Ellyn Bader

 

It's understandable that couples are wary about bringing up sensitive topics. The avoidance of pain and distress are major motivators to go into hiding. But too much avoidance or passive behavior can lead to marital corrosion. So how can this difficult problem be managed? Because of the extra length, this month's column is divided into two parts with the second part finishing next month.

We will follow Tina and Tom through their truth-telling process. They met as students at a large Midwestern university and married soon after graduation. They both come from religious, church-going families. In their five years of marriage, they have been busy starting their careers and buying and fixing up a house. Tina has always faked orgasm when they make love; she's beginning to feel she wants to speak up about it.

STEP 1: MAKE THE DECISION TO BE TRUTHFUL

Tina recognizes that sex is becoming more boring and longs to feel more pleasure. She wrestles with the thought of mentioning this to Tom. She doesn't want to hurt his feelings, but the pretense has worn thin. She hates feeling like a phony.

Tina decides to be truthful because, there's a chance that they'll be able to change their sexual routine. If she doesn't tell him, she's only going to become more and more frustrated.

STEP 2: DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT TO HAPPEN

Knowing what you want helps you formulate your approach and what you say. Tina hopes that telling Tom the truth will allow her to:
a. feel more genuine
b. make changes to improve their sex life
c. overcome her anger

STEP 3: EXPLORE YOUR OWN AVOIDANCE

It's important to understand what led to the deception. Tina recognizes that, because of the way she was brought up, talking about sex is uncomfortable for her. She has also been reluctant to say anything that might hurt or humiliate Tom. She started faking orgasms to help Tom believe he was a good lover even when she felt completely apathetic. Admitting that she was faking would have defeated the purpose. And so on it went.

A key component of Step 3 is understanding your own ambivalence. You can ask yourself, “Is there a part of me that doesn't want to change?” Understanding your own doubts will help clarify your resolve.

Tina realized, ironically, that faking orgasm eased some of her anxieties about sex: If she knew she was faking orgasm, she didn't have to worry about whether or not she would actually have one. Also; a “yawn” of a sex life meant that they wouldn't have sex very often. Though that wasn't necessarily a good thing, it did feel predictable and safe.

STEP 4: SET A TIME AND PLACE

You want to create a situation conducive to your partner hearing your message and sensing the compassion you bring to it. It would be best for Tina to bring up the topic when Tom isn't tired or otherwise preoccupied, such as when they are taking a walk or when they're sitting comfortably in front of a fire.

Bad times would be right as Tom is walking out the door or the instant he comes home, weary with jet lag, from a business trip. Be sensitive to anything your partner may be dealing with that might make your truth an unnecessary burden. If there's illness in the family or serious trouble at work, postpone the discussion.

With significant or surprising truths, the setting is important. Choose a time and place that's comfortable and where you're not going to be interrupted. We've heard men, in particular, suggest going for a walk or talking while working in their garage or woodshed.

STEP 5: DON'T BE PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE

There are definitely ways to reveal truths that don't make things eas¬ier. One woman hid the fact that she was pregnant from her husband because she knew he didn't want another child. She finally enlightened him by leaving a voice mail message at work when she was away. This was playing hardball because she'd waited past the first trimester before giving him a chance to respond.

It's also unwise to wait for a time and place to choose you. Some people are so passive about truth telling that their mates have to chase after them. For instance, we've seen people conceal the fact that they were heavily in debt until the local utility cut off the heat and electric¬ity. It's also common for people to leave clues around and wait to be caught in an affair, or for women to stop using birth control and not tell their partner until they're pregnant.

Tina would be passive aggressive if she started avoiding sex alto¬gether to force Tom into asking questions. This way Tina would be denying responsibility for her own indirectness, and it would cause Tom to feel angry and distant.

STEP 6: PLAN WHAT YOU WILL SAY OR DO

Nobody would go on a four-day hike through the jungle without plan¬ning ahead. Yet people invariably launch into an explosive conversation with no forethought and then wonder why it was a disaster.

A little preparation can avoid a lot of grief. You can say to yourself, “My partner will probably get defensive. When am I most likely to cave in? When am I most likely to counterattack?” Refrain from speaking in a moment of anger. Do enough preparation, either mentally or by writing it down, so that you aren't impulsive.

Being candid takes courage and forethought. Next month we will review these steps and finish the process of strengthening your relationship with increased truthfulness. As always, we invite you to visit our website for more information and resources on improving your relationship.

About 

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.