A few months ago I was facing some tension with an acquaintance (caused entirely by their unwillingness to hear my very reasonable “no” to their request), when I caught myself in a dangerous thought.
The stress of having tension between us was really getting to me, and I found myself thinking, “maybe I should just compromise after all, to make it easier”.
In other words, maybe I should just say yes to their request, in order to escape the tension and stress that had resultantly arisen. And then, here comes the epiphany. I was about to say yes to someone simply for the fact that someone I barely knew had guilt-tripped me about saying no. That wasn’t compromising. That was conceding.
Holy shit, have I been using the wrong definition of compromise for my entire life? My mind started racing, and I actually looked up the definition of compromise on the spot (or, Siri looked it up for me). It turns out, a compromise is when both sides give a little in order to find a mutually acceptable arrangement. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – I would have gained from giving into this situation.
And is that a good enough reason to say no? I think it is. But so many of us who’ve been socialized as female are taught to believe that other people’s needs and desires are more important than ours. We’re taught that our role is to keep things running smoothly, and make sure to do everything in our power to reduce tension. I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’ve recognized it’s okay to step out of that role. I’m not going around creating unnecessary tension, but I’m not going to go out of my way and do my self a disservice just to make someone else happy.
Now, some people might be thinking, in this example I might not gain anything materially, but perhaps I would gain some goodwill with this person, and in the future they’ll be more likely to go out of their way to help me. It’s a nice thought, but it turns out to be rooted entirely in wishful thinking.
I think a lot of us can get caught up in this wishful thinking. So let me reiterate something from above – they were guilt-tripping me for saying no. I was now dealing with tension and stress because I said no. Does that sound like the kind of person who is going to be appreciative if I make a sacrifice? Who is going to want to be generous in the future? I can tell you from experience, it isn’t. I’ve made sacrifices before, in the hopes of building a relationship of goodwill and reciprocity. It doesn’t work unless both people are willing to be generous, and make compromises that are mutually beneficial.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking of making a “compromise”, ask yourself, is there mutual give and take here? Is this a relationship of reciprocity? Or am I just giving in because I’ve been taught that other people’s needs are more important than mine?
By Marc Colbourne
Sarah and Jennifer have always enjoyed incorporating kink into their sex life. Jennifer, in particular, loves playing the role of the submissive and Sarah has no problem at all indulging these fantasies. Bondage, light pain play, and verbal commands comprise much of their play time. They have been considering bringing in another Dom to take Jennifer’s fantasies even further.
Steve and Robbie have been together monogamously for nine years. Robbie has been known to call their relationship “old fashioned” especially since their elaborate wedding. They adopted twins ten months ago and because of the changes this has meant to their life and energy levels, their sex life is generally limited to their once-a-week date night when Steve’s parents mind the kids.
Tom and Peter have been together 2 years. Tom identifies as a “top” which works well seeing as Peter has no desire to be anything other than a self-identified “power bottom”. Every couple of months they head to the local bathhouse for a night of fun. Tom goes out to hunt for tops to bring back to the room where Peter is waiting. Tom likes to watch and direct the top.
What do these scenarios all have in common? Well… they can all be examples of healthy sex. That is, of course, if we assume there is a little more going on behind the scenes; more specifically, if the concepts of consent and negotiation are being used.
Defining “healthy sex” is complex; it means different things to different people. People are unique in their sexual needs, fantasies, willingness to explore, and what physical and emotional aspects of their sexual encounters bring them pleasure. What is important is that we are confident and comfortable in a definition of healthy sex that works for us. If our concept of sex hurts ourselves or other people (either emotionally or physically), is not consensual, or negatively impacts our work or family and intimate relationships, then the idea of it being healthy is compromised.
Aside from consent which is crucial in any definition of “healthy sex”, there is another related factor that must be present for sex to be considered as such. That is negotiation. Partners need be effective communicators – and have the ability to recognize and appreciate how our communication styles may differ. It is seldom as easy as just talking. Negotiation should start right at the beginning of a sexual relationship (even a one-night stand) so that both (or all) partners know what is acceptable.
As people and relationships change, so do our limits. Sometimes they widen, sometimes they contract. Re-negotiation is integral to ensuring we are respecting the boundaries of our partner(s) and ourselves. It is important to remember then, that negotiation doesn’t just happen at the start of a relationship, it is a component of any healthy relationship that we need to nurture over time.
