see something they hadn’t seen before and now are able to say “I’m not going to do that that way anymore.” They relate to it differently and the whole meaning changes.
This is a completely unrelated example, but I think it’s really apt. I grew up in a large family, and we all had to earn our own money for college. I was still in high school, but my brother had started an exterior painting business to earn money, so he was hiring me. I was working for him, and I hated it, because it was all in the frame of “I’m working for my brother, getting paid whatever dollars an hour,” and I wasn’t even trying to be slow, I wasn’t trying to be difficult – I was trying to be a good employee, but I knew I was not a very good employee. I painted slowly, I was constantly looking towards when lunch was going to be, when we were leaving. He was always doing everything, because he was trying to get it all done, and I was always the dead weight in the working relationship.
Then the next year, I decided that now I was in college, I needed to figure out how to make more money to be able to pay for things. I started my own interior painting company, and I hired my younger sister, who was in high school. Guess who was the dead weight? Now it’s my thing, so I’m belonging to myself and my choices, I’m owning my decisions. I’m taking deep responsibility for the success of this painting project, so I’m like, “Jane, let’s go, you know, get focused.” I’m painting more quickly, and more efficiently, and more effectively. I remember being really struck by - when I’m in that other position, where he’s in charge, it’s like I couldn’t even get my mind and body to work faster. When I really took ownership and it was an expression of me, a whole different set of resources came to bear.
If you’re approaching your sexuality like you’re the employee, you’re the one who’s kind of in response to the other, you don’t even know about resources that you have because the meaning frame is precluding you from accessing them. Once you shift meaning frames – and this is so much what my workshops are about, is really helping people see the paradigm they’re operating in, and break it down. It’s uncomfortable, because you feel like you’re losing hold of something that’s been anchoring for you, even if limiting. Then, I help people really step into a different meaning frame, and then all kinds of different possibilities open up in that new meaning frame that they didn’t even know they had. They didn’t know they had these resources, they didn’t know their body could actually respond, because now they’re in a different meaning.
Sometimes that process of letting go of old meanings and stepping into new ones is relatively easy, and sometimes it’s harder, based on whether there is trauma, or how longstanding and entrenched the particular meaning frame has been. I don’t mean to say it’s all the same for everyone, but our minds are made to be adaptive, to evolve, to change, to learn, to grow. We’re wired up to do it. It’s easy to fall into habits - and this is so much of the work that you do, Monica - and it’s easy to fall into habits, easy to fall into these processes that are familiar. It is about shifting habits of thinking and habits of being, but it’s that persistence, that perseverance – once you know what’s the right muscle to be working, you can keep working it, and then you get stronger and stronger.
Monica: I feel like many of the women listening are just hoping it can be that dramatic, overnight, like once they shift in meaning things just become clear. It’s wonderful that that can happen. For those who are on the perseverance track, for whom it might take longer, I was wondering if you can indulge us in another example, someone you’ve worked with – of course we’re not using their names.
Jennifer: There can be people that are extremely reactive to their own sexuality. I’m trying to remember where it started with this person. She got married, she married a really good guy, but she couldn’t achieve sexual intercourse, because her body was in so much reaction. Sexuality had been shamed for so long in her family of origin. There hadn’t been overt abuse, but there was a lot of psychological pressure to disown sexuality.
She loved her husband, she wanted a good relationship, but she was in so much reactivity. She started by trying to just look at her own genitalia, which was extremely hard for her to do at first. She did it little by little, progressively got more able. There’s anxiety and avoidance, and when we get anxious about things, there’s a lot of pressure on the mind to step away from the thing that creates the anxiety, but if we do that, our world becomes smaller, even if immediately less anxious.
The path of development is stepping in a productive way towards the things that make us anxious until our mind can habituate to the fact that everything’s okay, we’re going to be alright.
This particular client just kept exposing herself to her own sexuality, breathing through it and getting more and more comfortable. Then she started going to a pelvic floor physical therapist, who started working with her in relaxing the muscles of her vagina, and learning to relax her body. She was working little by little until the muscles of her vagina were at a normal level of tension - which took a lot of time and persistence - and a couple of years into her marriage, had intercourse for the first time.
That was a meaningful process for her of opening up to her own sexuality. She actually wasn’t a woman who didn’t have some history and even awareness of her capacity for orgasm and eroticism, but she had contained it all and buried it. Once she started opening up her body and her mind, she could see that she could belong to herself in a deeper way and be sexual. Then she started allowing more of her eroticism to come into her mind and body, in that same way of helping herself see that not only was she able to hang onto her sense of self, but she could actually feel more deeply anchored to herself. It wasn’t about “oh, I need to do this for my husband.” She was doing this for her marriage, for sure, but she was doing this for her relationship, her impaired relationship to herself. It’s a kind of persistence that now, she’s in a meaningful sexual relationship, and that really was going from a place of severe repression into a real marriage.
Monica: I feel like I want to give her a little slow clap on this side of the mic; that perseverance is very inspiring. I’m grateful you shared that more specific example, and I think it really helps translate this. I know you’ve shared examples in the office hours of your courses of people who’ve been married for decades who still have been able to repair their sexual relationship, for themselves, and with each other – that is really inspiring to me. I’m so grateful for your work and that you are there for people to work through this on long-term bases, and to inspire us to belong to ourselves so we can belong to others. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned from you, too, especially today.
I’m sure many people will want to work with you somehow, or take your courses. It’s a little different right now, since you usually do a lot of live workshops, so tell us where they can go.
Jennifer: Well, we have just released a new website. It’s still all the things that I offer, but it all looks nicer, and that’s exciting, we’ve been working on it for a while.
A couple of things: one is that, after a lot of requests, I’m have finally developed (or am still in the process of developing) to offer this fall, a course for men on integrating their sexuality. Men have much more anxiety about sexuality than meets the eye; sometimes it gets expressed as entitlement or neediness, but it’s still a conflicted relationship to their sexuality. It’s about helping men to have more integrity in their relationship to their sexuality, and to become more desirable, actually, and more a source of strength in their marital relationship, and more deeply integrated with their sexuality. I’ll be offering that in the fall. I think both of those courses may well be full, but on the website, you can put your email address in so you can be notified of when that course will be available again in the winter. You can sign up, and we’re doing it through zoom so people can participate.
Monica: And I just want to clarify – you’re saying live because you’re doing things live and it’s not like “here’s a video.”
Jennifer: Oh yes, that’s right, thanks for clarifying – exactly, because most of my courses are recorded and then we have an office hours element where you can ask me questions, but this will be where I’m actually I’m on a zoom call presenting the material; you can raise your hand and ask me questions. So, live through zoom, nothing in person right now.
And then the other thing I’m going to be doing this fall - and the specifics will be coming, so if you’re interested, sign up for the email list – is that I’m going to do the Art of Desire course (that normally we do in workshops and in person) in a kind of hybrid of consuming course content, and then interfacing with me with a small group of women. I can give you more individual coaching while you’re listening to me interface with some other women around specific questions, and it’s a less expensive way to get some coaching and instruction together.
Monica: Incredible. I know you know that I can’t recommend you enough, and again, we’re just really grateful that you have been on our show and were willing to be so again. I’m sure we’ll see you again soon, but thank you very much, Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you, Monica.