Healthy Sex Life, Healthy Relationship: How You Relate to Sex Matters

I was at my workplace a few days ago when I noticed an attractive woman enter the store. My first thoughts were, “man, she’s beautiful”. Thinking back on this now, I’m amazed at how different my reactions and intentions are from what they used to be. Before I would judge the attractiveness of a woman by her body and how she looked. Now I notice more subtle characteristics of women and their personality is a large part of the whole.

This isn’t to say that I don’t find other aspects of women attractive. Such as their looks and how in shape they are. But they are for much different reasons now and a much smaller part of the equation.

Sex was All I Could Think About

In my youth, it seemed that all I was focused on was sex. The question “how do I find a hottie to bang?” was one I asked myself often. And full discloser, I did not have much game. And to be fair, I was raised in a family that held sexual desirability as their number one value. We used sex as a way to be liked and a way to gage how much we were valued. If you couldn’t find someone to have sex with, then you were doing something wrong.

This was the message that I was receiving, not only in my family but also everywhere I went. Sex was all anybody I hung out with seemed to talk about. Whenever I was with my friends, we would objectify women to some degree. Whether it was whom my friend was cheating on his girlfriend with, or what “chick” I wanted to “bang”, we had always viewed women as objects, prizes to be had.

This was not a healthy way to be in relationship. Pornography was also something that was ubiquitous in all of my relationships. From contraceptives being left on the backs of toilets in my childhood home, to the enormous pornography collections of my caregivers, to my later pornography habits, sex was the number one way we all were relating to ourselves and how we judged each other.

When Looking Good is Priority One

One of my caregivers went so far as to offer me money to lose weight. I was overweight as a teenager and had no self restraint when it came to how I fed myself. Of course, they were feeding me. So instead of being taught a healthy relationship to what I was eating, I was being bribed to learn how to for myself. These were confusing messages I was receiving. Especially as a child trying to establish my own set of values and seeing my caregivers practiced values directly in contradiction to what they said they desired.

So my health goals all revolved around how I could look good naked. Again, an unhealthy way to relate to my nourishing myself. And as unhealthy as it was to be a guide for my eating habits, it was even worse of a guide for how I valued myself and my partner in my relationships.

I put looking attractive as more important than being kind or loving. The kinds of relationships I was trying to cultivate were those based on how attractive we were and how others found me and my partner desirable. And I was constantly judging other women as more or less attractive to my then current partner.

Women had been treated as sex objects for so long in my family, mostly by the women in my family, that when it came time for me to find and develop a relationship all my own, I looked for a partner with impossibly high standards and who was critically minded. Together, between the two of us, nothing ever measured up to our standards.

Unhealthy Values = Unhealthy Communication

When you’re as concerned about how you look to others as we were, for me more so physically and my partner more ideologically, you are afraid of being seen as anything but perfect. It felt as though every expectation was being picked apart and analyzed by each other. “Am I adding up?” was my constant concern. But I was also to proud to admit I was scared that I wasn’t enough in the eyes of my partner.

I was acting as though I was beyond reproach, but really was scared of what anybody thought of me. So instead of being vulnerable, taking the risk and being open and honest with my partner about how I felt I wasn’t good enough to be with, I ran.

I thought I developed feelings for another woman and ran to be by her side. What I was really recognizing was that, the other woman was just as judgmental as my partner and I were, but they were enthusiastic about being with me. I couldn’t see this at the time, but even with my being blinded to what was happening to me and my inability to communicate, I still offered to work through our issues with my then, current partner.

Understandably, she declined and ultimately left me. And this all stemmed from us being unable to share our emotions and perspectives of what was happening in our relationship because we were too scared to show each other our vulnerabilities. Our fear was that they (our vulnerabilities) would be abused as they had in us before by those we trusted.