Negotiation doesn’t have to feel like you are in a legal boardroom. In fact, it can be quite hot. Some “negotiation sessions” can feel more like foreplay than conversations about boundaries! Talk through your fantasies, tell the other person how the conversation is making you feel, throw out wild and crazy ideas (that you might never act on). If your partner suggests something that turns you on, take it a step further and add your own twist. Laugh, blush, touch yourself or each other during the conversation. Most importantly, have fun negotiating. Believe me it will make your sex even hotter when the time comes to use your mouth for more than talking!
Marc Colbourne, BA, BSW, MSW, RSW, is a sex-positive therapist in Edmonton. He works with clients with varied needs, cultures, and experiences, including those who feel their sexual relationships or needs are impacting their work, family or intimate relationships.
Marc can be reached at mcolbourneRSW@gmail.com or by visiting www.cambiocounselling.ca
This post was originally published on queerspaceyeg.wordpress.com
September’s Book of the Month is…. “The Dance of Intimacy” by Harriet Lerner. It’s amazing it took me this long to get to the 1989 feminist therapy classic considering how hungry I've been for more voices like hers. I kept seeing it on the bookshelves of my mentors and thinking some day I should get around to it. I’m glad I finally did. I hadn’t realized that it would be SO relevant to the daily struggles of the people I work with. The Dance of Intimacy digs deep into all the same challenges that the best writers and therapists are still discussing today. And it does so from a refreshingly feminist lens. Specifically, the book helps us work through major concerns in all the most important relationships in a woman’s life – including those with her parents, intimate partners, and other family members.
What really drew me in were the stories about women who found themselves over-functioning in relationships. In one case it was a woman with a father who suffered from alcoholism. In another, it was a woman whose sister was dealing with suicidal ideation. Lerner discusses how we can get stuck in the helping role, and how that ends up trapping all of us. She speaks so thoughtfully about setting boundaries and finding your “bottom line”, though, from her perspective, it’s not about cutting people off. It’s about creating enough space within the relationship for something different to emerge:
“Emotional distancing can be an essential first move to ensure our emotional well-being and even our survival. We all know from personal experience that a relationship can become so emotionally charged that the most productive action we can take is to seek space” - page 55
Her stories have definitely given me more to think about. So often, I’m an advocate for moving away from the relationships that harm us. Lerner invites us to remember the continuum of options we can experiment with, which may be especially helpful for those relationships we’re not quite ready to say goodbye to.
A compelling read.
Setting boundaries starts with believing you’re worth it. Believing that you’re worth putting as a priority, and that you deserve to have your needs met. That means letting go of guilt and shame, and practicing turning toward yourself, even though it’s uncomfortable.
And, it will be uncomfortable. I’ve watched so many people work on saying “no” for the first time in their lives, and it’s not usually pleasant. “I feel so bad,” *Sarah told me, about saying no to extra hours at work. “It’s not like I’m physically unable to be there – I just don’t want to. Doesn’t this make me a selfish person?”
My answer is a resounding no. Listening to your limits and acting in line with them isn’t selfish – it’s self-sufficient. Being able to choose where we put our time and energy is a very healthy, adult thing to do.
Now, that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to feel selfish, or bad, or weird and uncomfortable. It actually makes sense that you would. We’ve all spent a lifetime learning to take care of everyone else before ourselves (especially those of us who’ve been socialized as female). We’ve been taught to be nice, and make others around us comfortable, and never to make waves. This all falls into the category of emotional labor, a form of labor that often goes unrecognized and unappreciated in our culture. We’re taught to do all these things at a detriment to ourselves.
So, when we start to turn toward ourselves, it’s no wonder it feels strange. It’s so contrary to much of what we’ve been taught. But feeling strange or weird or bad doesn’t mean you’re doing the wrong thing. The good news is that they more you practice turning toward yourself, the better and more normal it feels. I hear this from the people I work with all the time – the first time can feel really uncomfortable, but you survive it. The next time is a little bit easier, and the next time after that is even easier, and so on. You realize that the world doesn’t fall apart just because you have needs, too.
It turns out there’s of people who struggle with this… so I’m offering an entire group on the topic! Find out more here and don’t hesitate to share with a friend.
*not her real name
By Marc Colbourne
If you are like me, you have probably found yourself at one point or another asking yourself this very question. Perhaps it is as your breathing is slowing to normal following the intensity of a climax, the next morning in the shower, or maybe even during a dry spell when you are trying to convince yourself it isn’t that important anyway.
The answers you give yourself as the warm water washes down your back are likely varied and dependent on the day. “It is a way to express my love.” “It is a stress reducer.” “Because my partner wants to and I want to please her/him.” “It is fun.” “I’m horny and just want to get off.”
None of these answers are necessarily a problem or cause for concern. In fact, many of them are perfectly valid reasons for having sex.
