Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

Intimacy heretic – “Relationships aren’t just for safety, trust, and validation.”

Confessions of an intimacy heretic - It's not all about safety and trust.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.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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BDSM and Healing – Can kinky sex help heal your relationship?

BDSM and Healing - Can kinky sex help heal your relationship?BDSM and healing

BDSM stands for bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; sadism and masochism. In my work, I often refer to BDSM as “erotic power exchange.” In a BDSM experience, one person’s individual power and autonomy is consensually given to the other, within negotiated parameters, for erotic or sexual purposes.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but used carefully, with mindfulness and intention, BDSM can become a powerful tool for insight and healing. In my book, Conscious Kink for Couples – The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing, I explore this healing potential in depth. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction –

What is “Conscious Kink?”

Every relationship that I’ve ever had the honour of witnessing in my work as a marriage counsellor and couples therapist has included aspects of sadism and masochism, cruelty, power struggles, role-play, and various psychological manipulation, headgames, and mindfucks – even as one or both individuals in the relationship work desperately to hide these qualities from themselves or each other, keeping the dark elements buried in unconsciousness, and maintaining a veneer of innocence and normalcy.

The unwillingness to confront one’s own complicity in creating the suffering that inevitably arises in a relationship can be understood in part as an avoidance of facing one’s own shadow; a reluctance to enter into one’s own darker realms.

Conscious Kink and BDSM , in addition to providing sexual or erotic outlets and pleasures, can also become a structure and a practice for revealing, observing, and befriending our dark and shadowy parts.

Sex is a window to our deepest core, to the material of our soul, and by following our kinky desires, and intentionally adding the element of conscious awareness, we end up doing important psycho-emotional work.

Doing this work as a couple, within the sexual/erotic realm, and witnessing each other in the process; this has the power to foster incredible intimacy, growth, and healing. Conscious Kink combines sexual adventurousness with an intention towards awareness, creating a valuable integration practice for life.

Kink and BDSM: For healthy, loving, sensitive people

Hollywood and popular culture have, predictably, distorted kink and BDSM for their own sensationalist purposes. “The gimp” in Pulp Fiction… the stalker-ish behaviour of Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey… these are to real-life kink and BDSM what Tom and Jerry are to real cats and mice: Entertaining perhaps, but mostly bearing little resemblance or relevance to actual kinky people or kink practices.

Real-world kink and BDSM is practiced intelligently, consensually, skillfully, and inspiringly by people across all socio- economic, political, and even religious spectrums. I know kinky social workers, administrators, and public servants. I know kinky social activists, Christians, pagans, and single parents. Welders and bus drivers can be kinky, so can school teachers and entrepreneurs. Married, single, gay, straight, black, white, privileged, oppressed, happy, sad, fat, thin… you get the idea.

I’m painting this picture to help dispel whatever assumption you might have that only “other” people are attracted to kinky sex. If you’re struggling with feeling alone, marginalized, or weird for your (or your partner’s) unconventional desires, I assure you that you are in plenty of good company. Many healthy, loving, sensitive, intelligent people are into kink and BDSM.

Conscious Kinky Couples come from all sorts of backgrounds, and show wide variations in preferences, styles, and personality types, but those with some practice under their belt tend to develop three qualities in common. Interestingly, these same three qualities, or more accurately their absence, predictably show up again and again in the work I do with non-kinky client couples. Could Conscious Kinky Couples have something to teach us all?

Three qualities of Conscious Kinky Couples

1. Conscious Kinky Couples talk openly and explicitly about sex.
They have the courage to ask for what they want, and to represent themselves sexually. They don’t assume that their partner will read their mind. They negotiate to get both partners’ needs met. They share their sexual fantasies and desires. Conscious Kinky Couples might use mystery and intrigue intentionally to cultivate turn-on and eroticism, but they’re ready to talk candidly about sex, and they don’t hide behind assumptions, social convention, or their own shame and wounding.

2. Conscious Kinky Couples work to heal their sexual shame and wounding.
The intentional and explicit nature of their sex lives forces Conscious Kinky Couples to confront their shame and wounding repeatedly, often in many different contexts. Their kinky play or BDSM practice may include consensual humiliation or objectification, sadomasochism, erotic power exchange etc. The Conscious Kinky Couple uses these experiences, and the debriefing that follows, as opportunities for self-examination and integration.

3. Conscious Kinky Couples make time for sex, and they consciously cultivate eroticism in their relationship. Lack of time is a universal theme I encounter with the couples I counsel. Kids, work, family, friends, holidays… there’s a long list of commitments and priorities that creep in to take precedent over sex. Conscious Kinky Couples, however, are more likely to dedicate time to sex. Conscious Kink gives couples a structure for actively supporting and growing their sex lives, a structure that is sorely missing in many modern relationships.

BDSM, Kink, and Shadow Integration

“We find that by opening the door to the shadow realm a little, and letting out various elements a few at a time, relating to them, finding use for them, negotiating, we can reduce being surprised by shadow sneak attacks and unexpected explosions.”
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Each one of us has qualities or parts of ourselves that we have denied, repressed, or “split off” from consciousness. Pioneer psychologist Carl Jung called these exiled parts of self “shadow” because, pushed away from awareness, they remain hidden from us.

We deny these parts of self, often from childhood, because they were unacceptable to our parents, to society, or to our immature, narrow vision of ourselves. We all originally exiled parts of ourselves for good reasons; it was our way to adapt and survive, and also to create a positive self-image, to “be good.”

For some of us it was our anger or rage that was unwelcome, and so we rejected that part of ourself. For others it was our power, or maybe our weakness. Either strength or vulnerability might have offended our caregivers when we were young; any quality at all might have been deemed unacceptable, and so was driven underground.

Individuals and families have their own standards for which qualities are allowed and which are denied, and every culture and subculture also has its own codes for what it rewards and what it punishes.

Each of us in our lifetime is faced with the task of, one way or another, bringing these repressed parts into consciousness and finding them an appropriate and enriching place in our lives. Until we do, they continue to drive our thinking and our behaviour, and have an enormous, though invisible, impact.

These rejected parts of ourselves not only cause suffering as they shape our lives from beneath conscious awareness, on the flip-side they also have valuable gifts to provide once we do the work of retrieving them. Thus the benefit of retrieval is twofold.

Reclaiming our lost parts, integrating our shadow… this is a process of becoming whole, of healing. In fact, some psychotherapeutic models put shadow retrieval or integration, in some form, at the center of the healing journey.

This work is difficult because to integrate the shadow, to retrieve the lost parts of self, means to face tremendous pain and confusion. We must face that which we long ago deemed unacceptable, bad, or even evil. But we must first find it. We must summon that which we banished, that which we fear most. And we must do it without yet knowing how these parts of self will eventually be integrated. We have no place reserved for them in our home, and yet we must welcome them in.

We can not face our shadow directly because it is unconscious, and therefore invisible; otherwise it would not be our shadow. It must be viewed through a veil or intermediary. Shadow must be approached indirectly, through metaphor, myth, art, role-play, poetry, and other forms of suspended disbelief. Shadow retrieval and integration happens on the edge of consciousness, in the liminal spaces, in the places in between. Conscious Kink can provide these places.

Making a place for sadism and masochism in a relationship

“Hatred and aggression — and carnivorous sexual intent — aren’t our ‘dark’ side. Our dark side is the side that denies its own existence.”
~ David Schnarch

Two of the most commonly denied, most present, and most influential, though unconscious, aspects of self are in fact twin shadow archetypes: the sadist and the masochist.

We all have an inner sadist taking pleasure in the suffering of others, and also an inner masochist finding comfort in our own suffering.

BDSM can turn sadomasochism into an art and a practice, and provides, if we use it consciously, a structure for beginning to glimpse and reconcile our own denied or projected sadism and/or masochism.

Conscious Kink allows us a soundstage, a theatre for playing out a sadomasochistic drama, for bearing witness to our own sadistic or masochistic desires and tendencies, and potentially for finding them a home, an appropriate place in our psyche via our erotic lives.

Without a practice of this sort, we might continue unconsciously playing out our sadomasochistic patterns in our lives and relationships, denying our own complicity, and projecting our capacity for cruelty or martyrdom onto others, where we can judge it from a safe distance.

A conventional lover might protect their self-image of innocence, claiming, “Oh no, I never, ever punish my partner for not meeting my expectations. I take no joy in cruelty.” And then they give their partner the silent treatment, or with-hold affection, or explode with accusations.

By contrast, a practitioner of Conscious Kink, in a carefully negotiated BDSM session or “scene” with their partner says “Do as I say or there will be a consequence.” The sadism is revealed. It is summoned onto the stage where a couple can see it, work with it, play with it, learn from it, find its erotic energy and harness it. Here we find potential for mutual pleasure, as well as shadow integration; transformation; alchemy.

The BDSM scene becomes a sacred space between the world of reality and the world of pretending. Sadomasochistic dynamics are first acknowledged as desire in the self, and then they are given a life through collaboration and negotiation. Within a BDSM scene, sadomasochistic dynamics become “play,” but they are also rooted in our deepest, most real, core selves.

The BDSM scene provides the “in-between” space necessary for retrieving the sadism and masochism we have denied in ourselves but projected onto others. The result, by any name, is healing.

Erotic power exchange: Dominance and submission

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Power dynamics exist, mostly unconscious and unacknowledged, within all relationships. So much so that therapists often talk about the “power struggle” phase of a marriage or relationship as though it were inevitable.

Beneath the spoken agreements in any relationship, beneath the obvious labour divisions and the negotiated sharing of responsibilities, lurk shadowy power struggles, uneasy balancing acts, and resentment-laden asymmetries.

Consciously bringing power exchange dynamics into a relationship in an erotic or sexual form can add more than “spice” or excitement, it can shine a light on some of these hidden power struggles and imbalances.

Also illuminated is your own personal relationship to power –

Are you comfortable with power? Are you afraid of it? Do you fight for power in your relationship? Do you crave it? Do you share power well with others? Do you consider the responsibility of power to be a burden?

Are you trustworthy with power? Do you trust power in the hands of your partner? Do you abdicate your power and then resent its loss?

How about powerlessness? Do you fear loss of control? Do you crave loss of control? Do you long for surrender?

Uncovering the hidden power dynamics in ourselves and in our relationship through a practice of Conscious Kink can have surprising and even disturbing outcomes.

Control issues may be revealed. Fear, cruelty, punishment, with- holding… these are all normal dark-side aspects of power that may present themselves. They’ve been there all along, but now we see them in a new light.

Conscious Kinky Couples can collaboratively and consensually play with power dynamics, eroticizing them, finding pleasure in them, and perhaps, over time, gleaning some of the deeper meanings that power (and powerlessness or surrender) holds in their relationship and in their lives.

Conscious Kink and BDSM practitioners usually identify as either top, bottom, or switch. The terms dominant and submissive are often used interchangeably with the terms top and bottom. Tops (dominants) hold power, bottoms (submissives) surrender power, and switches, as the term implies, can go either way. The degree of power exchange, and the specific nuances, are carefully discussed and negotiated until full consent and understanding is reached.

You’re not bound (pun intended) to any particular identity, and you’re free to experiment with whatever sort of power exchange suits you and your partner.

Like what you’re reading here? Get my new book –

Conscious Kink for Couples:
The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing

Conscious Kink for Couples - The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing - by Justice Schanfarber

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Learn to use kinky sex and BDSM as an awareness practice for healing and growth (like you might use yoga, meditation, or martial arts).

~ Bring more awareness, creativity, and intention to your sex life.

~ Reconcile your “darker” sexual desires with the deep love and caring that is the foundation of your relationship.

~ Make a place for consensual Dominance and submission alongside equality and respect

~ Confront the shame, doubt, or self-consciousness that thwarts or confuses you.

Campbell River Counselling Justice Schanfarber HakomiTrying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide individual counselling, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships. Serving clients worldwide by phone/skype. Email to request a client info package.

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Counselling Articles

Anxiety relief without medication – A three step mindfulness based approach to managing an activated nervous system

Perspectives on anxiety – “Please rescue me from this feeling”

All of life, family, community and relationships can be understood, in a sense, as an unconscious exercise in releasing ourselves from the anxiety of being a human being.

The anxiety of not being good enough, of past hurts and traumas, of not being known and loved for who we are, and of knowing that we – along with everyone we love – will one day die is a powerful, often invisible force driving us as individuals, and also shaping our social structures and agreements, both explicit and implicit.

“Please rescue me from this feeling” we plead in a thousand ways to spouses, bosses, employees, cheeseburgers, pornography, facebook, yoga, and television. We may recognize the insanity of certain actions – repeating abusive relationship cycles, poisoning ourselves with cigarettes, checking facebook a hundred times each day – but the underlying anxiety driving our actions remains unseen, residing deep inside our own bodies – our nervous systems most specifically.

If only the kitchen was clean, if only I had another beer, if only they listened to me, if only my team would win, if only we had more sex, if only I had more money, if only people weren’t so stupid, if only we had a holiday. The source of our anxiety always appears to be “out there” somewhere. So that’s where we focus, out there. Then we come to realize – That cigarette didn’t satisfy. My new car is already feeling old. Yoga hasn’t made me a new person. Nothing my partner says makes me feel better.

Trying to change ourselves and other people and the world is valid and reasonable and perhaps intrinsically human, but it doesn’t address the core anxiety that tortures each of us from the inside out. Whatever actions we take in the world will be more effective, more direct, and more healthy when we are also addressing the anxiety that lives inside us. So how do we do that?

First, notice your anxiety

Once you consider that your anxiety might be rooted inside you, not in other people and circumstances (no matter how it got there originally or how legitimate your grievances might be), you might assume that it’s in your mind, a head thing, something that comes from thoughts and beliefs, and so you try to change your thinking. That’s fine, but anyone who’s tried to talk themselves out of a feeling knows the struggle that can bring. The experience of anxiety often includes thoughts, but its roots are deep in your nervous system, in your body, out of reach of intellect and reason.

If you want to know your anxiety first-hand (and you do – it’s how you get loose of its grip), notice what it feels like in your body. Anxiety is a body sensation that happens when your nervous system gets activated. Your spouse nags or yells and you feel your throat tighten. That’s anxiety. Your kid slams the door and your face gets hot. That’s anxiety. Notice it. Notice it simply as a sensation in your body. Name it, internally or out loud. “Throat tight.” “Face hot.”

Now stay with it

Throat tight? Stay with that sensation. Face hot? Stay with that sensation. Feel your anxiety wherever it shows up in your body. Do this slowly, with curiosity and awareness. Unless your safety is actually being threatened in this moment, nothing needs to be done. If judgement or internal dialogue appears, notice it, but come back to the body sensation. Stay with it. Stay with it because you want to fully know it. Uncomfortable? Part of what we’re doing here is building our capacity for that discomfort. It’s like exercising a muscle. It gets stronger with the right kind of use. In this case, the right kind of use is to stay with the body sensations triggered by an activated nervous system. Think of it as physiotherapy for the nervous system. Be curious about the pure sensations, without jumping to interpretation, meaning or conclusions. If you find yourself in your head, problem solving or assigning blame etc, gently come back to the body sensation.

The normal tendency is for an activated nervous system to immediately trigger a reaction (ie – fight or flight). We move so quickly to action that we miss the actual sensation, the in-body experience of nervous system arousal. Slow the process down and notice it directly. Stay with the sensations.

An activated nervous system can be extremely uncomfortable. We instinctively want to be rid of this discomfort. This is why we reflexively lash out, shut down or distract ourselves. I’m asking you to practice not doing these things. Instead, simply notice the feeling of an activated nervous system, of anxiety, and stay with it, without doing anything about it, without trying to get relief. It’s hard, but it won’t kill you. Don’t move to step three until you’re intimate with the feeling, with the direct sensation.

Next, attend to it

Once you get used to what anxiety feels like in your body, once you can name the sensations an activated nervous system triggers (“Throat tight.” “Face hot.”) you can start attending to it. But don’t rush to this step. It’s important to build some capacity for discomfort before doing anything about it. Slowing down is key.

When you feel ready, start relaxing your nervous system directly using conscious breathing. Throat tight? Breathe. Feel yourself sending relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your throat. Face hot? Breathe. Send relaxing, nourishing, healing breath to your face. Breathe into the places that are tight, contracted, or fired up. Also, notice if you have an impulse toward movement. Perhaps your hands want to cradle your face or stroke your throat. Perhaps your hand floats to your chest. Go ahead and follow those impulses.

There’s nothing fancy about this. Don’t worry about doing it just right. What’s important is slowing down, breathing, and feeling the sensations directly – without flying into reaction, decision making or problem solving. If there are thoughts, just notice them. Then come back to the sensations and soothe yourself with breath and touch. This practice can be quite profound. Tears are not uncommon. Rage and other strong emotions can also show up.

If you stay with the sensations of anxiety directly, tension eventually tends to soften, and then the mental chatter and negative thoughts also calm down. You’re practicing having an experience and noticing it at the same time. This awareness practice, sometimes called mindfulness, gets us out of the “loops” in our head. From here, new possibilities can emerge.

Recap – Managing anxiety in three steps

  1. Notice what anxiety feels like in your body. Name it – “Throat tight” etc.
  2. Stay with the feeling in your body. Don’t jump to action or conclusions.
  3. Attend to the sensations directly. Breathe into the places that are affected.

Nervous system arousal and the resulting discomfort of anxiety are facts of life for all mammals, and are normal human experiences. Our goal isn’t to get rid of anxiety, repress it, or cut it off, but rather to expand our awareness and tolerance of it so that it holds less power over us. The three-step practice above is one that I use with clients in session and that I teach for home use. Feel free to experiment and adjust it to suit you. Like practicing any new skill or exercising any muscle, results come with time. Be patient and kind with yourself. Small steps can have a big impact.

[Note – While we all experience anxiety to some degree, it can be overwhelming for those who suffer from unresolved trauma. Those who suffer from trauma induced anxiety (PTSD) can try the steps above, but may find themselves too hyper-sensitive or prone to dissociation to manage their experience effectively. These people should consider working with a therapist skilled in somatic processing and body-centred trauma therapy.]

Also read – The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 1)

Like what you’re reading here?
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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Kink friendly therapy – What counsellors, therapists, life coaches and helping professionals need to know in a post Fifty Shades of Grey world

kink friendly therapyWhat does it mean to be a kink friendly therapist or helping professional?

With Fifty Shades of Grey thrusting kink and bdsm into the mainstream, kink aware therapists, counsellors and life coaches are more important than ever. Doctors, physiotherapists, social workers and other helping professionals should also be educating themselves on issues surrounding kink and bdsm.

The first thing to understand is that kink is not inherently pathological. Like eating, having (vanilla) sex, playing sports, going to work or many of the other activities we engage in, kink and bdsm can be understood to have a full range of expressions – from relatively healthy to relatively unhealthy.

For the uninitiated the whole thing can feel confusing and distasteful, especially for people who are in the business of healing or protecting. “Why would anyone give their power away or allow themselves to be hurt or humiliated sexually?” It’s a very reasonable question, and one that has many possible answers. The answers run the full spectrum –

At the healthier end of the spectrum, kinksters may be expressing mature, playful attitudes around sexuality and power. (Did you ever role-play doctor, or good guys/bad guys, cops and robbers etc as a kid?) Or they may be exploring shadow aspects and polarities within themselves  – victim/villain, exploited/exploiter, sadist/masochist, powerful/powerless, abuser/abused etc. When approached with awareness and consent, these can be considered healthy explorations of archetypes. Many kink practitioners consider their activities to have healing or sacred qualities. Or they may simply enjoy strong sensations, role-play etc… Sometimes a snake is just a snake.

At the less healthy end of the spectrum, your clients or patients may engage in non-consensual abuse, control  and manipulation. Abuse of power happens in the kink/bdsm communities just like everywhere else. Kink and bdsm can reflect low self esteem, poor boundaries and truly harmful beliefs and behaviours.

Some people are drawn to kink and bdsm in a conscious or unconscious attempt to integrate childhood abuse, neglect or trauma. The raw impulse to integrate and heal is primary and should be supported. The degree to which a client’s kinky proclivities actually further healing and integration is not a foregone conclusion, and so kink should be approached as neutrally as possible in terms of  your own values, projections and bias. Wanting to be slapped across the face during sex  is not inherently bad or sick. Your client may love extreme sports, or they may prefer floggings. Both can hold useful material. Neither is necessarily a problem. If you find yourself believing otherwise then please, as a helping professional, carefully  examine your prejudice and how it may be harmful to your clients or patients.

Your kinky clients will benefit from your self-awareness, self-education and kink friendly approach. Examining your own judgements, fears and beliefs will make you more trustworthy, confident and helpful. Whether your clients’ kinky desires, activities or relationships are presenting issues, or they come up peripherally, your willingness and ability to have frank discussions will be valuable. If in doubt, try transparency. Ask questions. Your open mind is the key to building trust in the client relationship.

Suggested reading –
SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman
Wild Side Sex: The Book of Kink by Midori
The Ultimate Guide to Kink by Tristan Taormino
Radical Ecstasy by Easton and Hardy

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Conscious Kink for Couples - The beginner’s guide to using kinky sex and BDSM for pleasure, growth, intimacy, and healing - by Justice Schanfarber


Campbell River Counselling Justice Schanfarber HakomiI provide kink friendly, kink aware therapy, counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples all over the world by phone or skype, and in-person locally. (Vancouver, Campbell River, North Vancouver Island.) Email to request a client info package. Services also available for those in the helping professions. www.JusticeSchanfarber.comLike Justice Schanfarber on Facebook



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Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

When the love of your life leaves – 5 steps to help you heal

Wife husband leaves marriage relationship counsellingThe end of a relationship or marriage can feel like death. Grief is an appropriate response. This means anger, sadness, denial might all arise.

It’s visceral. Breathing is hard. You can’t sleep. For the person being left it can feel like the end of the world. You wonder if you’ll even survive. To say you’re hurt and confused or angry is too little. It feels much bigger, like everything has been turned upside down and shaken, like the ground has disappeared under your feet.

Along with negotiating urgent practical matters like finances, housing and parenting, you might also come face to face with abandonment, rejection and self-esteem issues, some of which may have been dormant and are arising for the first time.

This is a very, very tender spot to find yourself. It’s immensely uncomfortable. In my work as a counsellor I notice patterns and common tendencies in my clients. I’ve also identified opportunities and choice-points for moving forward in a healthy way. Here are five principles that can help –

1. Feel what you feel
Feelings aren’t negotiable. They can’t be wrong. They simply are. It’s important to feel what you feel. When we deny uncomfortable emotions they come back to haunt us, or they drive our behaviour from underneath consciousness, without our active consent. Rule of thumb – there’s no need to either encourage or deny feelings. Notice them, name them (“I feel sad”) and watch them change over time. Note – Anger is a feeling. Fear is a feeling. Sadness is a feeling. “S/He’s a control freak” isn’t a feeling. (More on that in a future article.)

2. Take thoughtful action
We don’t necessarily choose our feelings, although we choose how we act on them. As much as noticing our feelings is important, it would be a mistake to act on them without consulting our rational, thinking self. The trouble is, when strong feelings are present we don’t have much access to the part of our brain that makes well-considered choices. Take some time. Let feelings settle before you make important decisions around child custody, financial agreements or emails to the in-laws. Breathe.

3. Get support, but not from your (ex)partner
The person who is leaving the relationship is almost certainly not the person to help you cope with the pain you feel. You might feel extremely needy or drawn to this person right now. Do not give in to the urge to seek comfort there, especially if it is not offered. If you are holding out hope for reconciliation, say so, but then get support elsewhere. Seeing you pick yourself up, brush yourself off and take support from others is the most attractive thing about you right now in your (ex)partner’s eyes. Turn to friends, family and community for support. Tell them what helps, and what doesn’t. Find a counsellor or therapist that you trust.

4. Stay open, even when it hurts
When we feel hurt and angry we look for an explanation. We want to understand. We assume we shouldn’t feel this way, that it’s a big problem. And so we search for a reason. The reason we find is almost always some version of I’m bad or They’re bad or The world is bad. What these three positions all offer is a way out of the confusion. Assigning cause (blame) does relieve some tension. The problem is that each of these three beliefs locks us into an adversarial relationship – with self, with other, or with reality (the world). I’m not saying that your relationship ending wasn’t caused by you or them or the unfairness of the world. But getting too fixated on any of those causes makes you rigid and closed to possibilities that might be just around the corner.

5. Help others
This piece of advice was given to me by a friend over a decade ago when a relationship was ending and I was in deep pain. His simple and wise words led me to the act of writing this for you now. Helping others gets us out of our own head and puts us in direct contact with the universal experience of suffering. Everybody hurts. Help someone. Share their pain, and feel your own soften.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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