And I can’t help but to feel that if my number one value wasn’t based on how attractive I or my partner was, then maybe I would have been able to see them, my partner, as a person instead of an abject. Also myself as a person instead of an object. We would have been able to have conversations about other values and feelings. Like our vulnerabilities and fears of trusting others for the times they were abused in the past. All of these “difficult” conversations could have lead to tighter bonds and wiser decision making. I may even still be married.

But the sad fact is, we just weren’t ready for that level of intimacy and trust. The ability to release control of how others saw us. As if we had control of that to begin with. Instead we all just ended up hurt and me alone.

Okay I Know My Values are Askew, Now What?

I figured this out after I had already done some serious damage to a majority of my relationships. This however, wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to me. After I had been left for the second time for wanting to change the trajectory of my life, I ended up at my father’s house.

Here I was challenged to face some of those fears around being vulnerable in the presence of those who left and abused me. I’ve said before on this blog, if it wasn’t for this chance to rebuild a relationship I had been running from my entire life, I most likely would have ended up homeless.

So I started the work of cleaning up the mess I had made of my life. And the mess was formidable indeed. One of the places I began was, to start treating individuals with the respect I thought they deserved.

People as People, Not Objects

This was difficult for me because as I’ve said above, all of my role models, and I mean ALL, objectified women as sex objects and men as calloused and in charge. I had to identify the unhealthy habits I was practicing without realizing it and make a conscious effort to change what I was unconsciously doing.

One of the habits I identified to change was, I didn’t make eye contact with women I met. I was usually making a judgement on how attractive I thought they were by staring at their bodies. In my youth, I once entered my workplace and objectified the woman at the counter to my then friend by making rude gestures only to realize that it was my sister I was objectifying. This is something I’m not proud of, but that’s how I chose to live my life.

Now, I keep my eyes at face level. The person I’m interacting with deserves my attention and more importantly, my respect. I find that with a more concerted effort to pay attention to the person by not judging them, it’s easier to talk with them and I feel less pressure and as though I’m being judged.

And this is not an easy habit to break if you’re used to objectifying women the way that I had been. I find that I subconsciously want to search out different body parts or not make eye contact at all. But if repetition created my habit, it’s repetition that will break it.

Learning to Communicate How I Feel and Ask How Others Are Feeling, Not Just Acting a Part

Being able to acknowledge people as people and not objects has helped me in other areas as well. I’m more able to have open and honest conversations with people. Especially those close to me, instead of trying to be seen as someone who is likeable. I’m also able to own my mistakes now because I’m not afraid of looking less than perfect.

For example, the woman I currently work for is an excellent role model of someone who values honest communication over being seen as in control, or an authority. As a result, because of her values and because I’m able to see her as a person with value, I’m not afraid to talk about my mistakes and learn how to improve through them. This was something that was seen as a weakness in my family while I was growing up.

I’m also more confident in who I am as well. When I have a disagreement with someone, I now know how I feel about what’s happening, how I’m being treated by the other or how the other person feels. I used to fear being disliked and would do or say just about anything to feel belonging. Or I had no control over my anger and let it fly without restraint. Also something I was told was the mark of a man.

I had an argument with my father not to long ago that could have ended poorly had I chose to react the ways I used to when confronted with conflict. Instead of freezing him out after he reacted in a way that he later regretted, I was able to stand in my body and feel the full force of his anger while acknowledging that how he was reacting was not a reflection of who I am, how he sees me or makes me any less of who I already am.

I felt confident in myself, that I could take care of myself and stand up for myself at the same time. I felt as though I had an inner strength by standing up for myself instead of folding to the other person’s wishes or acting in a petty way. We were able to resolve our argument while acknowledging how we each felt. We both felt heard and that felt good.

I Thought There Was Going to Be More Talk About Sex?

So how does this all tie into a better sex life? These aren’t just disparate parts working independently of each other. So much of how we see one another and how we talk to each other forms the bonds that holds our relationships together. If you are constantly objectifying women as sex objects, including your partner, as I was, eventually they become one dimensional. And inevitably we will search out others to fill the need for novelty. This leads to an unhealthy relationship and sexlife.