Sex is a natural expression of our selves and whether we are having it with a partner, several people, or just ourselves, it can be a healthy aspect of our life; one that can lead to greater self-love.
The answer to this question only becomes a concern when the honesty and vulnerability of it causes us distress. If we feel we aren’t in control of the reasons we have sex, the type of sex we engage in, or with whom, it can be problematic. In this case, we may want to examine the reasons behind our sexual behaviour more closely and ask ourselves some additional questions:
About Marc Colbourne:
Marc Colbourne, MSW, RSW, is a sex-positive therapist practicing in Edmonton. He can be reached at mcolbourneRSW@gmail.com or by visiting www.cambiocounselling.ca
This post was originally published on queerspaceyeg.wordpress.com
I often imagine conversations I'll have with my daughter when she gets older. I imagine how I might talk to her about consent, what I'll share with her about mothering, what I want her to know about friendship, and of course, what I want to help her understand about love.
Specifically, I was thinking about how I would explain my love for her. I often had conversations with my own mom where I tried to understand why she loved me, and I don't know that I ever quite got it. So if she ever asks me why I love her, this is what I came up with:
I love her. Full stop. Not because she's so smart (she is), hardworking (she is) or totally warm and funny (ditto, ditto). I love her very being. So there really is no "I love you because". Her beingness is enough.
Now, I also happen to love her hugs, and her thoughtfulness, and how excited she gets. I love it when she dances and I love that she loves reading. I love taking her swimming and showing her the world around us. Those are things in addition to simply loving her. And so even if those things change (and we all change, throughout our lifetimes), I still love her. That doesn't diminish or abate on account of what she does.
So there you go - that's unconditional love.
I think it's pretty amazing, and I also think it's pretty unique. It's the kind of love a caregiver has for their child.
The love we have for our partners is different. It is - and should be - conditional.
As we enter adult partnership, we are really asking for a reciprocal love that flows in both directions. This means that we're stepping away from the "no matter what you do, I'm always here for you" parental love we receive as children to something that's more mature. In order for that love to thrive, it needs to have boundaries around it. Here's a simple example - if your child goes to jail for selling cocaine, there's a good chance you're going to keep visiting them, helping them heal, and loving them with all your heart. On the other hand, if your partner goes to jail for selling cocaine, there's a good chance that'll signify the end of your relationship. It's pretty reasonable in that case to say "you know, I'm not interested in continuing a relationship with someone who's in jail for selling drugs". Now, even that example won't be true for everyone depending on the unique circumstances, and yet we all do have limits. Each of us have things that are acceptable to us in relationship, and things that are not. We have things that we can work with, and others that are deal-breakers. The purpose of loving relationships, after all, is not to endure, but to thrive. How can we thrive when we are not getting the basics of what we need in our relationship?
Committing to love an adult partner "unconditionally" isn't heroic - it's self-sabotage. You hurt yourself at a deep personal level by staying in an environment that isn't sustaining you, and ironically, even the person you're partnered with will end up feeling resentful toward you. This becomes especially dangerous when unfulfilling relationships go on for years - it's bound to lead either to an explosion or implosion of some kind. A relationship with conditions, on the other hand, has the power to be expansive. Neither partner is staying in it out of duty, fear, or familiarity. Instead, each is committed to their own and each other's growth. They are committing to truly respecting each other and to mutually offering that which will sustain and nurture the relationship.
Here's the bottom line: If the person you're supposed to be partnered with isn't available, isn't able to make a commitment, is unwilling or unable to process conflict with you, or is otherwise not going to fulfill the basic aspects of a relationship, then it's perfectly acceptable to let that relationship go, as they aren't able to offer you true partnership. Beyond that, we each have our own version of personal limits and deal breakers. It's up to us to do the work to figure out what those limits are, and whether we're in a relationship that seeks to mimic a parent-child dynamic or one that offers us true adult partnership.
Some of you know that a few years ago, I dealt with near-daily migraines that seriously affected my capacity to work, and had a huge impact on my ability to partake in life. I had always dealt with migraines but never to this extreme, and for this long. Read on if you want to know what helped me make it to the other side.
1) Mindfulness meditation. I noticed that one of the triggers for my migraines was “thinking about stressful situations”. My brain would get caught in a loop of ruminating and rehearsing. The only way out was to come back into the present. So I bought “A Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Workbook” and did some of the exercises suggested as well as listen to the guided mindfulness exercises that came on the CD. I still play that occasionally when I notice the tension starting to build. http://www.amazon.ca/A-Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction-Workbook/dp/1572247088 Also, I should say that whenever healthcare providers would ask me if I was dealing with more stress than usual I would be annoyed because I did not think I was, but looking back it was the stressful thinking spiral that was the problem, and also it turns out I was going through some pretty stress-inducing stuff after all.
2) Mindfulness on pain, specifically. When dealing with chronic pain, this seems like the last thing a person would want to do, but the more I braced against the pain, the worse it got. My friend lent me this CD from one of the leaders in the field and it became really, hugely important to my recovery: http://www.soundstrue.com/store/mindfulness-meditation-for-pain-relief-535.html
3) Biofeedback. I’m probably going to explain this wrong. But the basic idea of biofeedback is learning to control something in your body that is normally automated, such as heart rate, temperature, etc. In my case, I was connected to a machine that read the temperature in my hands, and I learned to increase the temperature... WITH MY MIND. So I know I just made it sound completely fake but this is a real science-based thing, and it worked. Once I could control the temperature, the idea was that I simultaneously was able to control the expansion of my blood vessels and could use that method when a migraine was coming on. Jim Eliuk (Registered Psychologist) is who you want to go to for this.
4) Yoga. Even though it didn’t FEEL like my muscles were tense, they probably were. And so yoga helped with that and also the being present thing.
5) Massage. I have been lucky to have met many fantastic massage therapists, and again, though my muscles didn’t necessarily always FEEL tense, it turns out they were. My friend Melissa decided one day that she was going to do an experiment on me to get rid of my migraines. She used a combination of heat and stones and stretching and magical powers, and IT WORKED. She is still part of my ongoing migraine prevention team and she is also very funny. That helps. http://www.trueserenity.ca/meet-the-team
6) Letting go. I had to let go of the idea that I should be able to work a certain amount of hours in a week (I couldn’t) and that my body should be able to handle a certain amount of stress (it couldn’t). I drastically reduced the number of working hours until I found something that kept me healthy, sustainably.
8) Medications. I’m somewhat conflicted about this because when I took a prophylactic too many days in a row it would sometimes cause rebound headaches. But generally it was better to take it when I needed it rather than “wait it out” or “hope it gets better on its’ own”. Eventually I took a daily preventative medication to help get ahead of the pain, and then when I had a few months with less pain, I was able to slowly decrease and then quit that medication. I did get in to see a neurologist which probably would have been helpful if I had seen a different neurologist. This one was not very helpful.
9) Coffee. When I was trying to describe the experience of feeling a migraine coming on, I noticed it felt like fuzziness in my brain, and so I had the brilliant idea to try drinking coffee to wake up my brain and reduce fuzziness. I'm 100% sure that's not how coffee actually works, but the image made sense to me, and coffee is my biggest prevention these days.I know it acts as a trigger for a lot of people, but it was the opposite for me.
10) TV. We figured out that one other way to get my brain out of the stress spiral was to watch TV, because it gave my brain and eyes something to focus on. Obviously this wouldn’t work if the pain was too extreme, but it was good in the early stages.
11) Magic hand lady. My old supervisor Marlen Walker (Registered Psychologist) did some kind of EMDR trick with her hands AND IT WORKED. She is now known as the magic hand lady because none of us understand why it was helpful.
12) Avoiding fluorescent lighting, red wine, and other triggers - stress included! Obvious but still should be part of this list.
13) Time. I think my body needing a long recovery time even after the events leading up to the pain issues were over.
14) Belief that it will get better. A friend at some point said to me “we’re going to figure this out” and I will never forget that.
David Richo's "How to be an Adult in Relationships" is a transformative piece of writing on love and relationships. I first listened to this book by audio and find Richo's voice to be fairly melodic and soothing, so reading it now with his voice in my memory feels much like a meditation. And indeed, he draws from the teachings of Buddhism, so the aspect of meditation is interwoven throughout the book. He also brings in knowledge from Catholicism, Jungian psychology, and his own life story to guide the reader toward a more adult understanding of love. Each sentence is deep and broad, simultaneously challenging and touching the reader. Richo has somehow captured the wounded longing in all of us, given words to it, and then provided a path toward healing those wounds and moving to an adult form of love that can grow and sustain us. He interrogates our understanding of love, though never in a way that's blaming or shaming. Already I have over 30 bookmarked quotes to come back to.
"As adolescents, we were taught that the way to tell we are in love is by our loss of control, our loss of will, and a compelling sense that we could not have done otherwise. This falling in love contrasts with the reality of rising in love with conscious choice, sane fondness, intact boundaries, and ruthless clarity. We were taught that some enchanted evening we would feel fascination and fall head over heels for someone special. But that kind of reaction is actually a signal from the needy child within, telling us what we need to work on, not directing us to our rescuer". - pg 110
One of the parts of the book I appreciate and resonate with the most was a simple list of the demands of the needy child versus the expectations of the healthy adult. For example, the needy child says "never betray me, lie to me, or disappoint me" while the healthy adult says "I accept you as fallible and seek to address, process, and resolve issues with you". The needy child says "help me repeat old, painful scenarios from childhood and former relationships" while the healthy adult says "I have mourned the past, learned from it, and now want something better".
There is so much to gain from this book, and just a few things to be cautious about. In the early chapters, Richo does get caught in some gender roles (though he makes it clear that there are masculine and feminine energies in all of us), and from my perspective, he undervalues interdependence perhaps a bit more than recent attachment research would support as healthy. Even with these cautions, it is easy to find so much to connect with in this book.
So, who should read this? I imagine anyone in relationship or moving toward relationship would be helped by this. More specifically, this book could be an important guide for you if you:
How often in a day do you catch yourself in "shoulds"?
Maybe it’s about a goal you’re trying to reach - “I should be further ahead with this project”. Or about something you’ve been told is important - “I really should work out more”. Perhaps it’s about a past mistake - “I should have known better”.
Did you ever wonder “whose voice is that?”
I can tell you that even if it sounds like your voice, it’s not coming from you. We’re not born with the belief that what we’ve done isn’t good enough. We’re not born believing we aren’t good enough.
Instead, either implicitly or explicitly, we are taught that we aren’t good enough. Sometimes this happens through outright abuse, and other times it happens from toxic messaging that is ingrained into the fabric of our culture. Over time, we hear the message enough that we start to repeat it to ourselves… and then it begins to sound like our voice.
It might be worth taking the time to discover where the self-critical voice comes from. When we do this, it makes it easier to re-externalize it and fight back, replacing it with a more compassionate voice instead.
When I ask couples what their goals are for counseling, one of the most common answers I get is “better communication”. But ironically, I don’t think I’ve met a couple yet who’ve needed actual help learning the “right words” to talk to each other. I swear I must have some of the most verbose, self-aware clients in Edmonton. But they’re still getting stuck, and I think the common assumption is “I must not be saying it right” or “my partner’s not hearing me”. This hasn’t been my experience.
Although the content of the argument changes from relationship to relationship, I’ve noticed that a lot of where couples get stuck is around the same themes: Nothing I do is ever enough, I’m alone in this, I can’t get my needs met, I’m not cared about in this relationship, and no one even sees me. There may be variations on these themes, but those seem to be the big ones in my experience. And if I can boil it down even simpler than that, it comes down to this question: in my most important relationship, the place I’m most vulnerable, what am I deeply afraid of?
This is a huge switch from where we started (communication skills), but an essential one. Now we’re having a different conversation that’s getting to the heart of their stuckness. And not because I’ve taught them anything about how to talk to each other – we’re just finally moving beyond whatever the surface topic was (laundry, navigating time together vs time apart, money, sex, etc) into what’s underneath. Imagine the following scenario…
Clara and Madeline have just moved in together, and at first all was going well, but then Clara started spending more and more nights away from home, out with friends at the bar. Madeline is starting to feel anxious about the increasing distance and spends the whole night texting her with increasing urgency, trying to get her to come home, and even falling asleep with her cell phone next to her. Clara gets angry that her time connecting with her friends is being interrupted, and accuses Madeline of trying to control her, then spends the night at a friend’s.
What’s underneath the surface here? Clara could be dealing with feeling alone in the relationship, or with fears about being abandoned. Madeline could be coping with a fear of being consumed by a relationship or controlled in it. Without the recognition of the deeper fears at play for each of them, it would be easy for them to get stuck in having the same argument each night. But if they’re willing and open to understanding each others’ reality, there’s a lot more room for them to move. Empathy and recognition of the wider story opens up possibilities.
As a relationship therapist, the other thing I try to bring to light right away is that our underlying fears and needs tend to trigger the other person’s underlying needs and fears. In the above example, Clara’s fear of abandonment and attempts at closeness could have triggered Madeline’s fear of being consumed, and resulted in her pulling away. That withdrawal would likely increase Clara’s fear of abandonment, and so on, and so on.
So if you find yourself stuck in the same argument again and again, you might ask yourself “what’s the underlying fear or need here in me?” And, “what is my partner most afraid of?” In other words, “what’s really going on?”
I'm a psychologist, activist, and writer. I believe in sharing our stories and wisdom as a tool for our own healing as well as the healing of those around us. For this reason I've chosen to share what I'm learning, as well as guest posts from other people who've been there.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective.