Each of us enters a marriage or relationship wearing masks. These masks have a necessary function: they hide the less agreeable aspects of ourselves, making us more acceptable and attractive.
The masks we wear hide our lust, our depression, our insecurity, our pathologies. Sometimes they hide our strongest abilities (if these abilities have for some reason been deemed unacceptable). They cover up our true intentions and motivations, our ambitions, our addictions and compulsions. Our masks hide our pain, our doubt, sometimes our hopes and desires. They might hide either our strength or our weakness. They hide our co-dependency, our abuse (or abusiveness), our desperation, our faith in whatever it is that we truly believe in.
Perhaps most importantly, our masks hide our fantastical imaginings, the depths of our inner world, the images that indelibly mark our heart and our psyche, that which we carry but have not actively chosen.
Deceiving our partner – Deceiving ourselves
The masks we wear allow (and require) us to deceive our partner and oftentimes ourselves. Arguably this is, for better and worse, a necessary part of courtship and of life, at least for a time. Masking is ubiquitous, and it is possible – likely in fact – that you are only dimly aware of some of the masks you wear.
While masking oneself may be a requirement of beginning a relationship, unmasking ourselves is certainly necessary for maturing it. In fact, the second stage of relationship (see my video on the three stages of relationship), sometimes called the “disillusionment stage“, could accurately be called the unmasking stage, but only if we’re willing to see it through that far.
It is perhaps our greatest accomplishment and potential in any relationship to unmask ourselves and reveal ourselves fully to our partner. In no small part this is because when we do, we are simultaneously revealed to ourselves. This homecoming is the shocking joy (and terror) of intimacy that some of us crave: knowing ourselves through our revelation to another, and vice versa.
The hunger for intimacy is the hunger for authenticity, for that which is most real and least unencumbered by the various deceptions, pretensions, obfuscations, and lies of the masked personae we encounter at every turn in life.
To be free of our masks and to discover that connection remains possible – that we can love and be loved for who we actually are in our entirety – is one of the greatest satisfactions of life and one of the greatest gifts that we can give ourselves and others, and yet it remains out of reach for most people. If we are unable or unwilling to witness, to confront, to “see”, and to reveal ourselves, with no guarantees, we can not experience unmasked intimacy.
Many people who do achieve this do so somewhat accidentally. They are cornered by life or their partner and the mask crumbles. Sometimes it makes a big mess. But we can also be pro-active in this regard; we can choose to confront our masked self rather than making our partner do it for us. You see, at some point your partner will feel your incongruence (and you theirs); they will become suspicious of you, sensing that what you present of yourself does not match their deeper intuitive experience of you. This creates rumblings and fractures. It can not be avoided forever, and it will kill or anaesthetize a relationship.
This unavoidable process begins once the “shine is off the apple”, it marks the end of the honeymoon stage, the end of innocence, and the beginning of your next initiation.
I received this fascinating letter from a reader recently, and she gave me permission to share it (with identifying features changed). She sent it after reading my articles and book, and feeling that what she read described her experience in profound ways. I hope you find her story as interesting and inspiring as I do.
Your post ‘Intimacy heretic’ absolutely resonates with me. It brought clarity to my confused mind. To think that I’m in the space I am in now is nothing short of incredible compared to where I was six months ago.
Six months ago I discovered (purely by accident) that Stan, my husband of nearly forty years, had been in a sexual relationship for three years and had fathered a daughter. Their daughter was an unplanned consequence. For the past eighteen years Stan has been regularly visiting and financially supporting the daughter that he loves.
I was traumatized by his revelations. After the initial numbness came the excruciating pain. My emotional roller-coaster began… I didn’t know this man. He was a stranger to me. His actions had crushed me.
Stan said it wasn’t me; it was him. He said that he’d always loved me but went his own way for a while… was purely self-indulgent. He begged me for another chance. He’s not the sort of guy that begs. He told me he was so very sorry for the hurt he’d caused; that he’d be a better man. It was heartfelt from him.
We got back together after some time apart. We are sixty-three years old, so should at least try again. But how on earth would I be able to ever trust him? How could I ever believe in him again, or even like him? I had to get my head around the fact that their affair began two decades ago. I had to try to accept that it was in the past (apart from his daughter who continues to be a small part of Stan’s life).
Justice, I find your term ‘tolerate’ is far more doable than acceptance. That changes my mindset – I can tolerate it now.
There were so many challenges to overcome. I had to get my power back. I had to live in the present moment. I needed to ground myself and calm my over-active mind because that was just causing me more anguish. I had to make myself important for myself.
During the challenging times, I had to remind myself of progress we were making. When I was in a dark place or overwhelmed with pain, Stan held me – no words – just held me as we went to sleep. Surprisingly, he recognized that’s exactly what was needed, or maybe he was at a loss to know what to do and it was instinctive. When he rubbed my back, my mind and body was eased.
He’d become present! A huge milestone. He soothed me; I could feel his love, his tenderness and also his pain. This was a new experience for us both. We’d never shared such deep heart-felt intimacy like that before. So simple, but the benefits are amazing. You talk about this in your book “The Re-connection Handbook for Couples”, which I read and found very valuable.
Again Justice, your insightful words “being soothed by our partner is one of life’s loveliest treasures… given as a gift” is spot on. I would not have made it if this hadn’t happened. I also realized that Stan also needs to be soothed – he’s been in pain too – that it’s not all about me and my needs.