But if we choose to view our partners, and people in general as multi-dimensional, then we begin to build more intimate bonds that will last beyond when we get bored with the one aspect of the person we decide to fetishize. This leads to feeling and being heard, understood and ultimately loved. And yes, when sex isn’t the sole focus of our interests, it becomes more enjoyable when you do indulge in it : ) It’s something to look forward to as opposed to what we hinge our value on.

And what brings this all together is, practice. It’s not always easy and in fact, it’s sometimes down right hard. But keep after it and it will pay off. There’s so much to discover about those closest to us that it would be a shame to ignore focus only on one aspect. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Romance & Sex Life of the Date” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Dating: Navigating the Ways We Connect Romantically

Dating. This is something that I have historically been, notoriously bad at. This always seemed a strange paradox to me, because I’ve always known that I want to be in a relationship, only I had no idea how to navigate them. I was completely clueless to when women had shown interest in me, and ended up clinging to unhealthy forms of relationships in my past. And a lot of how I’ve handled my relationships in my past, are ways that I’ve had modeled for me by those closest in to me and popular culture.

But what I’ve come to realize is, that most of how I had been handling relationships, and the role models that got me there, were monumentally unhealthy. In the following, I’ll be going over some of the lessons that I was taught while I was growing up, and how I’ve adapted or overcome from these unhealthy habits of connecting. So let’s jump in where it all started for me in the romantic world, with sex.

The Importance of Sex and Dating

This is a loaded topic, and one with many avenues to travers. I’ve written about this some in my post about porn and porn addiction. This is not an easy one for lots of folks, including myself. I’ve stopped using porn, almost a decade ago, but it is something that is ubiquitous in our culture. Something that I was introduced to at the age of eight and by my caregivers at that. This was way too early to be taught about sex to almost any degree, but in relation to romantic connection, I might as well have been taking a trig class in between recess, nap time and lunch. Out of my element.

To start, there was a lot of unhealthy messages being sent to me, and those around me at the time, involving the importance of sex and how it’s connected to belonging. And to be sure, this isn’t anything new. We seem to struggle with this a new each generation. This was the case in my family and one that was driven home countless times. From my grandmother being a model and ridiculing her children for not fitting the image or standard of beauty she felt as though she imbued, to her children handing down that ire to my generation.

Or the porn addiction that was also handed down generationally. Time and again, the message was that if you weren’t attractive or sexually desirable, you did not belong. This was the message I learned at the tender age of eight, along with a few others that I won’t go into detail about. But all roads lead to Rome so to speak; love and belonging hinged on whether or not someone wanted to have sex with you. When you are left with sex appeal as equal to belonging as your only map to navigate relationships with, then sex becomes the most important aspect of your relationships.

And this was how I navigated almost all of my relationships. If I wasn’t trying to get with some woman, I was talking about women to my friends in the most obscene ways. Nothing was off limits. Either that or I was comparing myself to those around me. Who was more attractive, is she more interested in my friend than me. And on top of that there was the porn addiction. Every relationship was somehow rooted in sex. This was unhealthy.

And that’s not to say that we can’t have a healthy relationship with sex. Sex is enjoyable, fun and a way to bring another level of intimacy to a relationship. And I don’t want to sound as though I’m proselytizing about how sex is to be feared in some way as inherently dirty or morally wrong. But the messages I was being sent as a child definitely carried that sense of hidden moral ambiguity with them by avoiding talking about it or doing it in clandestine ways. And if you’re using the moral compass of an eight year-old, things can look pretty black and white.

Fast forward to my romantic relationships in my twenties and thirties, and I was following in my family’s footsteps by objectifying women as sex objects and treating them with disrespect. It’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t hold onto many relationships. I was also terrified of being emotionally available with others. This goes hand in hand with objectifying women. Because if I didn’t see women as beings with emotions, I wouldn’t have to be open and vulnerable with them. This was something that took a long time to realize after thawing from my emotional freeze.

