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Couples Therapy: Communication Strategies that work!
Couples Communication continuing education addiction counselor CEUs

Section 13
Couples Intimacy Conflicts

CEU Question 13 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Couples
Psychologist CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs

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In the last section, we discussed three barriers to fun that married couples may experience. These three barriers to fun are being busy, the opinion that play is for kids, and that conflict gets in the way. We also discussed the Fun Deck technique.

In this section, we will discuss four topics relevant to helping couples enhance and protect sensuality and sexuality in their marriages. The four topics are roadblocks to sexuality, lack of interest in sex, communicating desires, and making sensuality a priority. Clearly, sexual difficulties can increase the risk of infidelity. I find that sexual difficulties can also impair a couple’s efforts to recommit and recover after an incident of infidelity. I have also observed that sexual difficulties can hinder progress the couple has made regarding utilizing new communication strategies in other areas of their relationship.

Vince and Stacy had been married for seven years when they began marital counseling. Both reported that early in their marriage, they had spent a lot of time kissing, cuddling, and talking about sexual desires. As they became busier with matters of home, work, and raising their children, they settled into a rigid pattern of having sex only twice a week.

Vince stated, "Usually, we climb in to bed, one of us says ‘Should we have sex now?’ and after about ten minutes, it’s all over.  I don’t think either one of us is happy with it. And it seems to me that Stacy used to be a lot more, you know, responsive when we made love. It’s so much like work that I’ve actually considered picking up women in bars to have some fun in bed for once!" Are you treating a couple like Vince and Stacy who no longer make room for sensual talk and touching in their relationship? I have found  that over time, a focus on sex, rather than on the context of touching and closeness, leads to less sex overall.

Four Roadblocks to Sexuality

♦ #1 Performance Anxiety
One of the first issues I see in couples having a lack of sexual satisfaction in each other is roadblocks to sexuality. Vince experienced the first of these roadblocks, performance anxiety. Vince stated, "I could tell something was wrong with Stacy. I mean, she just wasn’t having as many orgasms as she used to. So I thought, if I just do a better job, it’ll get better. I read some stuff on the internet, worked really hard. She seemed to get off more, but I was so worried about doing a good job that I didn’t feel like we were connecting at all. And she still wasn’t happy! She said it was like having sex with a machine!"

Have you treated a couple like Vince and Stacy, whose focus on "doing a good job" has cut down on the closeness the partners feel during sex? Another roadblock my colleagues and I frequently see in married couples is mishandled conflicts. As you know, when a couple is having destructive conflicts in other areas of their marriage, it can be difficult for them to feel good about sharing physical intimacy. Have you treated a couple who experiences this, or for whom sexual contact has begun to trigger conflict?

#2 Lack of Interest in Sex
Remember Chloe and Doug from Section 11? Chloe experienced the second issue I see in couples having sexual satisfaction difficulties, a  lack of interest in sex. Chloe stated, "I just am not as interested in sex as I used to be, but Doug still has the same drive he did back when we first got married! I feel bad about it, especially since sometimes I feel like I want to have sex, but I just can’t get aroused." I explained to Chloe that low interest in sex can have to do with many factors outside of relationships, including stress, fatigue, sleep problems, boredom, hormonal problems, excessive alcohol use, medication side effects, and several chronic medical conditions. I recommended to Chloe that she think about getting a complete physical, and be candid with her doctor about her sexual problems.

#3 Problems Communicating Desires
In addition to roadblocks and lack of interest in sex, a third issue I see in couples having sexual difficulties are problems communicating desires. Vince stated, "There’s this one little thing Stacy does when we have sex that I just can’t stand. She just keeps doing it! Honestly, she should know what I like by now!"

Clearly, Vince’s assumption that Stacy should know what he liked sexually because of how long they had been together prevented him from attempting to talk about his preferences with Stacy. Vince also reported being afraid to ask Stacy to try new things in bed with him, as he assumed she would not enjoy his fantasies. I recommended that Vince and Stacy try using the Speaker-Listener technique to discuss ideas they might try to enhance their sexual life.

I have found that using this pattern can help couples clearly communicate, while providing the safety of a clearly structured discussion. Would you agree? Would the Speaker-Listener technique help your Vince break away from his or her assumptions about their partner’s preferences?

#4 Failure to Make the Sensual Relationship a Priority
A  fourth issue I see in couples having sexual difficulties is failure to make the sensual relationship a priority. Vince stated, "I could write out now the exact script for our lovemaking. It’s always the same. Even when it’s good, and we’re both getting off, it’s like clockwork. I start wondering if we’re really attracted to each other anymore."

Sensate Focus Technique
I suggested to Vince that he and Stacy might try the Sensate Focus Technique. The Sensate Focus Technique was pioneered by Masters and Johnson in the 1960s, and can help couples with their sensual relationship by keeping partners focused on sensuality and touching in their relationship. The sensate focus technique can also assist by helping the partners learn how to communicate openly and naturally about what they like and do not like in lovemaking.

I stated to Vince and Stacy, "One of the important things to remember about the sensate focus technique is you might want to keep these practice times completely separate from sex, and focus on sensuality instead.  In this technique, one of you is the Giver, and the other is the Receiver, and you switch half way through. When you are the Receiver, your job is to enjoy the touching, and to tell your partner what feels good and what doesn’t. You can give verbal feedback, or hand-guided feedback by moving your partners hand around the area being massaged to demonstrate what feels really good.

When you are the Giver, your role is to provide pleasure by touching your partner and by being attentive and responsive to his or her feedback. Each partner should have about ten to twenty minutes in each role." I often recommend that couples new to this technique start practicing with hands, feet, back, or legs the first few times to get the hang of the technique by using neutral areas. As the partners become more comfortable with the technique, they can move to more sensitive, or sexual, areas.

Would you agree that using neutral areas first can help couples who have other issues surrounding sex as well? I recommended that Vince and Stacy try to practice the sensate focus technique at least twice a week, making sure to set aside time when they could be free of interruptions. In a more recent session, Vince stated, "You know, that technique has really helped out. We’ve been talking more about what we like in bed. I was real shocked the other day - Stacy opened up about a role playing fantasy she has, and it’s something I had always wanted to try, but thought she’d hate!" Would your Vince and Stacy benefit from the sensate focus technique?

In this section, we have discussed four topics relevant to helping couples enhance and protect sensuality and sexuality in their marriages. The four topics are roadblocks to sexuality, lack of interest in sex, communicating desires, and making sensuality a priority.

In the next section, we will discuss expectations in marriage, and four ways partners can handle their own and each other’s expectations appropriately. These four methods for handling expectations are being aware of expectations, being reasonable in expectations, being clear about expectations, and being motivated to meet each other’s expectations.

- Dym, B., & Glenn, M. (1993).Couples: Exploring and Understanding the Cycles of Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

- Meza-de-Luna, M. E., & Romero-Zepeda, H. T. (2013). Areas of Conflict in the Intimate Couple. A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences, 17 (1), 87-100.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Cook, J. M., Simiola, V., McCarthy, E., Ellis, A., & Stirman, S. W. (Sep 2018). Use of reflective journaling to understand decision making regarding two evidence-based psychotherapies for PTSD: Practice implications. Practice Innovations, 3(3), 153-167.

Feuerman, M. L. (2018). Therapeutic presence in emotionally focused couples therapy. Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy21(3), 22-32.

Korobov, N. (2020). A discursive psychological approach to deflection in romantic couples’ everyday arguments. Qualitative Psychology. Advance online publication.

Land, L. N., Rochlen, A. B., & Vaughn, B. K. (2011). Correlates of adult attachment avoidance: Men's avoidance of intimacy in romantic relationships. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 12(1), 64–76. Li, P., & Johnson, L. N. (2018). Couples' depression and relationship satisfaction: Examining the moderating effects of demand/withdraw Communication Patterns. Journal of Family Therapy, Supplement40, 63-85.

LaMotte, A. D., Khalifian, C. E., & Barry, R. A. (2017). Newlyweds’ perceptions of partner conflict behaviors and change in intimate safety over time. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(1), 123–128.

Papp, L. M., Goeke-Morey, M. C., & Cummings, E. M. (2013). Let's talk about sex: A diary investigation of couples' intimacy conflicts in the home. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2(1), 60–72.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 13
What are two of the biggest roadblocks to sexuality between married couples? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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