ERP 314: How To Work Through The Complexities Of Sexual Desire In Relationship — An Interview Martha Kauppi

By Posted in - Podcast April 5th, 2022 0 Comments

Most of us know something about reproductive health yet almost nobody knows anything about pleasure. Pleasure is frequently associated with sex and like sex, it’s an uncomfortable subject to discuss for a lot of people. But it is so much more than that.

In this episode, we cover some of the reasons why we don’t experience pleasure in our lives and how to work through these complexities of sexual desire in your relationships as Martha Kauppi creates a safe learning environment for this delicate subject.

Martha Kauppi is a marriage and family therapist, educator, author, speaker, and AASECT-certified sex therapist and supervisor. She has a lifelong career in health and sexuality and is a senior trainer of the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Martha trains therapists all over the world to work more effectively with relational intimacy challenges and sex issues. She is the author of the groundbreaking new book Polyamory: A Clinical Toolkit for Therapists (and Their Clients). (Self-help manual for Strong emotional intimacy.)

In this Episode

5:04 Martha’s desire to educate therapists about sex issues.

14:13 How to enter a space where desire could flourish without feeling stuck in it.

17:17 How multiple systems work together and align in order for desire to happen and thrive.

23:01 Creating a safe haven for creative curiosity, flexibility, and connection.

35:35 Scheduled sex versus goal-oriented sex.

37:49 Some helpful resources to learn more about sexual desires.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Create a flexible environment of permissiveness and freedom.
  • Cultivate strong connection, communication, and flexibility in sexual relationships.
  • Maintain a sense of self-awareness.
  • Pay attention to what is neutral or positive, as well as what makes you feel good.
  • Examine your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires, and preferences.
  • Allow yourself to say what you think even if the other person may not feel comfortable hearing your opinion.
  • Listen to your partner when they’re saying something important to them, even if it’s hard for you to hear.


Handling Sexual Challenges Like A Rockstar

Polyamory: A Clinical Toolkit for Therapists (and Their Clients) (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

ERP 287: How To Engage in the Art of Giving and Receiving: Using the Wheel of Consent — An Interview with Dr. Betty Martin

Connect with Martha Kauppi






Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins






Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 


Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Martha, thank you for joining us today.

Thank you for having me. I’m super excited to talk with you.

I am so honored to have you on the show. I know your time is extremely valuable. I was attending a conference you were a keynote speaker at, and I just feel your message around sexual health and sexuality. There are so many topics that you speak on. I know we’re going to zone in on sexual desire today. And yeah, just again, thank you. As we pivot towards sexual desire, are you open to sharing? I know you have such a wealth of knowledge and experience in your background, but what got you really interested in supporting people around sexual desire?

That’s such a fun question for me. As I’m thinking about it, I have to go all the way back to childhood practically. I remember being a freshman in college, and nobody on my floor in my dorm knew how to get birth control. Nobody knew anything about reproductive health. Nobody understood what was going on with periods and fertility and all that stuff. I had always wanted to be either a surgeon or a gynecologist. And so, I knew all of that stuff. And I just started doing sex education, basically, as a freshman. And then, I ultimately became a midwife. My first career was as a midwife.

I had just the incredible privilege of helping people have home births. And if things went wrong, obviously transition to hospital births, but it was a, what a glorious and amazing career. I attended about 350 births in that career and trained a whole bunch of midwives, developed a training program for midwives that was based primarily on role-play, if you can imagine, because I just thought, how can you learn such a kinetic skill that you where the action unfolds quickly, and you have to use analytical and kinetic skills very quickly? How can you learn that from a lecture? So, we actually role-played for probably 400 hours, and then the rest of it was a little lecture here and there when I felt like I needed to explain something. But anyway. 

Experiential learning is huge.

I know, right. And for something so important, I just thought it was the only way to go. So I really have been thinking about sex, sexuality, sexual health, reproductive health, and also education for people about tough topics for a very, very long time.