So sex really came to mean emotional detachment from my partners, the very people I was looking to belong with and to. These were the unhealthy lessons I was taught and carried with me in the ways I related to my relationships. So if objectifying women was the main way I used to detach emotionally, how did I make the U-turn to being emotionally available? There were a few things I did to open up emotionally again, and it started with acknowledging our shared humanity. First in myself and then in others.

Waking Up Into Our Emotions

The first step towards inhabiting my emotional world again was to recognize the ways I was leaving and what I was using to guard myself against them. For starters, objectifying women was the main barrier between me and cultivating intimacy with the women I was with. I had to first recognize that there was fear in me that I had been running from.

The fear for me stemmed from the time I was first abandoned by my family, and allowed to be abused by my caregivers. Once I confronted that fear, I was able to see others, mainly women, as people with emotional worlds all their own. Not as potential threats to my safety or belonging. I could then appreciate the nuances of their personalities instead of reducing them to one dimensional sex objects.

One of the ways I was perpetuating this belief was, as I said above, by using porn. When I stopped, my emotions were then more available to me. But there was a fair amount of work that needed to be done to untangle the mass of unprocessed feelings and emotions I had been covering over.

This is where meditation and yoga came into the picture. Through meditation, I was able to slow down my emotions enough to understand which emotions were which and why I was feeling them. And yoga taught me to stay when things got uncomfortable. If what you’re doing to avoid emotions amounts to pleasure seeking to dodge being uncomfortable, then there is most likely a backlog of difficult emotions to feel your way through. This is where the work lay.

If you are doing this work, and there is any amount of trauma or abuse, I recommend doing it with a professional counselor. And it’s sometimes wise to rely on medications. The message I was given was that real men muscle through tough emotions. This is dangerous and toxic. It’s okay to ask for and rely on help from others and medication when it’s wise to do so. The road can be difficult and scary at times, it’s best not to go it alone.

Emotional Intelligence and Cultivating Intimacy

Once I was able to slow down enough to feel my emotions, this was where I was able to cultivate emotional intelligence. I became fluid in the language of my emotions. This was what I had been missing in my relationships with the women I was with. If I wasn’t able to understand my own emotional states, there was no chance for me to understand what my partners were experiencing.

And there were many emotions to untangle. What was most striking about this process was, that feelings would arise all at once, and be bundled together and wrapped in fear and anxiety. A life’s time worth of unprocessed emotions, all surfacing at once. Demanding my attention and without an understanding of what they were trying to tell me. This was overwhelming.

The ways I used to manage my emotions was through coffee and alcohol. Speeding past or numbing them. But it wasn’t until I felt the full force of them by reducing the ways I was running from them, and by feeling their individual affect on me, that I was able to begin to develop intimacy with my emotional world. This also had the effect of making my emotional world less overwhelming. And subsequently less terrifying.

This is how we cultivate intimacy in our other relationships as well. By attuning to our emotional needs, we’re able to recognize the emotional needs of our partners and respond to them. Sounds simple, but it takes a lot of digging, listening and caring for what comes up. And staying with the difficult emotions is what’s so, well, difficult in the first place. So what makes this possible?

Resources for Emotional Growth

For me, I needed to feel safe and supported again. This was most difficult due to the ways that, first I was treated growing up, and second how I chose to live as a reaction to my upbringing.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the abuse I endured but also the amount of neglect I also experienced as a child. This was where my distrust in others was cast, and what took the most work to overcome. Without the reassurance that you are being cared for, or at least your basic needs are being met, you feel as I did, that people are inherently selfish and dangerous on top of feeling all alone.

So being able to rely on others is something that flies in the face of logic and is also terrifying to even begin to think about. If you’ve been taught that those who are your caretakers are also your abusers, this becomes a problem when your supposed to rely on your ride or die (partner) for the most intimate support. If you’re unable to trust those who are closest to you, including yourself, how do you learn to rely on others and yourself?

Patiences, Forgiveness and Practice: We’re all Just Humans

Patiences is a difficult skill to hone. But if we don’t develop it, there’s a chance that we will react poorly to those whom we rely on. Especially when they make a mistake that hurts us in some way. Maybe it’s an off comment or a broken promise. We’re only human, it’s bound to happen once and a while. If it happens often enough, then maybe there needs to be another conversation about setting healthy boundaries. But it’s best to give the person the benefit of the doubt, especially if they’re your S.O.. And remember, they’re human and bound to make mistakes.

So we’ve accepted ourselves and others as imperfect. But does that make it any easier to weather the hurt feelings or little betrayals along the way? Sadly no. This is where cultivating patience is so important. In sitting with these difficult emotions, the ones I was talking about above that I would avoid by pleasure seeking, numbing or speeding past, I learned to accept them as, yes difficult, but also passing. They won’t last forever.

And once I got through the uncomfortable emotions and feelings of being hurt by my loved ones, it was easier to see what really matters. Not that I was hurt, but who the person is, how I feel about them, and what their intentions are. Most likely the times where my loved ones hurt me aren’t the norm. And when they do, that doesn’t take away any of the past feelings and experiences I’ve had about and with them that are filled with love. Also, their intentions weren’t most likely malicious.

So with patience comes understanding and forgiveness. And this is most important with the person you’re most intimate with. Your romantic partner. If you learn to trust one another’s intentions, then patience and forgiveness will come second nature. But if your trust has been breached in the past by those closest to you, patience and forgiveness also takes practice.

This was something I had to learn, am still learning, how to show up for myself when I need me most. Because I know if I’m willing to neglect my own needs, I’m going to have an unreasonably high expectation of others. When I don’t see them neglecting their own needs for the sake of “what’s important” to me, in the ways I would. And for the record, this is unhealthy. For example, I would often think people were lazy if they weren’t pushing themselves to exhaustion in the ways I would myself.

This is where practicing forgiving yourself is most important. Because neglect is a habit. It’s something that is learned. Either modeled for us or something we do to avoid the difficult parts of living our life and being connected. For me, I had to listen to myself when I as feeling off or overwhelmed. It wasn’t clear at first, the feelings of being neglected and abused, because they felt so normal. But the more I practiced listening inwardly to the feelings of being overwhelmed and of pushing myself too hard and ignoring my physical needs, the better I became at recognizing what I was going through and what I needed.

This type of understanding is something that can be used to attune to others’ needs. And these are the basic building blocks of intimacy in a romantic relationship as well. If your S.O. looks overwhelmed from a long day at work, recognizing what they are feeling and responding from a place of empathy, of “how can I help, I’m here for you”, is an essential way to build trust and intimacy. And if you’re not sure what to do, ask!

There are few things that can harm a relationship more, from my experience, than mind-reading. Feeling you know what the other person is going through without asking, and that you know how it “should” be handled, is arrogant. Also telling someone else how they are feeling is equally as damaging. I used to operate from this mindset and it was one of the ways I stopped listening to my partners and myself. It was also a way for me to stay disconnected from those closest to me including myself. If you’re not able to listen, you have no idea what the other person is experiencing.

Take The Risks

And finally, if you’ve learned to cultivate some or most of these skills, and you’re still willing to put your heart on the line, there’s nothing left to do than to get out there. Take the risk of being seen, heard and loved. It probably won’t be easy, especially if you’ve had your heart broken before. But it sure will be worth it. And you don’t have to be perfect to start. We often feel like, well I do anyways, that we need to be like Brad Pitt from “Fight Club” in order to be loved by someone else. The perfect body, the right living situation, the perfect career… The list goes on.

In case you still feel that way, I’m here to tell you, you don’t. Just be you, or the closest approximation to that you can ; ) Be honest and forgiving to yourself, and you’ll do just fine. Peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “love-romantic-gift-present” by pixellaphoto is marked with CC0 1.0

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