You’ve finally done it - you’ve started working on your sex life with therapy and now you’re on that journey. Great! A lot of people have never done any therapy before and one of the critical starting points for successful therapy is to manage expectations. Therapy is not an overnight fix, it's a long journey that require discipline and motivation. So what does therapy look like? Will I keep getting better and better every session? What happens if there's a setback? We'll address these questions that will help you understand what therapy is, and how you deal with setbacks.
Expect the unexpected
The point of a therapy is that if you could solve it on your own, you would have by now! The scope of the problem has moved outside of your understanding or awareness and that’s why it’s a struggle. So it makes sense that you’d come up against things that are new and scary while you’re solving the problem. It helps to expect this so that when it happens, you’re prepared for it and don’t beat yourself up about it. People often feel guilty or ashamed for having ‘failed’ at something so fundamentally human as sex. But as you’ll learn, there is no failure in sex. Growth isn’t linear and you can expect a lot of detours, pauses and re-dos along the way.
Don’t "should" yourself
You might find that as you start to work through some exercises with your partner, things go slowly, or even stay in the same place for a long time. You feel ‘stuck’ - and perhaps your initial hope starts to fade and you begin to wonder if anything will ever work for this impossible problem. You think about giving up.
It’s worth taking a step back and looking at the assumption that comes with this difficulty. It starts with the idea that there is somewhere you ‘should’ be. Maybe you’ve felt something like: ‘We should be….
Having sex X times a week
Having really great sex
Having sex AT ALL
Feeling really good about doing the exercises together
What you’re doing here is using an external measure to indicate how well your sex life is doing. You’re ‘shoulding’ all over everything. This external measure might come from what you think is happening in the sex lives of others. It might come from what you hoped your sex life with your partner would be like. Maybe it’s coming from your partner and their ideas about what sex should be? Wherever this idea has come from, it’s distracting you from what’s actually happening now and it’s encouraging you to evaluate what’s happening now as good or bad.
Cast your mind back to the core ideas of sensate focus. It’s these demands, these pressures of *should* and good vs. bad that are the barriers to sexual healing. Holding yourself up to even the smallest goal, even when you’re meeting it, creates anxiety and fear.Return that focus to what’s going on inside yourself. What do you notice about touch on your hands or your body? What feelings arise at different points in your SF practice (including before and after)? These are all valid and worthy of your attention, and looking at the external outcomes of sex is a distraction.
But I’m getting it wrong
Of course, there is a purpose to Sensate Focus; skills that we want you to develop during your practice. What if you feel like you’re just not getting these right? Maybe you’re really struggling to focus on touch, or on your own experience (instead of your partner’s). Or you’re noticing yourself slipping into this evaluative mode of thought that we’ve just talked about. Therapists like to call these challenges ‘grist for the mill’. The fact that you’re noticing that you find this stuff hard is great because you can start to talk about this with your partner during your sofa sessions. It’s totally fine to say to your partner:
‘I really struggled to focus today, I was so distracted by work’
‘I kept worrying about you having a good time, even though I know that’s not the point’
‘I kept feeling bored by the touch, I thought it would be more fun’
‘I wanted to go further than just touch!’
Noticing that you have expectations of yourself and sex and that they’re being challenged by the practice means that your usual way of approaching sex is being challenged, which is exactly what we want. This isn’t necessarily comfortable, but you’ll probably find you’re not alone in this (ask your partner!) and noticing these challenges means you can start to understand them and work with them better.
We’re literally not doing it
It’s very common in sensate focus for people to stop following the exercises (or never even start!) and instead go back to their previous sexual dynamic. Or to ‘do’ the exercises but to not follow the suggestions - for example, to try to get their partner aroused or reaching orgasm, to touch each others’ genitals when that’s still being avoided, or to delay sessions until late at night when they’re tired. Perhaps both of you are engaging in this kind of rule-breaking, or one is and the other is chastising the first one! Wherever this is originating from, what can you do to address it?
Get away from blame. It’s extremely tempting to lay blame at the feet of one (or both) partners. Try as much as you can to resist this, because it only serves to close down communication. Defensiveness or shame make it harder to not only connect with your emotions and understanding what’s blocking engagement with SF, but also to connect with each other and work together.
Understand that this is normal and there will be reasons behind it that are completely understandable - even if it doesn’t feel that way!
Revisit together the basics of Sensate Focus - the purpose, activities, ideas and expectations, as well as reminding yourselves of what you’re NOT trying to achieve here (pleasure, orgasm, relaxation, etc.).
Agree a schedule between you for touching. This can include times, days (it can be helpful to have it at the same times and days each week, but this depends on the flexibility of your schedule), location and who initiates. Alternating who initiates means it’s everyone’s responsibility.
Notice and share your difficult feelings around sex and Sensate Focus, and work together to see how you can manage them. Noticing what’s going on within yourself and taking it seriously is part of radical self-responsibility. Let’s talk more about how to do this.
Painful or uncomfortable feelings are very common when you’re addressing challenges with something as personal as sex and relationships. Being open to them and what role they’re playing in your dynamics with each other and with sex is crucial.
Being with difficult feelings - this is a skill many of us need to practice to get better at it. A good way to start is by noticing when you’re trying to avoid a particular feeling. This might be through distractions (this could be anything, but typically is something quite passive and automatic, like compulsive social media use), avoidance (not engaging with things that trigger those emotions) or rationalizing (telling yourself you shouldn’t have that emotion, that it’s not ok to have that reaction, that it’s not justified, etc.).
Notice and name the feelings - identify how they feel in your body, what physical sensations you experience, and try to name them with emotion words.
Accept your feelings - accepting doesn’t mean giving in to them, but it does mean acknowledging they’re there and that they have something important to tell you. It might be really difficult to handle feeling frustrated with your partner or angry with yourself, but taking that feeling seriously might help you do something productive with it.
Share these feelings - find someone you trust to share them with. This could be your partner, if that feels right. It might be good to start the conversation by asking the other person to not try to ‘solve’ the feeling, or the problem associated with it. This goal-focused approach is what we’re trying to get away from. If you share with your partner, it might prompt them to share their difficult feelings too, and help you connect and be with these feelings together.
Your emotions are valuable information, there to help you build a picture of yourself and your experiences with sex. The more you can be with them (and with your partner’s feelings!), the more you can understand what needs to be addressed to overcome barriers in Sensate Focus. Again - it’s all grist for the mill.
A setback is progress
Something you consider a setback now might have seemed like progress when you started this journey. Setbacks are usually especially noticeable (and especially uncomfortable!) following a period of hope or positivity. They can be a great opportunity to review what’s happened so far, reflect on how you’re feeling and revisit the core ideas of Sensate Focus and their purpose.