Well, it sounds like you really saw the need, and then just your ability to serve and teach and guide. I mean, again, I just really appreciated your ability to distill a lot of this. And I guess it gets me interested in your perspective, as you recall back those early years in college and feeling like so much information we didn’t have access to and didn’t have a lot of awareness around. I mean, I feel like we’ve come in some ways, but I’m curious. I mean, I feel like there’s so much still we are either misinformed or don’t have access to or don’t have the information around. 

That is absolutely true. I think we’ve come to some ways, but not very many years ago, I developed a class for marriage and family therapists at the master’s level about sex and sexuality. I included a segment on anatomy and physiology, which was basically talking about the pelvic anatomy of people with penises and people with vulvas and how those systems all work with other body systems, and how it all goes together. And by the end of that class, people were banging their heads on the desk and asking me why did they have to get to, of all things, a master’s in marriage and family therapy to learn this information about their own bodies?

Wow. And I’ll just say I have a master’s and a Ph.D., and I never got any of that.

Right. And that was a very unusual program, even to have a class on human sexuality. So, most therapists don’t get trained in that, which is why I do what I do, which is to train therapists all over the world to work with sex issues.

And even as you talk about the pelvic, I mean, I know that men have a pelvic girdle, but I think of the pelvic more as a woman’s health. It sounds like you’re saying across the board, this is important.

Absolutely. I mean, there are internal pelvic organs, and there are external pelvic organs. All of it is part of the systems of reproductive health, which most of us know something about reproductive health, but almost nobody knows anything about pleasure and exactly how anatomy for pleasure work. So, when I teach anatomy, I teach, first of all, comparative anatomy because our bodies are not so different as we think across genders and also not just anatomy for reproduction, but anatomy for pleasure.

Free Woman Smiling Stock Photo

“Most of us know something about reproductive health, but almost nobody knows anything about pleasure and exactly how anatomy for pleasure work.”

And we’re going to dive into this because you’re talking about how multiple systems interact and influence our desire. And before we go there, I’m hoping you can just talk about when you are referring to sexual desire. Can we get a landscape of where you’re coming from around this topic?

Well, first of all, desire is a really big topic, and it’s not just relevant to a sexual context. I think, with some topics that are sexually related, it makes a big difference what context it is, and I’m not sure how much that’s actually true with desire. I think all of us could use a little more juiciness in our lives. 


I think that part of the issue with desire is that there are many ways in which were blocked off from receiving pleasure in our lives. Period. If we become better at receiving pleasure in our lives in a day-to-day way, we will also have more of an opportunity to figure out how to receive pleasure more effectively intimately. 

Free Close Up of Two Men Kissing Stock Photo

“If we become better at receiving pleasure in our lives in a day-to-day way, we will also have more of an opportunity to figure out how to receive pleasure more effectively intimately.”

When I think about desire, I’m thinking about a psychic state of wanting something. And like interest, do you have sort of available bandwidth for this thing? A desire for sex exists on an enormous spectrum because you might have a spontaneous desire, meaning you’re going along in your day and <ding> “I’m thinking about sex.” I think sex would be interesting, right? So, that spontaneous desire. 

And then, there’s also responsive desire, where you may have no thought of sex, no bandwidth on the surface of things. And then when you find yourself in an intimate context like you are shoulder to shoulder or snuggling on the couch, or your partner’s rubbing your shoulders or your feet, and suddenly desire begins to bloom a little bit. That’s responsive desire. 

And culturally, I think mostly, we think only spontaneous desire counts, but the responsive desire is also perfectly normal. And there are a lot of people who experience only or primarily responsive desire in their lives, and even more women after menopause experience responsive desire. Not all, but some change from having had spontaneous desire before to not experiencing spontaneous desire anymore. And that’s a person who is likely to feel broken, or in some way, really bereft of an aspect of their lives to think that it can’t come back, whatever that means exactly. But what I want to say is, it’s actually normal. If you feel like once things are underway, that’s a normal expression of desire.

So important, and I’m thinking about where a lot of things can interfere. I know we’re going to talk about what gets in the way of sexual desire, but I’m even thinking there could be when you’re talking about the responsive desire, if there’s a couple who maybe one partner is waiting for the other to initiate, and let’s say that other partner is more responsive desire, like it can get into this. Nobody’s initiating and all of that, and that its own thing, but I imagine that interacts with this responsive desire.

That’s exactly right. Responsive desire is absolutely normal, and it creates an initiation challenge that people have to figure out how they’re going to kind of crack that code together in a collaborative manner. But the first thing to do is de-pathologize. It’s just normal.

Free Close Up of Two Women Sleeping Together Stock Photo

“Responsive desire is absolutely normal, and it creates an initiation challenge that people have to figure out how they’re going to kind of crack that code together in a collaborative manner.”

Yeah. I love the voice around the de-pathologizing and normalizing because, again, as you’re saying, we’re not necessarily having these conversations. We’re not necessarily really well informed, and we can adopt or have certain expectations and beliefs around sexual desire and really create a lot of shame and fear and pressure on ourselves.

Absolutely, and on our partners. 

And on our partners. When you talk about spontaneous and then responsive desire, I’m even wondering if you have anything you can say about perhaps someone who really globally has the desire, but perhaps doesn’t feel the spontaneous desire and then maybe gets caught up in the responsive desire. There are a lot of little roadblocks. They have a general desire, but it just isn’t manifesting or easily accessed.

Right. Well, the trick here is to figure out how to get into a sexual context. So, how to enter a space where desire might bloom without feeling trapped in that space. And so, now we’re talking about consent and the way that consent isn’t just the thing that happens at the beginning of an interaction. It’s the thing that rolls along throughout the entire interaction. Are you still into it? Do you want to do more? What would you like to do next? Or should we change the subject entirely, or is it time to just go cook dinner, or whatever?

So, to be able to enter into an intimate interaction together with flexibility built-in is another really important aspect of handling responsive desire because if you didn’t feel desire five minutes ago at all, and you haven’t felt desire for weeks, it’s just not something that’s on your mind. But then, when you’re in an intimate context, and you think, “Gee, this is nice. I might want to pursue this.” But you don’t want to get your partner’s hopes up. You don’t want to feel like you’re signing on for something that you don’t have the energy for. You may already know that your energy is limited. 

So, it would be very important to be able to say, “I’m interested in this, and I may not be interested in that.” Or let’s just start and see where it goes and trust that neither you from inside of yourself nor your partner from outside of yourself will pressure you to do more than you want to do. And then that’s an environment that desires really likes, that kind of flexible environment of permissiveness and freedom. 

No kidding. 

It removes a lot of blocks.

I’m even thinking just it’s really welcoming, right? When we think about even the nervous system, these welcoming cues allow us to get more into that creative, intimate space versus perhaps the pressure we put on ourselves or the projected sense of what our partners pressure they’re putting on us. Right? That this can get really complicated. And so, if you’re really trying to open up a new space, it’s almost like a different orientation, a different mindset when we’re approaching lovemaking, sexual intimacy, that it’s a different climate. Is that right?

Absolutely right. I love how you said that. That’s exactly right.

Can we back up for a moment? You are talking about these multiple systems that interact. Is there anything you want us to know as we proceed? Because I think that might be important as we talk about sexual desire.

Yeah, I think it is important. So, multiple systems have to be working and aligned in order for the desire to happen and to thrive. I make a Venn diagram, where the smallest overlapping circle is sexual aspects of sexual interactions. You would think that would be like the whole thing, right? But when I talk about the sexual aspects, I’m talking about is there enough stimulation of the right kind in the right place for long enough, right? That’s kind of it for the mechanics of the sexual interaction, and that the sexual aspect of it. 

And then, there’s a whole physiologic aspect of it, which is enormous. This is a big reason why I train therapists because not very many of us got any training about the physiology of arousal. Goodness, right. So, beginning to realize that there has to be intact skin. There has to be an intact vascular system with good peripheral vasculature. There have to be nerves that are actually working. Motor neurons as well as sensory neurons. And then, the neurotransmitter has to be there. And so, you have to have enough of the precursor of the neurotransmitter, and you have to do the things that cause the neurotransmitter to be released. So, there’s like all this physiology and all these physiologic systems that have to kind of be working well enough in order for arousal to happen. Arousal and desire are not the same things, but they go together. 

Free Two Person Kissing Each Othr Stock Photo

“Arousal and desire are not the same things, but they go together.”

And then, of course, there’s an enormous emotional component. This is a really big circle in the overlapping circles of the Venn diagram. It encompasses spiritual beliefs, mental health issues, anxiety, which is just a huge one. And any other emotional thing that you can think of. And then, all of this tends to exist in a relational context. Although people don’t always have sex in a relational context, we can be self-sexual, but sex generally is a relational thing. And relational components overlap all of those because now we have more than one human organism trying to communicate with each other with two sets of sensory neurons, two sets of motor neurons, two sets of body parts that receive pleasure. It just becomes much more complex. And then when you add the relational dynamics, that’s also why I think it’s really important to have a strong connection and good working communication, and excellent flexibility in sexual relationships. If you don’t have that, I think it’s well worth finding a coach or a therapist who can help you to cultivate those things.

I’m a little struck by the mental visual in my mind. I have to say, with the Venn diagram of these three overlappings. I know the circles are different sizes, and then you have, if we’re looking at a partnership of two people, you have two of those three circles. You have the relational context, which might even be three circles because you have the relational experience of one, you have the relational experience of the other, and then you have the relationships cycle and dynamics. This is, like you said, quite profoundly complex. 

It’s really complicated. And where all of those circles overlap, that’s where desire resides on the diagram.

And the fact that you’re encouraging us really giving us some really key guiding principles is incredibly important to just underscore here. Because as you started off, helping us understand how much misinformation and lack of information and awareness and understanding and lack of communication, like how was it that we’re having good lovemaking or good sex at all, given all these complexities? How do you navigate without communication, information, and a roadmap?

Right. And then when we factor in pretty bad sex education, culturally, it’s like, jeez, now we don’t even have an operating manual. So yeah, it’s very complicated. And fortunately, a lot of it is if you have a playful spirit, a good connection, a lot of curiosity, and a lot of flexibility, you totally can just make it up. So, it’s both extremely complex and extremely simple. 

The problem is, the relational dynamics can make it so that people don’t feel curious, don’t feel playful, don’t feel safe to just explore, feel inhibited. Or maybe there are belief systems from childhood or family or religious belief systems that are getting in the way of experiencing sexual pleasure at all. Or maybe there are cultural interjects that we’re living forward about what it means to be a person of our gender or a person in our kind of relationship and what we’re supposed to experience. All of that just gets kind of tangled up in a way, but the more we’re able to be in a free space of creative curiosity and flexibility and connection with one another, the less we need to understand what’s going on.

Free Photograph of Men Kissing while Holding Cups Stock Photo

“The more we’re able to be in a free space of creative curiosity and flexibility and connection with one another, the less we need to understand about what’s going on.

So important. And I’d love for us to turn towards some, maybe examples, to just help people because I think we’re talking broadly. I think it’s very important to get the scope. And then also, is there anything that you do to help people who might recognize. And let’s just be honest, Martha. I can say for myself and my journey that there are things that I didn’t even know that I was operating, like almost subconscious roles or expectations that I put on myself of what it’s supposed to be like. I can probably go on and on about this, but I’ll keep it short. 

How do you help people recognize whether or not it’s cultural or what we’ve learned in our family and just what we’ve maybe even said is what we are supposed to do as our gender and in our role in a relationship? How do you help people start to unwind some of that and build in this new or even start to incrementally add in the flexibility, the communication, and this openness if they’re not used to it?

That’s a really good question. I think it’s less important to understand exactly where we learned it compared to, I think it’s more important to understand where we want to get to. So, knowing that it would be optimal to have curiosity, flexibility, playfulness, freedom. 

And by flexibility, I mean the ability to say yes or no, to pivot midway to change course, to allow our partners to do that as well. If we can sort of begin to develop a picture in our minds that has feelings attached to it, a picture of what it would be like to experience that, what would it feel like to experience complete freedom, and no judgment about what you enjoy or what your partner enjoys, just taking an internal look to figure out, “Do I want to participate in this or do I prefer to pivot? So that you’re able to do the necessary communicating at the moment, which doesn’t have to be verbal, by the way. It can be body talk. But it’s important to be able to notice from inside of yourself. 

“I enjoyed this thing that we were doing a minute ago up until now. And now, I would prefer to do something else and then make that other thing happen.” Or at least make the thing that doesn’t feel comfortable to you anymore, for whatever reason, stop happening. So, there’s this aspect of staying in touch with yourself. 

So, if you can begin to imagine what it would be like to experience that, then you can reverse engineer a little bit of how to build it. I’ve just described some feeling experiences and some action experiences. I would be able to pivot. I would be able to say what I want. I would be able to hear what my partner wants. I would be able to stay in touch with myself. I would be able to stay in touch with my partner emotionally. Then I would wonder, what do you experience emotionally in that space? Joy, freedom, desire, flow, relaxation, savoring, receiving, giving, enjoyment, flow dynamic between people. 

And then I would ask, what are you in that picture we are building, in that world that we’re building? What are you telling yourself that supports that? What are you telling yourself about yourself? I am enough. I am beautiful. It’s important what I want. I can speak up for myself. And then, what do you tell yourself about your partner? My partner wants to know what I want. I want to know what my partner wants. My partner is attracted to me. My partner is engaged in this experience with me. My partner and I love each other. And then, what are you telling yourself about the future? Everything is fine here. 

This is a way of getting a picture of what we’re building that can actually, like when you have that emotion if you can feel it with me, like, ooh, that would feel good. If you can feel that, if you’ve got enough words and thoughts together that you can start to feel something, then you’re building a whole neural network for a new experience. And it’s very different from the old experience, which you could also make the same chart in the old experience. What are you experiencing? How are you feeling? What are you thinking about yourself, your partner, the future? What are you doing? So, what is supporting the stuff we don’t want? And what is supporting the stuff that we do want? Does that make sense? Or is it too convoluted? 

No, it makes perfect sense. And we do a transcript. So, part of me is like, I want to make sure that this excerpt gets put on the show notes so that people can have real easy access to this invitation. There’s so much wisdom here. It’s so potent. It’s hitting this multi-layered or multifaceted experience and really helping us. 

I mean, one of the things that I’m feeling as you’re describing this, Martha, is that even if it feels wobbly or feels totally unknown and uncharted territory, it perhaps is like a muscle that the more that we engage with it, the more we start putting our mind and our imagination and our playfulness and pleasure-seeking to work that we can start to unpack and really gain a lot more access. One might not feel initially like a lot calms. If we stay at it, it’ll grow. It’ll get stronger. Would you agree?

I do agree because what we’re talking about here is creating a neural network. So, we’re physiologically changing our brain and our body to experience something different than what our body is experiencing right now. This is just like, the most exciting stuff to me, the intersection of the mind and the body, which are not separate at all. They are one and the same. And everything that we do, like most of what we do, is automatic. Most of what we do doesn’t actually go through our neocortex and get rational thought applied to it and a decision made. 

Most of what we do every day is kind of on autopilot. We know how to walk. We know how to talk. We know how to reach for a cup of coffee. All of it is automatic. And if you want to change a neural network for how you relate to a particular kind of situation, you really have to pay some attention to do that. Otherwise, you’ll be on your automatic script instead. So, it really is a situation where it’s going to feel awkward. Like, out now difficult and awkward and challenging.

The first, dare I say 25 or 50 times, and decreasingly awkward, but like, the first time, it’s not going to feel simple. And the 10th time is going to feel better than that. But don’t expect the skies to open and the sun to come out after just three. So, you know, it’s really more like next year. Look back in your journal and see where you were a year ago. And you’ll be like, “Oh, gosh, my whole way of relating is different than it used to be.”

I appreciate you bringing in the emotional component because so much of relational bonding, I think, is emotional. And when we can engage the emotional experience, as we imagine experiencing this pleasure, that that’s going to be the motivator, that’s going to be the juice, right? Because how much more dynamic and fulfilling and alive and vital that is. And when you talk about the habits, and I can even experience in my own way when my husband and I are kissing in a way that just feels so habitual, I’m like, I don’t enjoy that, right? And it’s really human and really natural to conserve energy and just fall into these scripts and the normal routines. And yet that doesn’t give us that expansion of that vitality in that play and that creative energy, would you agree?

Totally. I would absolutely agree with that. Yes. I want to say to you that exercise that I just kind of walked you through. First of all, there’s a worksheet for that in my book. And my book is about polyamory, but it’s really about how to make a strong relationship, and it’s got 25 worksheets in it, and that’s one of them. I also want to add that there’s a somatic component to our experience, and along with the emotions, it’s another really important aspect of it. 

We were talking about pleasure earlier, so I’m just going to throw it in here. So, while we’re having actions that we’re doing, and thoughts that we’re thinking and emotions that we’re feeling, which are absolutely the juice that drives it, we’re also having a body experience. We’re having sensations that we’re experiencing. And I would say, generally, we’re pretty awful at actually experiencing sensations. 

We get very hyper-focused on negative sensations. My knee hurts, or my back hurts, or whatever. I’m likely to give that a lot of attention. But I’m not so good, and I think none of us are particularly good at noticing what’s pleasant, neutral, or positive. It’s a beautiful practice to begin noticing what is neutral or positive, what feels good. A nice starting place that I particularly like is when a shaft of sunlight hits your face, when you’re walking from your office to your car, your car to your office, just take a breath and receive it because it’s nice. And instead of having it be like a split second that you’ll never remember, you can actually grow that experience a little bit. 

Free A Couple Kissing Behind the Beach Rocks Stock Photo

We get very hyper-focused on negative sensations. It’s a beautiful practice to begin noticing what is neutral or positive, what feels good. Getting good at that, you can see, I think, how you would apply that in an intimate context.”

And as you begin that practice of growing the positive, like right now in my office, the light is really pretty. I can look at that and let it in, kind of let it expand my chest a little. And just let it bring down my anxiety and make me feel nice. Getting good at that, you can see, I think, how you would apply that in an intimate context. Instead of being focused on orgasm or any kind of outcome measure or getting somewhere or your partner’s pleasure. Can you be embodied? Can you notice what’s going on in your body and make space for what’s going on in your partner’s body and let that energy move between the two of you back and forth? 

You can’t have a giver without a receiver. But somehow, culturally, we sort of pathologizing receiving. It’s better to give than to receive. Like, what? Why? Why would that be the case? So, beginning to actually receive what’s good in life is a great way to nurture desire because nobody desires something that is not pleasant, right? So, pleasure, pleasantness, contentment, satisfaction, joy, savoring are all very, very important. You just ignore that stuff because you’re in a hurry and expect the desire to thrive.

Oh, my goodness. Yes, yes, yes. And you are encapsulating so many things. I know at the beginning of the show, you were talking about just the fast pace, or you didn’t really say that specifically, but that’s how I was hearing. I’m just goal-oriented, linear, very achievement or schedule-based. And it’s not as embodied in my experience. I can feel that in myself how difficult that can be to start to switch gears or even just remember.

You just said something that I think is interesting. I agree with you. We have such a driven way of going through our days, but because you used the word schedule, I would just want to talk about scheduled sex for a second. because I don’t have a problem with scheduled sex. What I have a problem with is goal-oriented sex because I think goal-oriented sex increases anxiety. Anxiety is part of the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system is where the arousal nerves are housed. So, do you see the problem? 

If you have experienced anxiety, you will not be experiencing arousal in the same way. So, it’s super important not to have outcome goals, pressure, or performance stuff going on in intimate interaction. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put it on the calendar. But what I would not put on the calendar is, we will have this kind of sex. What I would put on the calendar is we will spend X amount of time luxuriating together, and we’ll see what emerges. We’ll see what we can generate in the way of pleasure and what feels good to each of us at the moment and what we want to do. It may be different each time. 