What we have now is a much deeper level of intimacy. It’s extraordinary. I have felt quite confused by this, and yes, a bit embarrassed too. How did we get to this point when there was so much heart-breaking conflict and our future looked so bleak? It just seemed too weird to have reached a place where we now have a certain kind of wonderfulness. Couldn’t get much better so it’s actually pretty cool. We will surely have more obstacles, but at least know they can be handled.
Justice, your insightful writing has solved the mystery and has had a profound effect on me: the fact that not feeling full trust or emotional safety doesn’t mean the relationship has to end, that in fact it can have the exact opposite effect and bring richness… amazing.
Close friends gave us a card that read “It’s Amazing how much Right-side-up can Come from Up-side-down”. That’s certainly true.
I recently posted a short piece on instagram suggesting that certain kinds of intimacy can actually be limited by an insistence or over-emphasis on safety, trust, and validation in relationships. Someone asked a great question in the comments – “If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
Rather than address this question on instagram, I thought I would take the time to unpack it more thoroughly here. First, here’s what I said about safety and intimacy in my original post –
There’s nothing “wrong” with expecting your partner to provide safety and validation in order for you to reveal yourself to them, but making this a condition of your honest self-disclosure puts limits on the kinds of intimacy that will be available to you.
There’s another category of intimacy altogether, rooted in the personal integrity, emotional risk-taking, and self-validation required to confront and reveal yourself in front of your partner, regardless of their active participation. The idea that intimacy is always a two-way street, inherently dependent on partner reciprocity and validation actually keeps us cut off from some of the more profound experiences of intimacy that might otherwise be available.
This might be a difficult idea to accept. Don’t accept it, test it. Can you have your own experience of intimacy through courageous self-examination and self-disclosure in front of your partner, even if your partner does not validate you, make it “safe” for you, or share your feelings of intimacy?
Back to the question – “If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
To answer this question we need to include other questions: What kind of safety are we talking about? What does it mean to be trustworthy in a relationship?
We should also probably ask: What is intimacy anyway?
And underneath these questions another more essential question is implied: What are relationships for?
Whew. That’s a lot. Now you can see why I didn’t want to get into this too deeply in the comments section on instagram! Let’s work from the bottom up and start with the essential question –
What are relationships for?
Relationships perhaps have as many purposes as there are hopes and fears in the world. They’re complex, evolving systems with multidimensional purposes and qualities. Books – long and dense – could, and have been written on the subject.
Nonetheless, we might simplify the complexity of relationships by acknowledging two primary psycho/emotional needs that relationships fulfill: the need for comfort and the need for growth.
Relationships are a place of refuge and soothing, and also a place where we are challenged, broken, and perhaps put back together in new ways.
Most people like the idea of being supported, validated, soothed, and generally loved unconditionally in a relationship. Few people actively seek the kind of heart-breaking conflict that inevitably comes with a relationship as it matures. And yet some people will eventually, perhaps begrudgingly, come to acknowledge and even embrace the role that relationship conflict has in their personal growth and development. It is these people who are most likely to come to appreciate and practice a kind of intimacy that is not dependent upon partner validation or reciprocity, or even upon safety and trust per se.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy is a deeply subjective feeling that is difficult to wholly define. In my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples, I offer this – ” Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another.”
Further into the chapter I go on to suggest –
Intimacy can feel extremely gratifying for some people, but can also be frightening or confusing. Revealing ourselves is always risky. There is no guarantee that our inner self will be embraced by the other.
If we are not embraced for what we reveal, we may feel rejected or misunderstood. This too can be valuable, opening doors to further inquiry and understanding, and also perhaps most importantly, helping us build capacity for disappointment, for tolerating the experience of not getting the validation we crave. Thus we learn to validate ourselves, represent ourselves, soothe ourselves, accept ourselves, no matter how we are received. From this perspective, risking intimacy becomes a win/win opportunity.
Two kinds of intimacy
David Schnarch, in his many books and decades of clinical practice as a sex and marriage therapist, has defined two kinds of intimacy: Other-validated and Self-validated.
Other-validated intimacy is the kind of intimacy that most people are familiar with, and defines most peoples’ experience and expectations of intimacy. As the name implies, it requires validation from the “other”. It also assumes reciprocity, safety, vulnerability, trust etc. The intimacy model understood and promoted by most therapists, coaches, and teachers is other-validated intimacy.
There is nothing wrong with other-validated intimacy. This kind of intimacy fits well with the idea that relationships are primarily places of refuge, support, safety, and comfort.
Self-validated intimacy, by contrast, rests on the principle that we can get “the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another” without our partner’s explicit reciprocity or validation, rather we are able to validate ourselves regardless of our partner. This is difficult, much more difficult than relying on guaranteed validation from our partner. It is precisely this difficulty that brings self-validated intimacy a unique intensity and meaning.
In other-validated intimacy, your experience must match your partner’s; all kinds of agreements – explicit and implicit – must be enforced in order for intimacy to be felt as real and legitimate.
In self-validated intimacy, your experience can remain distinct from your partner’s. The sense of intimacy comes not from merging, but from engaging in self-exploration, self-confrontation, and self-revelation, all in front of your partner. Your partner must be sufficiently willing to remain present, but little more is required of them.
In conventional thinking, conflict is the opposite of intimacy. In self-validated intimacy, even conflict and disagreement can potentially feel intimate, for one or both of you. Recalling the question “what are relationships for”, this kind of intimacy fits well with the idea that relationships are not just places of safety and refuge, but places where difficult and uncomfortable personal growth happens.
