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 can't help it. Even though I have a list of books to share with you, the resource I'm SO excited about this month is... a podcast. Yup - it's month two and I'm already changing all the rules. I promise you this will be worth it.
"Dear Sugar Radio" is billed as an advice column "for the lost, lonely and heartsick", and though many of the letters they answer do centre around relationships, I have to say it's much deeper and much broader than I expected. The first episode I listened to was on mothering and guilt, and as I sat in the car crying (with my partner beside me looking helpless and concerned), I thought - yes. This is the podcast I need to need to hear right now. I've been listening to it non-stop since.
There's an episode on mother loss by choice that I think is really important for a lot of folks out there who are feeling alone right now. Another on "messy relationships" that I'm pretty sure we all can relate to in one way or another. They tackle conflicts like what to do when you want kids and your partner doesn't (or vice versa) and how to handle it when the relationship you're in is great except for one important thing.
It's amazing that a lot of the advice comes back to seemingly simple encouragement like "it's okay to set boundaries - talk to your partner" and "don't try to figure this relationship conflict out on your own - talk to you partner", but rest assured, the podcast itself is neither obvious nor simple. The detailed, often heartbreaking letters show the complexity of the people writing, and the responses honor that complexity.
I'd love to hear it if there was an episode that spoke to you, or advice that stood out - please let me know in the comments.
For all you die-hard book fans out there, the written version of this is "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar" by Cheryl Strayed. Enjoy.
In the last 5 years I've worked with more and more helping professionals and caregivers, supporting them to be a support to others. It's probably one of the things I enjoy the most, because there are so many good people out there trying to do helping work, and I've actually figured out some things that can allow them to keep doing what they're passionate about, despite the heaviness of the work. I get a little excited about this because I now know without a doubt that it is completely possible to do some amazing things without giving up your life in the process. And actually, it's not only possible, but better for everyone involved - keep in mind that we're able to do more and better work when we can still connect to our own aliveness.
I've noticed that social work and nursing in particular are two of the jobs most susceptible to burnout at a young age (27!), though burnout is also a concern in many other types of helping roles. This could include being a caregiver for a loved one with a mental health issue, an aging parent, a child who is battling an addiction, or even the helping work you take on as a social justice advocate or volunteer. Whatever the particular role (or more often roles), many people struggle with the practicalities of how to be in a caring role while still having boundaries. I'm hoping this post will help those who can relate to being in a caregiving relationship of any kind and are wanting to do it in a way that's sustainable.
As a helping professional, part of our job is to connect with people. But there can be this unhealthy thing that happens where instead of joining with the person we're caring for in a way that feels safe and connected for both of us, we accidentally begin to merge with them.
What does it mean to merge? To merge means we take on their nervous system (so their despair becomes ours, and their anxiety becomes ours, for example. As they begin breathing faster or becoming collapsed in their bodies, so do we). As this happens, we begin to lose ourselves and our boundaries. Now, one of the hallmarks of trauma is a lack of curiosity (about the future, new activities, and the here and now… so if we lose that curiosity, and just start to feel in despair WITH them, we need to pay attention to that). Another sign that we're merging could be when we find ourselves all too often in the caretaking role despite the effect it’s having on us. Or when we feel the need to fix someone, and say to ourselves “I have to take on the hardest cases because they NEED me”. When this type of merging happens, then we've lost our curiosity and your hopefulness in their ability to heal. And we will get sick.
Joined with the person we’re helping is the place we’re aiming to be more of the time. Being joined means we're connected to ourselves, in the here and now, hopeful, and curious.
A third possibility is that we become disengaged (giving up, thinking about something else). This isn't helpful either, as healing depends on human connection and presence.
If you find yourself merging, what can you do?
It’s an important question and one that most caregivers find themselves struggling with at some point. My answer is to remember that the hour you can spend exposing that person to a healthy nervous system can be hugely impactful. You don’t actually have to fix this for them, or take on their pain for them.
So, you may want to ask yourself:
What helps you get grounded within yourself?
What helps you move from being merged to being joined?
Good luck exploring!
*The framework of merging and joining was taught to me at a Somatic Experiencing workshop I attended – it’s not something I created. I want to honor those contributions, and many others, to the ongoing conversation about sustainable caregiving.*
Those of you who read my post last week know a little bit about a difficult experience I had a few years ago when I was dealing with migraines. For those of you who haven’t read it, I shared that I had been in the habit of taking on more and more until my body finally said “stop”. The chronic stress I’d been dealing with over the years, along with the acute stress of a difficult work situation, was too much for my body to handle, and it progressed to a point where I was dealing with high intensity pain on a daily basis. And that went on for a year.
I also talked about how I had to make some drastic shifts in my life in terms of what would actually be nurturing for my body. What I didn’t share is how vital self-compassion was to the healing I went through.
When I was struggling the most with migraines, I would say things to myself like “I should be able to handle this amount of stress without feeling pain” “I should be able to work more than 10 hours a week” – but I couldn’t.
It felt like my body was my enemy, and it was doing this terrible thing to me.
So each time I felt the early signs of a migraine coming on, I braced against it, thinking “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”. And what happens when you brace against something? Your muscles tense. And so the pain would get worse.
The other trap I got into is that when it came to self care options like working less, or go home early from social outings when I was in pain, I told myself “I should be able to do this” or “it’s not okay for me let anyone know that I’m struggling”, and I ended up avoiding the things that might have actually helped me.
This may seem all really obvious but when I finally admitted to myself “this is a chronic pain issue” I – first of all cried a lot – and then possibilities opened up. Healing possibilities that I literally did not see before.
But again – it took a real shift in perspective.
First I stopped seeing my body as the enemy, and starting seeing it as a PART of me that was in pain, and needed help. (Yes that’s right – your body is a part of you).
I also stopped with the constant barrage of what I should be capable of and accepted what IS – or what was, at least in that moment.
And I want to say that’s not the same as giving up on the possibility that things will change. Instead, it was about allowing the reality of the situation – and the grief of that – in. And from that place, I was able to start healing.
So I don’t know how many of you have seen a counselor, or if you ever wonder what goes on in the world of a psychologist OUTSIDE the therapy room (“do they really do all the meditating they’re telling me is so beneficial?”) but I’ve got a little bit of insight that I’d like to share with you. I have noticed that in psychology, self care gets talked about a lot… but similar to other helping fields, the actual practice of putting ourselves as a priority is not so good. There’s a lot of TALK about work-life balance, but the structural systems within the workplace – be it nonprofit or private practice – make it really hard to actually have balance. Now, in my early 20s, I was excited enough about the work, and energetic enough, that I could “buckle down and push through”. But by the time I turned 27 – not that old – the effect of “pushing through” was starting to wear on me.
Just to give you an idea, I have worked overnights, shift work, several jobs at once, and I often took on the hardest cases with the people facing the most barriers, with little or no structural support.
I was in the process of dealing with a particularly difficult situation when my body finally said “stop”. And I knew the signs of burnout, so I listened.
Unfortunately, the signs of stress I was noticing didn’t go away as soon as I exited stressful environment. The chronic stress I’d been dealing with over the years, along with the acute stress of the situation, was too much for my body to handle. I started getting migraines more and more often, even on days when I was trying to take care of myself. It progressed to a point where I was dealing with high intensity pain on a daily basis. And that went on for a year.
So for those of you who’ve ever had a migraine, I probably need to say no more, but for those of you who haven’t, I can tell you that the constant brace against and managing of chronic pain is so consuming that it doesn’t take long before despair and hopelessness start to flood in.
The only thing I could do at that point was drastically change my life. And I did. I significantly decreased my working hours, I changed the hours I was in the office, and I began a practice of ongoing health care including yoga, meditation, mindfulness, biofeedback, walking, and therapeutic massage. I was very selective about what I did take on, because I knew that I might only have a few hours each day to focus on something other than managing my pain.
Now, fast forward a couple years and my health is much better, but I know that I will never be able or willing to take on as much as I used to. And this is different than just tacking on a yoga class at the end of each hectic week. Life had to change.
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.