“It’s super important not to have outcome goals, pressure, or performance stuff going on in an intimate interaction, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put it on the calendar.”

This is so important. I want to just create a little art of that quote because it just isn’t inviting all the things that you’re describing. I think so often, all the imagery and many people in many different fashions and forms feel this pressure. I think it takes a lot of different manifestations. And even the tension, right, the tension sex of just following this arousal to orgasm, right? That just even that pathway, and you talking about the neuro pathways and the habituated tendencies. And this is something very different from what you’re helping people connect with and hopefully start to access. It opens up a whole new train that really supports it. It almost feels like it’s sustainable or that it’s helping synergistically support pleasure and the sustainment of that or the longevity of that.

Yes. And you know as we’re talking about this, and about sort of specific examples, I have a free eBook, too. I think it’s called Handling Sexual Challenges Like A Rock Star or something like that. Anyway, you can get it on my website. And it talks very much about this, how to be in a space and what it actually looks like when something that you didn’t expect to have to happen happens during sex or when something doesn’t go your way. There isn’t an erection, or there’s sex pain, or somebody doesn’t feel like it, or it turns out you don’t have the bandwidth. How do you pivot and stay connected with one another? What does that actually look like?

It’s powerful that tool because I know that was one of the things that I was thinking we might get to realize we haven’t been as specific. I know that you have many resources on your website, like a blog, and you have the training, you have your book. I know there’s a wealth of material. As we look at sexual desire, I know there are lots of things that get in the way. You talked about pressure, low desire, high desire partner, and then the challenges there. You also talk about sex pain, the lack of even feeling pleasure, mood issues, medical issues. 

Is there a place that people might be able to access some of that because I think it’s important in the conversation of sexual desire to really, as you’ve talked about, really normalizing how these things happen? You’re not broken. How to help people and guide people because you really give some really great recommendations and solutions? What would you invite people to do to have access to a little bit more of that material?

Well, I would definitely read the rock star eBook and take a look around my blog. It has a search feature. I blog about all kinds of common sexual challenges. I blog a lot about polyamory too, but not exclusively by any means. So, use the search feature and find the stuff that is about the topic that you are particularly interested in. I would encourage you to look at the stuff that’s about differentiation as well because the skillset that you need to build to be able to actually do this is actually differentiation of self, which is just like psycho talk for a particular skill set that’s made up of three components, sort of plus another one. 

The first is being able to look inside of yourself, and figure out just from within yourself, what you think, feel, believe, desire, prefer. And the second one is to get grounded enough to say that to somebody else, even if you think that they may not feel comfortable hearing your opinion or they might disagree with you. And then the third part is getting grounded enough to hear somebody else say something to you that’s important to them, but it’s hard for you to hear. And those things are absolutely critically important. 

If you want to have this kind of freedom and flow and creativity and spaciousness and intimate interaction, you have to be able to hear your partner say I was enjoying that, but now I am not. Let’s do something different without freaking out. Right? And physiology is part of sex. So, if physiologically, things don’t go as planned, it doesn’t mean your partner is not attracted to you, or you’re not attracted to him. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t have to have a great big narrative built up around it. It’d be great if you could just receive it as part of the normal way that things actually go in real life, and just pivot gracefully and stay connected, privilege the connection with the partner over a particular activity. 

So, instead of reaching for, “But you have to give me an orgasm, and I have to give you an orgasm, and if we don’t do that, that means something bad.” Instead of reaching for that, if we could get to, “Well, if I want an orgasm, I’ll give myself one. And if you want an orgasm, I trust you to give yourself one. And so, then that gives us both a lot of permission to explore what we want without worrying about the orgasm.”