Intimacy and vulnerability
While we’re slaughtering the sacred cow, we might as well throw “vulnerability” into the mix. Vulnerability in relationships, due in no small part to the excellent work of Brené Brown, has been glorified in the extreme. I fully understand and appreciate the power of vulnerability in this context; to finally shed that armour and really let someone IN… that’s powerful stuff. But the flipside of vulnerability is not necessarily emotional armouring; it can also be confidence in one’s self, a sense of unshakeable truth and personal integrity.
How does this fit with intimacy?
In the conventional intimacy paradigm, we must make ourselves vulnerable in order to experience intimacy. We share something deep; we might get hurt (vulnerability means the possibility of being hurt).
But in the other kind of intimacy, we’re not so worried about being hurt. We recognize that we hurt ourselves when we betray our own truth and integrity much more than our partner can hurt us when they reject our truth and integrity. No matter how our partner responds, we know who we are, and we’re willing to face the consequences, come what may. Yes, these consequences might hurt us, but they’re not our central concern. We know we can handle pain, we find meaning in it, we accept the fact that it is necessary for our growth, and so we are not particularly “vulnerable” in the common sense of the word.
Confessions of an intimacy heretic
In today’s social-media-self-help culture, the idea that intimate experiences do not necessarily rest upon safety, trust, validation, and vulnerability is nothing less than heretical. It’s so far out of the recognizable intimacy paradigm that it actually makes some people angry.
Other people are skeptical, but curious. When I shared my original instagram piece on facebook, a few people offered their (welcome) input –
One person declared, “I’ve dabbled in this a handful of times. It doesn’t feel great.”
Another added, “Not sure I’d be able to do it again and again. If it does truly encourage positive experiences then how can I do more of it without it feeling wrong?”
A great point and a great question.
Intimacy of any sort doesn’t always feel good to everyone, though in the other-validated form of intimacy, the potential for good feelings is fairly obvious, ie – I’m going to reveal something that makes me feel vulnerable, and then you’re going to demonstrate your unconditional acceptance of me, and we’ll feel extremely close for a time.
Self-validated intimacy does not hinge upon feeling particularly close or “joined” with our partner. Instead, the good feeling comes from the sense of satisfaction at telling the truth about our experience in front of someone who means a great deal to us, full stop.
A brief story –
A couple in session were coming to terms with the different relationship paradigms that they each inhabited. It was personal work that they were doing in full view of each other. One of them was realizing (and revealing) that they believed relationships were primarily a place to soothe each other and make each feel safe. The other was realizing that they believed that relationships were primarily a place to challenge each other (and themselves) for the sake of personal development.
I watched this couple (listened, more precisely, as we were on the phone) confront this fundamental difference more directly than they ever had before. They were being unreservedly honest with each other, but more importantly they were being unreservedly (aka “brutally”) honest with themselves… in front of each other. The tension was palpable.
Both of these individuals were deeply invested in the relationship, and each cared deeply for the other. At the end of the session, no conclusion had been reached. Then one of them spontaneously remarked how good it felt to confront this difference with their partner, to “own” their own feelings, even though the future was as unknown, as unsafe, as ever. This person was getting a taste of self-validated intimacy. It was spontaneous and it felt surprising to the one experiencing it.
Fore-mentioned author and therapist David Schnarch calls intimacy “Awareness of the self in the context of another.” This was the experience my client was having. Notice the emphasis on the primacy of one’s own “awareness of the self” rather than on any experience of safety, trust, validation, or even connection provided by the other.
The good feelings potentially associated with self-validated intimacy take some getting used to. Other-validated intimacy is more familiar, easier to comprehend, and easier to enjoy. Self-validated intimacy tends to be more of an acquired taste, and many will never do the work it takes to acquire it.
People who are easily triggered, who identify strongly with their woundedness or trauma, or who insist on being handled very carefully will have a more difficult time appreciating the idea or enjoying the feeling of self-validated intimacy. This is not to say it can’t be achievable for anyone who wants it and works at it. I’ve seen people who have been in therapy for years previously and who consider themselves deeply traumatized individuals begin to develop a capacity and enjoyment of self-validated intimacy in just a few months of couples therapy.
Developing an understanding, tolerance, and appreciation of self-validated intimacy can potentially be healing and productive for people who suffer from trauma-related symptoms, especially when they have experienced relational trauma or abuse.
Other-validated intimacy is easy to comprehend because we’re born wired for it (it is the familiar intimacy between mother and child), while comprehending self-validated intimacy requires a level of personal development in the area of emotional differentiation and individuation of self.
In the hierarchy of emotional development in individuals, other-validated intimacy is more primary, it comes first; self-validated intimacy follows, but only if we do the personal work required.
The beauty of togetherness, of unity, the sense of merging is celebrated loudly and often. But there is an equally poignant beauty in recognizing separateness, in all its ache and desire, in lovers feeling the distance between them, their own autonomy and their partner’s, the unbridgeable gap… feeling all this right there in front of each other… This beauty is less often celebrated, probably because it is more confusing, more paradoxical, and frankly, more advanced; recognizing it requires a kind of psychological maturity or sophistication.
Intimacy after affairs and near-breakups
Conventional wisdom would assume that intimacy after the revelation of an affair would be at an all-time low. After all, the feeling of safety in a relationship at this time is pretty much nil, and the trust is gone too.
And yet, it isn’t uncommon that people who come to therapy after an affair report feeling a strange new kind of intimacy with their partner. They have a difficult time explaining it. They don’t understand it. They’re often disturbed by it. They’re pretty sure they shouldn’t be feeling intimate with their partner in this situation. Sometimes they even feel guilty or ashamed at admitting what they feel.
If safety and trust are not foundational to the intimacy that arises in these situations, what is? What can we attribute it to? How shall we make sense of it?
Upon extensive inquiry I’ve discovered that this intimacy that can arise after affairs matches very closely Schnarch’s definition: “Awareness of the self in the context of another.” In this case, the “other” has become symbolic of betrayal and pain – basically the opposite of safety and trust – and yet… intimacy. Apparently intimacy does not necessarily require safety and trust. In fact, sometimes it seems to require the opposite: couples have reported to me that they have not felt so intimate in their marriage EVER, as they have when confronting an affair.
What is the “awareness of the self” that happens in these cases? I think it has something to do with an awareness of one’s ultimate separateness; call it existential separateness if you like. In the face of betrayal, we remember our separateness profoundly. Some kinds of intimacy, it turns out, depend upon this awareness of our separateness – an awareness felt most strongly “in the context of another” – rather than depending upon feelings of closeness, trust, safety, reciprocity, and validation.
A similar phenomenon can also occur when a marriage or significant relationship ends, or hovers on the brink of demise. At these times too my clients sometimes report intense feelings of intimacy.
What is happening in these cases? How to make sense of this?
One of the things that is happening is truth-telling. Feelings that have been hidden, covered up, denied, sometimes for decades, are revealed.
Not everyone has to cheat on their spouse or leave the relationship before they experience the self-validated intimacy that comes with truth-telling and confronting one’s own existential separateness. In fact, I recommend otherwise if at all possible.
What’s wrong with safety and trust in relationships?
If you’ve gotten the idea that I am arguing against the value of safety and trust in relationships, please let me clarify. I think it’s obvious that a certain sense of safety and trust must be present for most people to thrive in a relationship. What I’m suggesting is that another category of intimacy exists that is available only when we relax our grip on the idea of the centrality of other-validated safety and trust in relationship. It’s not that safety and trust don’t matter or don’t exist, it’s that we come to see them differently.
The same goes for vulnerability. It’s wonderful, and necessary, to make space for vulnerability in a relationship, to feel our openness and willingness to be hurt, to offer our throat to our beloved from time to time. But contrary to common belief, an intimacy beyond the vulnerability of putting our heart in our partner’s hands also exists.
Similarly, being soothed by our partner is one of life’s loveliest treasures (a treasure I personally cherish), but it’s most valuable when asked for openly or given as a gift rather than being an implicit or explicit condition of self-disclosure. The intimacy experience that arises regardless of partner soothing is of a different calibre from the intimacy that demands it. Unlike other-validated intimacy, self-validated intimacy requires us to soothe ourselves. This self-soothing is an antidote to co-dependency (emotional fusion), and a prerequisite for inter-dependency (emotional differentiation).
Returning to that question from a reader on instagram –
“If it’s not safe, why would you even bother? Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?”
Such a great question, two questions actually. Let’s examine both.
Why would you bother trying for intimacy with a person who does not always make you feel safe? Why would you be open to the idea of intimacy when you are not feeling entirely safe?
Maybe because you value the challenges that are being presented; especially the challenge to represent yourself honestly despite the absence of any guarantee. Maybe because growth and safety are not always compatible, and you’re committed to growth. Maybe because you recognize that your demands for safety come from the ancient, reptilian part of your brain, and you want to practice engaging the cognitive, human fore-brain. Maybe because you’re beginning to suspect that your safety doesn’t actually depend on what your partner thinks or how they react. (Of course I am talking about perceived emotional safety here, not actual threats to physical safety.)
In the simplest terms, growth and the self-confrontation that growth requires rarely feel safe. If feeling “safe” with a partner means they protect you from the pain that their true feelings might cause, then your safety is very precarious indeed. Consider, the difference between the pain of woundedness and the pain of growth can be difficult to discern; sometimes the difference is all in the meaning we make of the experience.
Also, if feeling safe with a partner means they spare you the pain of facing existential separateness and existential loneliness, this safety becomes a hurdle, an Achilles heal in your own self-development. Being open to feelings of intimacy with a person who does not make you feel entirely safe is not necessarily an act of self-betrayal or foolishness; sometimes it is an act of maturity and courage.
Why would a person remain with someone who is untrustworthy?
It depends what one means by trust and trustworthiness. Are we talking about trusting our partner to tell us the lies we half-want and expect to hear? Trusting our partner to listen to anything we have to say without having a contradictory view or experience? Trusting our partner to keep the peace despite the war they might feel inside? Trust in our partner to prop up our self-esteem because we’re unable to do that for our self?
Or do we want to be able to trust our partner with tolerating difficult truths, both the telling and the receiving? Can we trust our partner to represent themselves honestly, even if it hurts us, or them? How about trusting our partner to allow us to face our own existential pain without trying to rescue us from it because it it makes them uncomfortable? Most importantly, do we possess the self-respect that allows us to trust our own response-ability in the ever changing landscape of our relationship? Can we trust our own judgement, our own perception? If so, our partner’s perceived trustworthiness becomes far less important.
Ideas of trust and safety are complex and multidimensional; neither should be assumed to be wholly virtuous, without shadowy aspects.
The most profound truths are difficult truths, and difficult truths rarely feel “safe.” They feel like the opposite of safe; they feel dangerous. If “trusting” our partner means that they must respond to our difficult truths with validation and make us feel “safe” in our self-disclosures, then cycles of inauthenticity (ie- lying and pretending) are established within the relationship and will certainly contaminate our experiences of intimacy.
I have observed that the safety and trust that is most profound in relationship tends to be hard-won, a product of difficulty and growth rather than of agreements, demands, compromise, or negotiations. There’s a trustworthiness and safety in knowing that your partner will stand their ground even in the face of your discomfort, but this is a truth that not everyone comes to recognize.
In closing, none of this is meant to be absolute or prescriptive. We all have to wrestle with the personal and subjective meanings of safety, trust, validation, and related themes in our relationships.
My intent here is to add some flesh to the bones of an idea I shared recently in brief; the idea that there is a kind of intimacy that is different from the conventional version. These ideas can never be expressed fully enough; an experience like intimacy is so deep, so unique, and so subjectively personal that it is, in a way, futile to try to define it or map it or even talk about it. And yet there’s some beauty even in the futility.
In some way, writing this has been an intimate experience for me. I reveal myself, presenting an idea that may be unpopular. It’s not entirely safe. I don’t trust that you will agree with me. I don’t need or expect you to validate what I have said. And I’m open to hearing your thoughts and feelings, whatever they are, because I’ve confronted my own, right here in front of you.
Learning about relationships at Westcoast Bound kink and BDSM conference
I recently attended a conference on relationships where I got to learn from some of the most passionate, skilled, and experienced facilitators that I’ve ever encountered. This wasn’t a psychotherapy conference, or even a conference specifically on attachment theory, Imago, active listening, neuroscience, or empathy, although many of these topics were touched upon.
The classes at this conference were on topics like…
Passion, Joy, Fear and Healing at the end of a Whip. BDSM, Sex & Shame. Nonverbal Power & Surrender. Control & Dominance Moves with Rope. The Good, the Bad, and the Poly.
It might seem a strange place to learn about relationships, and a strange place for a marriage counsellor and couples therapist to continue their own learning, but here’s my profound discovery from my weekend at Westcoast Bound: The cutting edge of relationship work is being honed at the margins.
Maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. Isn’t it always the pioneers pushing the edges who bring their discoveries to the rest of us, providing tales of adventure, and exotic spices to enrich our lives? Perhaps it makes sense that those pushing the edges of relationship would make discoveries that eventually touch us all.
You may not enjoy being erotically flogged, or you might, but the communication, care, and visceral energy that goes into and comes out of such a scene is illuminating for anyone. The idea of whipping or being whipped by your beloved may create cognitive dissonance and be on your list of hard limits, but watching the dance of the whip in skilled and caring hands, its gentle kiss against trembling skin, and the intimacy between the people involved (despite the bright-light conference room setting) rivals the feeling of the most evocative dance performance you’ve ever witnessed.
Over the course of my career as a couples counsellor, and in my life as a human being hungry for connection, growth, and understanding, I’ve been to many workshops, retreats, and trainings. Many of these have been about communication, intimacy, and relationships. The part that is often missing is about what to do with the uncomfortable feelings that arise in relationship, how to work with the darker aspects, shadow, contradiction, paradox.
If you visit the Westcoast Bound website (click here), you will see a striking image of a woman wearing a gas mask, with electrical tape in an x shape across her nipples. You’ll probably see some irreverent quotes and potentially confusing language. What won’t be immediately obvious is the tenderness, courage, authenticity, presence, and playfulness – all crucial qualities for relationship – that is cultivated and celebrated at the event, to a degree I’ve rarely seen at other types of gatherings.
An interesting thing about empathy, compassion, and even intimacy and eroticism, is that they often arise more or less spontaneously out of duress, from experiences that feel raw and risky. Westcoast Bound is a place for screaming and begging, uncomfortable squirming, laughter along with tears. People here are creating experiences for each other that raise adrenaline and endorphins. It’s not for the faint of heart. Neither, for that matter, is an extraordinary marriage, a difficult conversation, or true intimacy.
If we want to create a sense of risk and courage to make a relationship feel more exciting and bonding, and we want to do this safely and well, we better develop skills – both physical and emotional. And so a conference like this is about developing these skills, both hard skills and soft skills.
A fingerbanging and g-spot orgasm workshop, it turns out, is as much about tuning into your partner’s experience as it is about perfecting a certain way of using one’s fingers. It becomes a class on intimacy and communication. Along the way there’s humour, and a few jaw-dropping spectacles (I’ll let you use your imagination).
With its x-rated language and startling imagery, a BDSM community – any BDSM community – creates a sort of boundary (“You must be THIS tall to enter”). An initiation is required. Can you handle the shock? Do you have a relationship with your darker side? Beyond this boundary of initiation lies a surprisingly rich landscape of relational, emotional, and conceptual riches, but only for those who can tolerate or are attracted to certain discomforts.
Speaking as someone who delves around the many edges of relationship, sex, and intimacy, and who also very happily works smack dab in the middle, with many conventionally minded “vanilla” couples, I urge those who dwell somewhere toward the centre to strike out and explore the margins. You needn’t embrace everything you find there, but you’re likely to discover something valuable. This is no prescription, rather a humble invitation.
By the way, tickets for the Westcoast Bound weekend cost around, wait for it… a hundred and fifty bucks. Hard to find that kind of value for a three day learning event. There are plenty of fetish nights in any city that will show you the shiny surface of this world of kink and BDSM, but if you want the depth, the grit, this is the type of conference to look for.
Some of the workshop presenters have been teaching for thirty plus years. They’ve written books and directed films. Many have lived through prejudice if not outright persecution. There’s an incredible collection of experience, wisdom, and diversity in this place. You will learn something from these people, although probably not what you anticipated.
You’ll be exposed to an intersection of trans, queer, kinky, poly, Top, bottom, Dom, sub, switch people and communities, and, if you are willing, you might emerge changed. Your world will get bigger. Your eyes may bulge, judgements flair. If you make it to the dungeon parties, you may be shocked by the unabashed sadism and masochism you witness. And you may be surprised by the… normalcy of it all. We all have a sadistic and a masochistic side. Some are willing to play with these aspects of self, wrestling them into consciousness. Others hide them away, setting the stage for being bit in the ass later, or doing the biting, neither consensually nor with awareness, let alone enjoyment.
Here are some words I overheard after the event –
I’m pretty proud. It was an incredibly cathartic experience. I let out tears and screams that I’ve been holding in for many years. I’ve been seeing therapists for 5 years and I was never able to release them. But in this environment I was able to let go. I felt so safe and accepted. This weekend was a life changing experience.
In my writing, I sometimes talk about the need for finding healthy expressions of sadism and masochism in relationships. I talk about acknowledging the power struggles and power dynamics that are always present in relationships. I talk about nurturing playfulness and erotic tension (WCB presenter Midori on BDSM – “It’s like cops and robbers… with fucking!”). I also point out the benefits of talking explicitly about sex and desire in relationships, and about the pain and shame that keeps us silent. All of these crucial relationship themes are woven throughout the Westcoast Bound experience.
In my work counselling couples, the root of the trouble turns out rarely to be the thing we began with, the core stuff is rarely the “presenting issue.” More often we discover that it is something about how a couple thinks about their relationship that needs addressing. Adding to the problem is that most of the people in our lives think about relationships more or less the same way we do. The messages we get about sex and relationship tend to reflect our own, and we find ourselves trapped in a cultural echo chamber. Without new ideas, new influences, we remain imaginatively and creatively stuck.
The purpose of therapy is, amongst other things, to broaden our perspectives, our thinking. Some of the most celebrated researchers and thought-leaders on sex and relationships come from the world of academia and psychotherapy – Murray Bowen, John Gottman, Harville Hendrix, John Bowlby, Harriet Lerner etc – but we need the wisdom from the margins too, people who have used their lives to dive into the darker depths, and then report on what they find.
A weekend immersed in a different way of seeing sex and relationships (kink and BDSM being just one possibility; certainly there are others) might not be therapeutic exactly… but it might just end up making us somehow more whole.
Below are links to some of the presenters I saw at Westcoast Bound 2017. Check out what they have to say. Sign up for their newsletters. You might find them challenging. You might disagree with them. But you might also find something that you’re ready, or even hungry, for.
Midori – Kink author and educator. Check out her books and workshops.
Intimacy is one of those tender topics that comes up every day in my counselling work with couples. There’s a lot of confusion about what intimacy actually is. Intimacy often gets confused with sex, and while they are related experiences, they are also distinct.
Intimacy is the feeling that comes from revealing our inner self to be actively witnessed by another. Intimacy can feel extremely gratifying for some people, but can also be frightening or confusing. Revealing ourselves is always risky. There is no guarantee that our inner self will be embraced by the other.
If we are not embraced for what we reveal, we may feel rejected or misunderstood. This too can be valuable, opening doors to further inquiry and understanding, and also perhaps most importantly, helping us build capacity for disappointment, for tolerating the experience of not getting the validation we crave. Thus we learn to validate ourselves, represent ourselves, soothe ourselves, accept ourselves, no matter how we are received. From this perspective, risking intimacy becomes a win/win opportunity.
Nonetheless, individual appetites and tolerances for intimacy vary. Intimacy doesn’t feel good for everyone. A mismatch between lovers in this regard can be a source of frustration, anger and disconnection. The person craving more intimacy may judge their partner to be cold or withdrawn. The person with less appetite or tolerance for intimacy may experience their partner as intrusive or overbearing.
Intimacy needs can differ between people in a relationship
It’s common to assume that our personal intimacy needs are “normal” and should be automatically met by our partner. It’s tempting to pathologize or condemn them when they fail to meet these needs. It’s also common in counselling for the counsellor to collude, consciously or unconsciously, with the person who wants more intimacy. Often (not always) it is a woman who wants more intimacy, and a man who doesn’t see a problem. Hence, perhaps, the cliche of the man who resists couples counselling. In my work I’m careful to take a value neutral approach to intimacy, honoring all personal preferences and capacities. Regardless of one’s personal tolerance or desire for intimacy, exploring the topic with curiosity is helpful and illuminating. (Intimacy is also discussed at length in my book Conscious Kink for Couples – click here to read a sample.)
Liz and Colin appeared to have extremely different emotional experiences and needs. In their own words, Colin was rock solid; Liz was a rollercoaster. By the time they came to me for help Liz was ready to pull the plug on the relationship. She carried a lot of anxiety, and we talked openly about the impact it had on the relationship.
Liz also was very clear that she wanted a deeper level of emotional engagement with a partner, and she wasn’t sure Colin could provide it. Colin repeatedly stated his willingness to “do anything” to help Liz get her needs met.
This “can-do” attitude seemed consistent with his overall character and his way of moving through the world in general. Colin was good at holding a vision and making sacrifices as he worked for future goals. An interesting implication of this was that there was a sense of him always existing somewhere off in the future… somewhere else. But Liz wanted to feel him in the present, here and now. She would get so frustrated that she would question his love for her. This would launch him into an incredulous defense about how everything he does is for the relationship, which was probably true.
By his own admission, Colin did not understand what Liz was really asking of him. In session, I saw an opportunity to potentially help him get a taste of what she was looking for –
Me: “Colin, I’m noticing that even as Liz talks about leaving the relationship, a relationship you obviously care about, you don’t seem emotionally phased. What’s going on inside right now?”
Colin: “I’m thinking about what I’ll need to do to take care of myself. New apartment, that kind of thing.”
Me: “You automatically start thinking about how to deal effectively with whatever change might be on the horizon. You’re good at recovering from setbacks and at strategizing. It’s one of your gifts.”
Me: “I’m going to ask you to back up a step, and check out what it feels like to hear that Liz is considering ending the relationship. Start with your body. What kind of sensations do you feel in your body when you hear Liz’s words?
Colin: (Pause) “I feel an emptiness in my belly.”
Me: “That makes sense. Stay with that sensation of emptiness in your belly. In this moment there’s nothing to do about it. Just let yourself feel it fully. (Pause) What’s the emotion that comes with that emptiness?”
Colin: “Fearfulness. I’m afraid of having no one to lean on.”
Me: “Ah. Yes. It’s scary to be alone. Again, I don’t want you to strategize your way out of this feeling quite yet. Are you willing to stay with the feeling of fear a little longer?”
Liz had been desperate to connect emotionally with Colin, but she didn’t know how to get through to him. Colin had tried everything he knew to care for the relationship, but he genuinely did not understand what she wanted. In those few minutes of our session together, Colin stayed with his uncomfortable feelings without automatically moving into problem solving mode. Importantly, he was also revealing this inner experience to Liz. This was intimacy, feeling Colin expose his tender feelings. This is what Liz was starving for. This is what made her feel connected.
Feelings… Strength or weakness?
It was unfamiliar and counter-intuitive territory for Colin. He considered his ability to bypass his feelings and get a job done to be a great strength of his, and he’s right, to a point. It IS valuable to be able to feel lousy and still get stuff done, but not always. In this case Colin was tasked with something different, a new addition to his repertoire. No matter how vigorously he used the old tools he knew so well, they would never be satisfying for Liz unless some occasional insight into his feeling self was also included.
I made it clear to Colin that he was under no obligation to change his way of doing things. This was all optional. It’s not our “job” to meet our partner’s needs, it’s a gift we give to each other, and a way of answering the calling of the relationship itself. Sometimes, in an unexpected moment of clarity or insight, we might feel like it’s a gift we give ourselves too. For Colin, this encouragement, this permission to have his emotional experience, and to share it with his partner, to have it be welcome, this was something strange and new. It turned out that he found some pleasure in it, enough to spark his curiosity and create willingness to experiment further.
Toward the end of our session, Colin confided that he had never really felt okay with sharing his emotional experience. He felt pressure as a man to minimize his emotions in order to perform in the world. I found this to be quite insightful, and to match my own observations about gender expectations and social conditioning.
Colin felt vulnerable revealing his emotionality, and he simultaneously felt some satisfaction in it. Vulnerability is a necessary part of revealing our inner self to our partner. When we reveal our inner experience, there is no guarantee that it will be received favorably. We risk rejection, judgement, ridicule. We might be tempted to mitigate this risk by securing carte blanche acceptance, unconditional love, or validation from our partner in advance, “You have to promise you won’t get mad…”, but this undermines real intimacy, which requires us to risk being ourselves no matter the consequences. Only when we risk revealing who we are inside, and accept the possible consequences, can we experience intimacy. Meeting our spouse in this vulnerable place of risk and uncertainty connects us to some alive part of ourselves. We feel bonded and strangely powerful even as we also feel uncertain and fragile. Paradox abounds.
Relationship articles, facebook memes, and lofty platitudes about what makes a “healthy” relationship float across my virtual desktop daily. They always emphasize high ideals of respect, kindness, trust, empathy, validation, etc. They never include anyone saying –
“I hate my wife.”
“I hate my husband.”
It’s no wonder that my counselling clients feel like failures, and doubt the legitimacy of their marriage or relationship (or even of themselves) if they experience intense resentment, anger, grief, rage, frustration or jealousy.
What are we supposed to do with these unwanted feelings when we’re repeatedly told that they have no place in a “healthy” relationship (or life)?
For many, the answer is simple. Ignore the feelings. Reject them. Stuff them deeply into a sack and drag it along behind, pretending it does not exist, even as it grows into elephantine proportions and begins to crowd everything else out of the room.
I confessed in an interview recently that I was feeling grateful for being able to express my outright rage and seething hatred of my spouse… to my spouse. That’s right, I told my partner that I hated her. And guess what: The world didn’t end. And neither did my relationship.
As a marriage counsellor working with clients worldwide, it felt risky to publicly share that I sometimes hate my partner, and that I have told her so. But I believe that because I am able to express a full range of feelings toward her, and because she can hear them, disaster is averted. This works in both directions in our relationship; I hear about her anger as well. It has at least once been expressed as “I want so badly to punch you in the face.” (She contained the impulse, but the message was received.)
In our relationship, my partner and I allow each other to express these difficult, dark feelings, and so they are, in a way, over time, transformed. Left in the dark corners they fester and grow, and they sneak up on us, often in disguise. Faced head on, they tend to reconcile of their own accord. The result? A clean slate.
That’s worth stating again: To the degree that we are able to identify, express, and reconcile our darker feelings about each other – to each other – we’re able to avoid lingering resentments in our relationship.
“If your ideas about love are too narrow to accommodate the relationship you actually have right now, you may want to try expanding your thinking. Love is certainly not just good feelings, kindness and caring. Romantic and erotic love is compatible with resentment, mistrust, selfishness and even cruelty. Perfectionism, lofty platitudes and willful naivete about love are common in our culture, but real love may demand dark expressions from time to time.”
Are negative emotions so bad?
Emotions in our culture have been neatly divided into two columns: negative and positive. But what if emotions were neither negative nor positive? Neither good nor bad? What if emotions were simply acknowledged on their own terms?
There’s a popular idea that we should be able to control our feelings through sheer force of will. I’ve never, ever seen this to be true. But I have seen the damage that this belief causes. It IS true that by practicing mindful awareness, we may be free of some of the more painful and destructive emotions, but they fade largely of their own accord, and usually only after being acknowledged, and even expressed.
So how can we safely express potentially destructive emotions like rage and hatred? Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps they are inherently unsafe. If so, it appears that we must risk something if we are to give our anger, cruelty, resentment any real voice. (Sometimes what we risk is intimacy; the intimacy aspects of engaging with the darker emotions often go unrecognized.)
Popular communication techniques would have us calmly and quietly stating our angry feelings – “It makes me feel angry when you leave your socks on the floor.” But anger, real anger, is rarely calm and quiet. It is fiery and fast. It burns. I’m suspicious of techniques that sugar-coat or rely too much on pretending.
Of course, raw, unchecked rage and hatred freely expressed in a relationship is clearly not going to be acceptable to most self-respecting people. If we want to work with darker emotions, to allow them an appropriate place in our awareness, our relationship and lives, the answer must lie somewhere in between; still potent and alive, but not full force. We can practice allowing an emotion like anger without becoming it entirely. The key is awareness; the ability to have an experience (really HAVE it), and also to notice it at the same time. This requires us to grow our capacity for seemingly contradictory experiences, what I sometimes call “holding opposites,” and it takes practice.
There’s no reliable formula for successfully navigating difficult emotions like anger in a relationship. Talk with your partner. Examine your own taboos. See if there might be room to experiment with allowing some expression, even a basic verbal acknowledgement of the feeling.
Every relationship has its own unique culture, a set of agreements and rituals, implicit or explicit, that guide it. Does your relationship make room for expressions of the full range of human emotions? Or are only “positive” emotions allowed?
A reader asks Have you read Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity?
I really like the articles you share on your facebook page and on your website. I’m wondering if you have read the book Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel and if so, what do you think of it?
My response –
Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity has been recommended to me often enough that I picked up a copy recently and gave it a speed read. Here are my initial thoughts –
Perel’s observations and experiences mostly match my own, professionally and personally. Early in the book Perel gives nods to both David Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage and Mark Epstein’s lesser known and wonderful book Open To Desire. Her influences are my influences, and so I quickly felt resonance.
I appreciate how she respects the tension between the two poles of desire that commonly define relationships – the desire for security/safety and the desire for excitement/freedom. Rather than offer some easy solution to this dilemma, she invites the reader to sit in the uncomfortable paradox of wanting two seemingly contradictory experiences. This feels like a wise and respectful approach, and one that I employ in my own practice.
Her legitimization of the underlying impulses that drive extra-marital affairs, namely the desire for “aliveness”, will certainly be mistaken for advocacy by those who can’t discern between descriptive and prescriptive voices. Likewise, her willingness to explore kink/bdsm without pathologizing it, and to explore eroticism outside the marriage unit, including consensual non-monogamy, will likely confuse or offend those with fundamentalist ideologies.
Perel gives voice to the elephants in the room. Her truths suddenly seem obvious upon reading, and one wonders how they escaped recognition until now. (The answer likely has to do with the power of taboo and with our unexamined assumptions about sex and love.)
Mating in Captivity acknowledges traditional gender roles and the ways they have shaped our beliefs about marriage and relationship, while offering thoroughly realistic current assessments of how these roles are becoming fluid matters of choice rather than matters of inherited social convention.
Perel’s cross-cultural (and sub-cultural) points of view challenge core American beliefs about the nature of romance, marriage, and intimacy; beliefs that couples therapy as an institution has, itself, largely internalized. For example, you’ll find nothing about “emotional cheating” in this book. In fact, acknowledging and working with the presence of “the third” (whether real, metaphorical or fantasy) is presented as a valuable erotic tool for couples.
In a cultural environment where marriage is expected to become an increasingly serious, responsible, secure and, frankly, non-erotic venture, intentionally nurturing eroticism in the home becomes, as Perel puts it, “an open act of defiance.” Accordingly, Mating in Captivity speaks to those who have a defiant streak.
I’m grateful for the author’s contribution, and the book has earned a place on my shelf. For readers struggling with affairs, the loss of eroticism, waning desire, sexual shame, disconnection or other common relationship issues, Mating In Captivity will be a beacon of illumination and hope, while also posing significant challenges to the ways we are accustomed to thinking about fidelity, love, sex and marriage.