Monday, September 24, 2012

Sex that Cultivates Attachment, Not Addiction

In my last post I highlighted Gary Wilson’s TED Talk, The Great Porn Experiment. Today I’ll share some other wonderful resources he and his wife, Marnia Robinson, have developed.

Their blog at "Psychology Today" is a  clearinghouse of information and science-based advice on sex and love. They propose an alternative to the myth that's common in our culture: that porn enhances desire and spices up a couple's sex life. The science they cite shows why the reverse is often true. That is, porn sometimes actually dampens the sex appeal of one's partner over time and impedes sexual performance. They show how bonding-oriented sex can strengthen relationship, and how much (and why) sex can improve a couple's sense of connection over time. I found their website years ago while researching the varying effects of dopamine and oxytocin. I'd seen the research on dopamine summarized elsewhere, but they shared such a vivid portrayal of this dopamine depletion research participant, I finally "got" how my addicted clients suffer when they're in the throes of withdrawal. I've found treasure after treasure at (Marnia's site), and I still haven't combed through everything there. Most impressive and inspiring to me have been the entries on their forum from individuals who are kicking the porn habit and finally tapping into the joy only accessible when monogamy is accompanied by mental monogamy.

Marnia's book, Cupid's Poisoned Arrow indicts our culture's pornified view of sex and reveals what's possible in a relationship when the focus of sex turns from orgasm to connecting. It's one of the books I recommend most frequently in my therapy practice. It gives couples an entirely new vision of how to truly love each other physically. As you read you'll think, "No wonder so many relationships fail! No wonder the divorce rate's so high! No wonder, even among couples who stay together, so many end up constantly bickering or cool and distant with each other.” Even if you don't implement fully the practice of Karezza, these books will radically alter the way you think and act between the sheets.

Life can be rough, but your primary relationship doesn't have to be. Amidst all of the other struggles in life, it should remain your refuge. If you don’t enjoy that kind of relationship yet, don’t fret it. Invest the time and energy. I promise: rethinking your time between the sheets can turn the most important relationship in your life into the most satisfying.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Sexy Incentive to Abstain from Porn

Many of my clients have found porn to be addictive, but are trying to kick the habit because it violates their values and morals. They list as incentives for quiting things like "my wife will trust me more," "I'll be a better role model for my kids," and "I'll be in the driver's seat of my own life."

Unfortunately, when cravings get intense, their resolve to give up porn because it's the right thing to do softens. In the cold light of day porn porn seemed so wrong, but in weaker moments it feels so right.

I've been impressed by the reinforcement these folks can gain from an entirely different avenue of incentive. For many, the facts about what porn can do to their sexual vitality seem to be just the additional weight needed in such moments to tip the scales and avoid relapse. And it makes sense: since there are times when sex becomes more salient, why not consider data that carries weight with the desire-driven brain instead of relying solely on moral reasons for abstaining from porn?

This TED Talk by Gary Wilson, "The Great Porn Experiment," is a relatively new resource that examines the effects of internet porn on consumers. (Erectile Dysfunction in young, otherwise healthy men is the most striking one, but the breadth and depth of distressing side-effects will amaze you.) He adds credence to his case by showing how abstaining from porn ameliorates these symptoms. Gary is an engaging teacher. The slide show that illustrates his talk drives home his points superbly. Although he has lots of fun with the topic, his big heart shines through and his deep care for men stuck in a porn rut is unmistakable. He provides just the advice and hopeful future vision they need. Viewed half a million times already, his talk has become an invaluable resource for puzzled porn gluttons and their lovers throughout the world.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Steady Diet of Connection Helps Prevent Relapse

At our most recent bi-monthly check-in, Paul reported: "I haven't had any relapses. In fact, I haven't thought about it much. Not thinking about porn much is a good thing, but I also haven't given much thought to my recovery, which concerns me a bit. I need to stop, stand back, and assess how I'm doing every now and then. Go inside myself and evaluate the state of my recovery."

While I agreed with Paul that he should be careful not to get too complacent, I was even more interested in what had enabled him to get to this point where he wasn't battling the urge for porn on a regular basis, as he had been for so long. 

As we explored how things were going in Paul's life, we eventually arrived at the topic of his relationship with his wife, Susan. "There's more connection and empathy there. I more often think about what she does on a day-to-day basis. When I consider the sacrifices she makes for our kids and our family, it really warms my heart. Sometimes I'll call her or write her a note just to say I appreciate her or check on how her day's going. 

"In the evenings after the kids are in bed we might read a book together. Sometimes we just sit by each other and watch a show. But we try not to fall in to the routine of just watching TV. Sometimes we play Scrabble. One night we played Cranium, even though we had to make our own rules since it was just the two of us. Another time we tried to build a house of cards, which is more challenging than it sounds. It was fun to do something out of the ordinary."

Paul had recently launched a business of his own and he and Susan were raising three young children, so I knew that there was no less stress in his life than before. And yet it was becoming easier for him to avoid porn. "You're connection with Susan is really making a difference, isn't it. And it sounds like the closer the two of you feel, the more empathy you have for her."

"I do find it easier to let in her feelings," he acknowledged. "The other night she said, 'Today my anxiety is back in full force.' I sat down by her on the couch and said, 'Oh Honey, I'm so sorry' and caressed her for a while. 

"She has told me that feels more emotionally safe now. And I see the effects of it. She's not continually asking if I've been having problems with porn. She's also more confident. She seems to connect with me better. We work together better to get stuff done around the house. If we've had a little spat about money or how one of us handled something with the kids, we come back together and apologize. I feel closer to her than I have in a long time. 

"She's less likely to snap at me if she has a problem with what I'm doing. The other day she was upset that I yelled so loud at my son's soccer game. We talked it through in the car afterwards and later it didn't feel like we were still at odds with each other. These days we come together pretty quickly like that. 

"She did lose her temper at me one weekend when I was leaving everything around the house for her to do while I sat and watched a golf tournament. But then I got my butt up off the couch and pitched in more. She came back around pretty quickly. We could both joke about it later."

I thought about all of Paul and Susan's interactions. They spent time together having fun. They shared experiences winding down at the end of the day. They worked through "ruptures" in their attachment and came back together quickly. A sense of good will permeated the relationship. 

From all I could tell, they were dosing up regularly on oxytocin with each other's help. Oxytocin is the relationship chemical, the cuddle chemical, the biological superglue that bonds us to each other. In lab animals it's been shown to reduce cravings for all kinds of addictive substances and behaviors. It increases a sense of contentment. 

Plus, oxytocin helps us stay true and faithful. It's the chemical that shows up in animals that are monogamous and mate for life. Consider that: this elixir can insures even a prairie dogs, with all the self-control of its fellow rodents, life a lifetime of fidelity to one sexual partner. It enables one to continue to find a current mate irresistible, crowding out the hankerings to flirt with and lust for other partners. 

Unlike rodents, we don't have to accept the current level of oxytocin that we are blessed or cursed with. By operating as Paul and Susan are, we can foster it's production--and then sit back and enjoy its wonderful effects.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Deep Empathy Prevents Relapse

Almost three months into recovery from his sexual addiction, Troy was feeling overwhelmed by his girlfriend Heather's pain. "I've made the decision to get better. I'm trying not to beat myself up about the mistakes I've made. But then she brings up the very things I'm trying to get over. To be honest, my biggest trigger these days is talking with Heather. How much longer will she be in the depths of despair about this?"

I knew Troy's struggle was genuine, but I also knew Heather had barely begun to unload the pain she felt over Troy's porn use, illicit online chatting, and the live sexual encounters he had arranged with women he'd met online. For their relationship to have a chance of surviving and for her to forgive him, I knew she would need empathic discussions with him almost daily over a period of nine months or so and then more intermittently after that.

My assignment to Troy was to ask every day how Heather was feeling and encourage her to talk about it. His job was avoid these various human reflexes: apologizing, clarifying, promising, reassuring, explaining, and defending. Instead, we encouraged him to:

1. Take her hands in yours or put your hand on her knee if she's comfortable with either of those. Engage in some kind of touch even if it's just resting a hand on her forearm or shoulder. Imagine that touch as a bridge that enables you to better sense her emotions. Tune in and allow yourself to receive what comes through to your heart by way of that physical contact. As you listen to her pain, let that touch be the conduit that helps those feelings flow your way, like a ground wire that taps electrical energy from where it's building up and conducts it safely to where it can diffuse. (Of course, only include touch in this process if she finds it permissible. Respect her desire for physical distance if she finds physical contact aversive at this point.)

2. Look her in the eye. You don't have to make it a staring contest, but make sure you don't avoid her gaze, either. Keep checking in with how she's feeling--and really letting it in--by gazing into her eyes and trying to sense what it's like to be her right now. Neuroscientists have discovered that we have mirror neurons that enable us to empathize and genuinely feel what another person is feeling. These neurons are "turned on" as we see the expressions and micro-expressions in the eyes and on the face of someone who is feeling an emotion. When we look into the eyes of someone who's feeling an emotion, we find ourselves naturally feeling that same emotion ourselves.

3. Notice where in the body you begin to react. Is your gut starting to clench? Is your chest tightening as you hold your breath. When someone is in pain, especially the person we care about most, it's natural to want to pull away from the emotion or put up a wall to keep that emotion out. While these reactions may be reflexive, they're not conducive to empathy. Take whatever energy you feel in your body and consciously move it from your gut or throat--or wherever--to your heart. Open up your heart and let yourself feel for her. Allow that energy to move you instead of trying to fight against it. Attend to the feelings that arise in your heart.

4. Keep up the above processes as you track what she's saying and how she's feeling. Listen and let yourself feel. Listen and let yourself feel. Listen and let yourself feel.

This is the process of empathizing. Notice what's missing. I didn't encourage Troy to say anything to Heather. It's not that he was forbidden to speak, it just wasn't the first priority. Too often, we have a strong urge to speak to try to make things better, but this process isn't about fixing a problem, it's about simply joining a partner exactly where they are emotionally. It's not about helping her out of the mud puddle of her pain, it's about sitting down with her in that puddle and better sensing--experiencing for ourselves--what it's like for her.

Although this process didn't come naturally to Troy, he wanted to make things better and entered into it wholeheartedly.

I did't see Troy for a while because he did most of his therapy with a colleague at my office. Over a year later, I checked in with him again. I was impressed by what he reported:

"It's been quite an experience to see--and really get--how much I hurt Heather. You can't imagine the destruction. It's almost like I killed someone. It's as much as you can hurt someone without breaking the law and going to jail. I want to go back and do it over. The nightmare is, I can't. The best I can do is never do those things again. And that's easy compared to the alternative. I could never do those things again, given all their devastating consequences."

Later in our session we talked about situations that used to put Troy at risk. "There's a switch inside of me that has flipped. It has changed me, altered my very constitution. I could never again repeat some of those actions. I went on a two-week long trip for work recently, exactly the kind of situation that would have put my relationship with Heather "out of sight, out of mind" before. I was amazed to discover that I found myself only able to respond to women the way I would have if she were right next to me. Of course, that's the way I wanted it. I wasn't looking for a way to forget her. But it was strange to me how natural it was. I didn't have to bring her and her feelings to mind. They are a down-deep part of me now. Taking care of her is like taking care of a part of myself."