Yes. Ah, the freedom and the permission and the welcoming. It just brings like. It’s this approach. Like I feel like I want to lean into this experience versus when I think of differentiation and what it’s not, right, the dependency of like, I need you to have an orgasm, so I can feel validated or I can feel okay, or I need to do a certain thing to help you feel better or just this. Because I think differentiation in its essence is interdependence. It’s not totally, oh, I’m doing me and don’t care about you. It’s being able to, like you said, Hold on to yourself, tolerate the discomfort of being able to express and also hear, perhaps what isn’t easy to hear, but in the climate of what you’re saying, this prioritizing the space that you’re referring to, is that right? 

Exactly. That’s exactly right. And then the other sort of skill that underlies differentiation is the skill of holding steady, which is required for all parts of differentiation. It’s not really part of differentiation. That’s really an attachment skill, but to feel safe in the world. And to feel like everything’s okay here is kind of an inside job. And that’s what helps us to feel like, “Well, that didn’t go exactly how I had hoped, but it was fine anyway.” Instead of, you know, creating a whole bad day, or week or month or a year out of an interaction where things didn’t go as planned.

No kidding. Right. That like, oh, if it didn’t go as planned, and the doomsday that comes up. Like, ah, what that means and all that stuff that gets loaded on to that.

Exactly. And then we’re back to that worksheet that we were talking about before, right? Because now we’re talking about what are the thoughts? What are you telling yourself about yourself? Right? My body is not right, so my partner is not attracted to me anymore. And probably they’re cheating on me. But this whole narrative can blow out of just somebody who didn’t want to have an orgasm that day. That’s just such a normal part of human functioning, sexual variation, and physiology that it seems ridiculous to get worked up about it, which is why I have that kind of take back the orgasm mindset that I think can really free people up a lot. You just could trust that; yeah, if I want to have an orgasm, I’ll have an orgasm. You can count on me for that. And then you don’t have to worry about my orgasm, and then I don’t have to worry about your orgasm either. And then, we can just have lots and lots of fun and who knows what will happen, right?

Yes, and it gives so much space for developing, and even if we look at aging, I know you talked about menopause for women and just the different development or what might be going on in different phases of life and stressors. So, this is so incredibly important. I will make sure Martha to have all the links to the resources you’ve mentioned here today on today’s show notes. Also, you have a website. Please tell people what that website is and what they can find.

Absolutely, it is www.InstituteForRelationalIntimacy. You have to sign up for my newsletter to get the newsletter. And what my newsletter will tell you is when a blog comes out that’s of interest to you. That happens twice a month-ish. And my blog is on Psychology Today usually. I sometimes publish something that I don’t put on Psychology Today. And there are a lot of old blog posts on my website that you can look for. 

If you’re a therapist, I have lots of training offerings for therapists. I wrote a book that came out in 2020 called Polyamory: A Clinical Toolkit for Therapists and Their Clients, which is also really a self-help book for building strong intimacy and relationships. It has 25 worksheets, and it talks about what goes into making a good agreement, what goes into making a repair, what does infidelity have to do with polyamory? How do these things relate to each other? Lots of stuff—how to handle a difference of opinion about opening up. 

It’s a clinical how-to for therapists to do a better job working with people in non-traditional relationships. But it’s also a self-help manual for intimate relationships. And probably a good half of the book is really about differentiation of self and how to actually cultivate it and nurture it. And also, as self-regulation and co-regulation, how to handle your own difficult emotions, how to handle any difficult emotion, but my book focuses primarily on jealousy. All of that is on my website, and probably more, as well.

Yes, I know you had mentioned you consult with therapists and practitioners. And that again, you do training, and you do a lot of keynote speaking and workshops. And so, there are a lot of ways in which you’re helping deliver this content. Is there anything else you would like to say before we wrap up here today?

This was a super fun conversation. We covered a ton of ground very quickly. You’re really, really good at this.

Oh, thank you. Oh, well, again, I just feel that what you have to share is so incredibly important. And I can feel myself and my excitement. And I feel like we could spend a whole week with you and still be wanting more. So, Martha, thank you for the tremendous service you’re providing to us and others around this topic.

Thank you. What a pleasure to have this conversation. I hope it helps lots of people. 

Me too.

Signing Off

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.

Stop the criticism loop, learn new ways to communicate
and strengthen the connection with your partner.


Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching