ERP 432: What Your Sexual Approach In Relationship Can Tell You (Or Teach You) — An Interview With Dr. Corey Allan

By Posted in - Podcast July 9th, 2024 0 Comments

Have you ever felt that intimacy in your relationship brings both comfort and discomfort? Why do we feel pressured to conform or seek space when getting too close to someone?

In this episode, we delve into these intriguing dynamics of human connection. We explore the pressures of seeking complete unity in relationships and the concept of the ‘fusion mindset.’ Hear how technology’s impact on our interactions can lead to pseudo-connections, affecting the delicate balance between intimacy and loneliness.

Gain practical insights on recognizing and communicating your needs, and understand how personal growth often comes through navigating discomfort and anxiety. Learn how to confront and manage relationship tensions, bringing curiosity and openness to the table, especially in sexual intimacy.

Dr. Corey Allan is a husband, father, author, speaker, and a Marriage and Family Therapist with a Ph.D. in Family Therapy. He and his wife Pam host a weekly podcast, Sexy Marriage Radio, where they help frame conversations and actions that help couples create a marriage fully alive.

In this episode

06:30 Dr. Corey Allen’s journey to helping marriages thrive.

09:58 How sexual intimacy mirrors life and relationships.

16:07 Understanding the elicitation window: Unpacking sexual intimacy and relationship dynamics.

21:02 How past reactions shape present interactions.

25:57 Balancing separateness and togetherness in relationships.

36:27 The importance of tolerating discomfort and anxiety as a pathway to personal and relational growth.

44:15 The importance of identifying and challenging habitual behaviors that may inhibit deeper connection.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Acknowledge when you feel pressured to conform or seek space in a close relationship and communicate your need for individual autonomy.
  • Develop self-awareness by regularly reflecting on your motivations and emotional reactions within your relationship.
  • Make a conscious effort to clearly express your needs and desires to your partner instead of expecting them to read between the lines.
  • View discomfort and anxiety in your marriage as opportunities for personal growth and deeper connection.
  • Practice differentiation by balancing individuality and togetherness, making decisions based on purpose and meaning.
  • Approach conflicts with curiosity and an open mind to understand the underlying values and meanings attached to them.
  • Engage in conversations about sexual intimacy with openness and curiosity, exploring differences to foster a deeper connection.
  • Stay attuned to your partner’s evolving perspectives and be willing to adapt to their personal growth journey over time.

Mentioned

Intimacy & Desire: Awaken The Passion In Your Relationship (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Resurrecting Sex (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Passionate Marriage (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Crucible Institute Dr. David Schnarch

Turn Criticism Into Connection | Dr Jessica Higgins #678

ERP 027: Asking For What You Want & Getting It — With Dr. Corey Allen

ERP 238: How to Find Your Emotional Balance in Relationship

ERP 110: How to Manage Two Majorly Conflicting Needs in Relationship

Connect with Dr. Corey Allan

Websites: smr.fm

Facebook: facebook.com/sexymarriageradio

YouTube: youtube.com/@sexymarriageradio

Instagram: instagram.com/sexymarriageradio

TikTok: tiktok.com/@sexymarriageradio

Podcast: podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/sexy-marriage-radio/id472302597

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Corey, thank you for joining us today.

Yeah, this will be fun. Little did I know, the second time joining. How fantastic is that, still going for so long!

Yes, we have a team. Sometimes, the way this works behind the scenes, a lot of people are pitching to be on shows, and then I have a team that vets those pitches, and then sometimes I ask people to come on. There’s a lot that happens that sometimes when people land to have an interview, maybe don’t even know really all that much about each other. Your name sounded familiar, and I know I was just on your show. So it’s great to have this time with you. Yes, I think your episode, if we looked at it, was Episode 27. It’s been a while, likely that was 2015. I’ll have the link to that episode on today’s show notes. 

For people who are getting acquainted with you here, Corey, what would you like to share about how this work became meaningful to you, how it became a focus for you in your career?

Well, the short answer to this, because this could be a long story, is I started in the Youth and Family Ministry and had this ideal of: I would do that for a while, transition into a family role or a counselor role or something. Because I always knew counseling would be part of my journey, largely just because I think it’s my bent. But it’s also because you can do it the rest of your life. It’s something where you can always be in the trenches with people and helping walk through and navigate all that life on life’s terms demands. 

So the ministry ended after an emotional betrayal from me. So I left the ministry, rightly so, and pieced our marriage back together. Because we were at a point where my wife, Pam, we were six years in, and she gave me the ring back at that point. I’m like, not yet, let me get my act together, let’s see. That launched us on a journey that was where we are today, and a lot of parts, that was the big pivotal moment that happened. Then I did a brief stint in the business world just to repair. 

Ministry is rough, kind of like therapy in some ways. It’s rough, without the same kind of training you get for therapy. So after a couple years of that, went back to school, and then started a practice, and then started writing for a local newspaper, which then turned into a blog, which then turned into a podcast, and here we are today. I mean, it’s kind of just been this journey of 20 years of private practice, or over that, with clients and couples. Then 12.5 years with a podcast, and 15 years with a blog. So it’s been fun to have a bunch of different things that go out into the world to help people and hopefully improve the quality of life, and for sure, improve the quality of relationships.

Absolutely. It just sounds as though there’s an evolution that you’ve been just continuing the journey in. Corey, if I remember, and as I briefly looked at the outline and takeaways from the interview we did years and years ago, is the emphasis on growth. That a lot of these experiences do help us develop and do help us grow if we turn towards it. 

On an aside, I don’t know that many people know this, I doubt you know, I led a teen program and was the director of teen ministries. I worked for a very nondenominational church. It was a very large church, and we grew the program from like five kids to almost 200 at its peak. But what the significance of around that for me was, I had gotten so much out of it as a youth myself that I wanted to give back. I had actually done a year of AmeriCorps before that, working with youth. So I did that for a few years before I got my masters in between. 

Yeah, this whole thing also runs in my family; my father teaches sociology and psychology, my sister is a social worker. Then the joke we run around my family is, my mom’s crazy. So it all fits perfectly.

Okay, great! Well, we’re going to be pivoting to the topic around, and hence even your podcast, a lot of what you describe is how the sexual intimacy space could be a reflection of how the couple is even experiencing life and relationships. So just even the title you kicked around is: How You Do Sex is How You Do Life. So talk to us a little bit about what this means to you. 

The big thing to me in all of this is that sex is a language, it’s not just an act. 

Free Bearded Man Looking at a Woman Stock Photo

“I think it’s far too often that we limit the aspects of our life and aspects of our relationship, because we think of them only as specific, defined, tangible things. Rather than it’s more of an idea, it’s more of a language, it’s more of a relationship dynamic. It’s an aspect of who we are. It’s something we share and create together.”

So if you can broaden out everything, then I think you can get a chance for people to start examining, how I approach this is how I approach other things in my life too, most likely. But there’s going to be a commonality, for sure. 

If you look at the deeper dive, like in therapy and coaching with clients, the guy I did all my training under was Dr. David Schnarch. He has what he called the elicitation window, which is, if you can get a couple to describe their sex life—what they do, how it unfolds, how it starts, how it begins, how it is at the middle and the end—he can tell you their life, and how they approach life. When you start to see in that way, it’s like, that’s true. That’s totally true. It’s not as clear cut as: Oh well, you do this, so that must mean you do this. It’s more of the fundamental way you approach difficult things in life, or keep someone at bay, or are forthcoming with what you want. 

I mean, there’s a lot of other deeper aspects that are important. When you can see the correlation between it, one way couples can improve their life is, if the pain point in my life is my sex life, well, that’s also playing out in my marriage life and in my life. How do I approach that area different, and likely, then start approaching the sex life different? It’s just an easier foray into a way to look at the difficulties we have and that we bring to the equation. 

So if I’m understanding you, it’s not as though sexual intimacy and relationship is this black box, that it’s like all these unique things happen and we have to crack the code or keep things fresh. All these different things that, from a technique or tip standpoint, might add a little something. But on a fundamental way in which people are creating that sexual experience together, you’re saying, let’s broaden the definition here. Sexuality, as we look at, to individuals, what that means as far as their vitality, their desire, their expression. All the things that are that unique fingerprint of who they are, and that expression of their sexuality. Then how the couple comes together and how they dance in their sexual intimacy. Like, let’s look at this from a bigger perspective. Is that what I’m hearing?

Yeah, it is, and the converse of this can be true. Another phrase I love is the idea that sex often is leftovers. And what we mean by that is, I get to decide whatever I think is okay or what I’m not willing to do, and my wife gets to decide whatever she’s not willing to do, and we do whatever is leftover. Well, we do this in life all the time. I’m not comfortable going on that kind of a trip, so we’ll do whatever is left over. So we create existences where we are keeping anxiety largely in check or at bay; “comfort zones.” Couples have sex up to the level of anxiety they can tolerate. That’s why in married life, the phrase is sex becomes monotonous. It’s largely because we stopped growing; we don’t risk, we don’t put ourselves out there. Well, I probably am not doing that in other areas of my life, either. 

So I think it’s just a fabulous way to empower people to enhance their approach to what it is they say they want. I mean, you do a lot of work with people too. We often say these things with the intention and hopes that the intention is enough. Rather than, if I’m saying it and still not doing it, then I need to figure out what that disconnect is. Because that’s about me. 

And how to bridge that gap. 

Right. Or be honest and say, actually, I don’t want that. My wife and I had this conversation yesterday, about a long-haul hiking expedition possibly. It kind of all sounded great and exciting and everything. Then as it unfolded throughout the evening, I was like: I don’t know if I want that, actually, at my age in life now. It sounds great. So it’s kind of a wrestling because I can get caught up in the shiny, shiny: Ooh, cool, cool. But I’m not actually going to follow through. I recognize that about me to be aware enough, more often than not. I don’t always do good at this. But to bring that forward and say, I might need to pull this back a little bit. Luckily, she’s gracious enough to know who she’s with and go: Oh, yeah, that’s who you are, I got it. Rather than, you always do this! Instead, this element of each of us being exposed better to ourselves, and then each other, allows for better depth and connection in everything we do, particularly sex.

Yes. We were talking just before we started recording here, that I’m also a fan of Dr. David Schnarch. And what I’m hearing you describe is the ability to tolerate some of this discomfort to approach these conversations, and not just abandon self to lessen the tension or lessen the anxiety. I want to really focus on that. But before we do, just to give people a little bit of a better sense, I forgot the phrase you referenced that David Schnarch uses to look at their experiences as how they do sex.

The elicitation window?

Yes, can you give people an example or more examples? You gave one, which was perhaps not being fully transparent or bringing one’s self to the experience, maybe withholding or hiding? Can you give us some other examples around where couples might? Because you did say one other thing, which is what I want to focus on, is couples will say what doesn’t feel good, and then they’ll end up restricting the territory of which they want to engage.

Right, without ever examining what it is that makes it to where it doesn’t feel good. I am not an advocate of pain and discomfort in sexual experiences at all, unless that’s exactly what you’re going for. Because that’s a different caveat in niche of the sexual encounter.

To take a risk is different than getting clear of like, I don’t want to do that.

But the element of, if I’m presented with something by my spouse: No, that sounds uncomfortable, I can’t see myself as that. Well, rather than just pushing that aside and making that just the non-negotiable edict from henceforth forevermore. Instead, I need to go: Okay, wait, what is it that is so revolting to me about that, or so unappealing? At least then, I’ve come down to a truer belief, rather than it’s just based on an immediate reaction. Because couples throughout the lifespan, I can still hold my spouse—I’ve been married to my wife for almost 31 years now, at the time of this recording—I can hold her responsible for reactions she had 27 years ago still, when she is not the same woman that she was 27 years ago. But I can still use that if it fits the narrative I want it to fit, on why she is the problem. Rather than: No, I haven’t caught up to who I’m really facing, nor have I exposed who I am in this moment either, to allow the whole process to really unfold. 

One example that comes to my mind on this idea was with a client I worked with years ago. You could get this timidity sense from him, and I was trying to figure out a way to really bring that up. I’m fairly blunt in a lot of ways I go about things. I just tell people flat out, I’d like to be honest. Sometimes it could seem harsh. But when we’re straightforward, we get a lot more done faster. So in our sources of our conversation, I just kept getting the sense that he kept acquiescing to her. And what she wanted was his power, not to dominate or anything, but just his power of his presence. So I finally just went out on a flier and just thought, I’ll use a question about their sex life to maybe point out what it is I’m sensing here. I just asked, sir. I usually call them by their last name, whatever it was. Can you tell me of a time when you ever really, in a sexual encounter, took your wife? Before I even got the question completely out, his wife jumped in and said: No, he can’t. 

Now all of a sudden, we had a real clear picture of this is what we’re really wrestling with. It’s not just in sex, it’s in other areas of life too. That she was wanting somebody to help collaborate, bounce off of. She could feel his presence, set a tone, take a lead at times. And now we can talk about it on a global scale because it’s a fundamental thing that’s playing out, and he wasn’t even where. He just thought: I’m just doing what she’s liking. I’m just going to be in the background. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s just the way he oriented towards life. So recognizing that, in a little bit of a harsh way, at least brought him forward to see it. He’ll either rise up and confront this, or he’ll acquiesce to me. Now we’ve got a way to start talking. Either way we go, we’re still making some progress.

I like that you’re giving a real validation for that orientation, there’s a good reason why people do this.

Yeah, it makes sense on why he’s there. It’s not just: Oh, this seems like a good choice. 

Free Men Sitting on Green Grass Field Stock Photo

“We all come up with the way we orient towards life that’s situationally appropriate. It just doesn’t play out well the longer we keep doing it, and as the circumstances and environment change.”

As we look at our world, how much we’ve learned about aspects of dynamics and societies and nature. If we didn’t adjust as we learned, we’re too rigid.

What we learn as sexy, what we learn as lovable, what perhaps is a good way to express in the sexual space or otherwise. I think the sexual space can be extremely vulnerable and tender. So it is a really great window to look at some of these ways of operating that are a direct perhaps indicator to some of those deeper things. 

Okay. Then you had mentioned, with your wife, reacting to, or responding to perhaps a reaction that’s three years old. Can you give us an example of that? 

Well, so the way I think about this is, I like to think of our operating systems as humans just like a technological operating system. Like, my wife is named Pam. So to throw a number out, she’s Pam 8.0 right now in our marriage. Or whatever, 8.0.5.2, something to this point. But there could have been a reaction from a subject that I brought up in the first year, which actually happened, where we were having a fight in our house. We’re not yellers. I will avoid, that would be my MO. I was a rabbit when it came to a conflict. I could make light of it, and get out of it, and never have to really face it, which is not a healthy thing to do. But we were having a tense discussion, and she got mad. So she walked out of the room, and she went to go get some water, which now has become a catchphrase for us. Any time either of us is mad, it’s like: I’m going to go get some water, which is just code for: I’m out, stop, break, we’ll deal with it in a minute. Well, I’m following her, and when she was so amped up with emotions, she opened the cabinet door too hard, and it came off the hinges and it hit the ground and splintered. 

Here I am, at that point a 22-year-old kid, and I see deep down this message of, don’t make my wife mad. So I adopted that hook, line, and sinker for a long time. Until I realized one day, wait, I am not afraid of her. It was largely because I grew up to be better with me. It wasn’t about her fear or her anger. She’s free to do whatever she chooses to do and how she handles things. I need to just get better at how I relate. So she can have a quick reaction that I’ll see it as: Oh, that’s Pam 1.0. Here we go again, nothing has changed. I can take the high ground: Look at how evolved I am, why aren’t you up here. Rather than: That’s my map that hasn’t updated. That’s not actually her.

Okay. So both the recognition that your partner is evolving and growing, and perhaps we’re seeing through a lens that is antiquated or outdated. And you’re also saying the real work is looking at what is the way that I am responding to that? Or how am I using that information to either avoid or tell myself that’s a no-go zone and restrict that. Or learn anchor and sink, or whatever you said, but solidify it.

Yeah, or be tactical. Just be more tactical: Okay, wait, is this the best time? Because at the time of this recording, she’s just coming off tax season. We know the several days after tax season, it is not time to cover anything big in our world, nor is it time to really dream. Because her dreams become more escapism, than: No, that’s really what I want to do. So we’ve learned over the years, we need to be tactical in how we approach these things on our environment. It doesn’t always allow it to happen. But in large part, when one of us is in a better groundedness state or solid state that has some flexibility still to us, we’re capable of saying: Okay, we will table this, we’ll come back to it, it’d be good. Let’s go do this instead. I mean, your work is the same thing in a lot of ways. Nothing really is as much of an emergency as we often think it is. 

Okay. As we’re talking, I’m tracking some things I want to come back to. One of which is, you were just saying, philosophically, often people don’t have a growth mindset in relationship. So they are aiming to not fight, or to keep things smooth with the goal of happy interacting, which the side effect of that is, as we’re talking, we get into these comfort zones that restrict our passion, restrict our aliveness and erotic, all the energy pieces. You were saying we have a difficult time tolerating the discomfort or the anxiety. Can you give us a little bit more about that, just to give us a foundation here?

Yeah, I think the way I frame this is, there’s two fundamental life forces: there’s the drive for separateness, and there’s the drive for togetherness. You’ll hear a variety of different versions of this. 

Intimacy, autonomy, yes.

Yeah, this is just the dynamic that I believe in or the wording I believe in. So I want to be my own self, master my own fate, make up my own mind, don’t have anybody telling me what to do. I can make it on my own kind of thing. But I also want to be connected with somebody, or others, too. I want the connection, the companionship, the camaraderie, the laughter, the sex, the intimacy, all the things that take place in a relationship. So we, as humans, fundamentally bounce back and forth between these two poles of life forces. And what happens a lot of times is, I think they become too narrow in the sense that the poles are way too close together. So I’m bouncing quickly, where if I get too close to somebody, I will be pressured to conform. That’s just universal, I believe. That if we did a long enough podcast with each other, we would be pressuring each other to conform languages to fit the way I want it to sound. Just because the closer I get to somebody, the more there’s just inherently pressure to do life or job or marriage or whatever, the way I want it.

The harmony. This is where people fantasize about that symbiotic, like we might envision the synchronized swimming or the ice skaters, they’re in such sync.

Yeah, that’s the fusion mindset. That’s the idea of it’s one brain, and that’s what’s so captivating, because we think that’s what marriage could be and should be. When in reality, if it was, it would be incredibly unfulfilling and destructive.

There’s no individual life.

Yeah, there’s no tension or conflict, and that’s actually what creates the vibrancy and the vitality. So if I’m too close to somebody, I will feel the signals of: Uh, I gotta get some space. So I’ll sabotage, or I’ll remove, or I’ll pick a fight, or I’ll just bluntly say I’m taking some time, or whatever it might be. But then when I get too separate, I reach out for connection, which in today’s day and age has become cumbersome, because we reach for our phones and social connections on platforms, which isn’t really connection. I mean, research continues to bear that out, that it’s not a real connection. But it feels pseudo enough that I get a little bump, or whatever.

The phones are very designed to work with our human tendencies to feel, there’s a lot of science in that as well. 

It’s a cycle that just draws you. I will make you feel good, come to me! So we go back and forth between these poles, and to me the idea of growth becomes: I broaden the polls, so I have more latitude between them and I’m not as held hostage by either extreme. I don’t know if you agree with this or not. 

Free Man Wearing Blue Shirt Kissing Woman in Pink Tank Top Stock Photo

“I believe when it comes to emotions and anxieties and stuff, management is not a word we put in there. We don’t manage emotion, we need to tolerate them, which means I build up the ability to have it not just run rampant with me most of the time.”

I mean, you had a family member that lost somebody. Well, you can’t just say: Oh, I will manage this. I will manage this grief. No, it’s coming out. But then it becomes, how do I let what happens happen, and I learn to start tolerating? Because I still want to feel it, that’s what makes us quintessentially human. So it’s an element of going between the two poles means I tolerate thresholds better. So before I reach for the phone to help feel pseudo connected, or before I go reach out to somebody to get connected, take a beat, relax. Get comfortable in your loneliness. That’s okay. Before you start feeling sabotaged and smothered, take a beat. Hold on, are you really? Or is it just something in you? Are they really demanding something of you? Or is it just you feeling like: Oh, now I’m a hostage, now I’ve got to subject myself to their tyranny forever. So it’s just when I can start broadening those thresholds, I get so much more capacity to really live life.

As you’re describing this short spectrum, or how people are bouncing back and forth, it’s almost as if neither experience is fulfilling or satiating, and that they’re just living in, on a scale from 1 to 10, living in a 2 or 3. When really, what you’re inviting is: Can we expand the capacity? Can we tolerate? Can we learn to exist and grow in more intimacy, and grow in the capacity for more autonomy or separateness? Is that what I’m hearing?

Yeah, because intimacy is just as likely going to produce uncomfortable feelings as it will comfortable ones. Loneliness can be the same thing, where it’s like I get this idea of: Ah finally, I can be me. Then it’s just as likely going to be like: Ah, where did everybody go, I’m all alone? So these are just normal human things, and when I can recognize what’s going on, I think it helps frame how I am approaching it. 

Let me give me an example that plays out, and it played out in my life. That when cell phones came around, I found that when I was in school or working and driving different places, I would call my wife, and it was largely just because I was bored. Well, I’m married to a CPA, that when she’s in a zone, just don’t interrupt her. But when she sees me call, she will most often answer. Because she’s like, well, there could be something going on, I’ll answer. But oftentimes, I would get the: Yeah, what do you need, real quick? But what I’m wanting with reach out, initially, was: Oh, I’m so glad you called, I was just thinking about you! I’m the luckiest wife in the world. I want all this boosting of my ego. I’ve been waiting for you to call, all these kinds of things. 

Well, what I realized is, I’m reaching out to her, my tendency was because I’m bored, or I don’t feel good about myself, and I want her to help me feel good about me without me asking for it. I want to place something on her that she’s got no clue, although she’s smart enough to realize that’s what he’s looking for, but she just couldn’t not empathize to do it. So now to this day, if I’m picking up the phone to call my wife, I have a momentary pause of what’s the real motivation here. Because if it’s just, I just need you to help me feel better, well, maybe I need to take care of that myself. Or if that’s what I’m looking for, I lead with that. I’m just kind of down right now, and I wanted to bounce something off you and hear your voice. 

Or it could be: No, this is something that’s got to be dealt with, so I’m interrupting you. I know I’m going to make you mad. But this is a schedule thing with the kid or us, and I’m going to interrupt you and I’ll just take the heat. You’re going to be upset, fine. But this is one of those things that’s gotta be addressed, and then we just don’t blow it up. So just that recognition for me was huge on realizing my tendency for covert propping up. To make that more overt makes a huge difference in how I orient towards life. 

Absolutely. Staying with this, it sounds as though, with that check-in and that pause, one can occupy a little bit more awareness, and thus choose: Well, oh, I am bored, perhaps I can be with this. Or I’m feeling anxious or insecure, perhaps I can be with this and learn how to check in and occupy this space a little bit more. Maybe meet my own needs, or know what I’m needing and learn how to exist in that. And/or I bring that to my person and I say: Oh, I’m just feeling so scared, and will you remind me if you’re able? I’m looking for a little bit of a put me up, those type of things.

That’s a whole different way to approach what we often are reaching out for, which then I think is met with: Yeah, I can do that. At least I increase the possibility of that, rather than, they know I’m fishing, they know I’m hoping, whatever. But I’m just not courageous enough to ask.

Or they don’t know and it gets messy. So is this, in part, part of the developmental practice, is just tolerating a little bit of these moments to then over time build more capacity?

Yeah. That’s a component of growth I think, that when I look at, as I have evolved and matured in general, our ability and capacity to deal with things increased too. In some areas, it absolutely does, just because you become more capable and confident with your job or skill set or parenting. I mean, every single one of us. You’re educated, I am too. I’ve read all kinds of stuff. I knew what was going on when we had our firstborn. But when we walked in this house and sat her down, I looked at my wife and said, now what do we do? That was a direct quote. She’s like: I’m hungry, you want a sandwich? That sounds fantastic! Then you just start doing life, and you figure it out. Like, I’ll figure it out. So that’s going on in relationship context too. We don’t know what we’re really getting into, particularly as it evolves, until we’re in it. So when you start to see it as that’s a process of our own growth. I believe marriage is designed to help us grow up, period. So what better way than to put you with somebody that challenges you, you love, and they drive you crazy, and you never really own nor do you want? It gets all kind of complicated and convoluted. But dealing with that through a lens of: Okay, how am I handling me, and how am I caring for us? I believe in that order. If I do it that way, man, I got a lot of different good bubbles over that the relationship gets to cultivate and enjoy. Because I love the idea that marriage takes me places I can’t go on my own.

Okay, Corey, so as we look at growth, and then as you’re talking about so often the human tendency is to seek comfort or seek pleasure, the dopamine. I mean, there’s even a lot of physiological science around, when we turn to the dopamine hit, that actually isn’t going to serve us. So we want to tolerate some of these, without going down that route. So as you help people look at the benefit of tolerating some of these uncomfortable feelings or anxieties, you’re also describing checking in and really looking at the purpose and the intention that one is after or wanting. How do you help people know the difference? So you referenced this example of taking this hiking vacation or something. How do you encourage people to identify what’s avoiding anxiety and seeking comfort, versus the real solid check-in? I know you said it’s not binary, like it’s not yes or no.

No, this is multi-layered in my thinking. In the sense that our human existence, particularly as we relate to other people, always has multiple messages built in every single one of them. It’s not just 100% pure and clean. Everybody hears it the way they hear it. So there’s an element of, one, being more aware of my shadow, if you go Jungian. Just because there’s an element of that at play, where we’re sure that that’s what drives me. I have this bugger in there that always wants to be liked and thought of as smart, so I’m positioning myself in ways I think will make that happen. Rather than, wait, I just need to be aware of my tendency, and I don’t want to exaggerate that sucker. So more awareness of my capability of it, to me, is one of the bigger roles I do in coaching, is just try to help get a better lens for people to view themselves and their situation. So then hopefully the best in them steps up and does the hard thing, asks the hard question or the hard conversation. I get the sense we’ve been dancing around this, what do you really think about it? Well, I don’t ever see you doing that. Okay, at face value, emotionally speaking, that could be a deal breaker. But the more I get into it, maybe it’s not. If I can settle myself, how are my values really out of line or in line with this? Because we will so often just become reactionary, we don’t ever face possibilities. I mean, I think of this in a “longevitive,” that’s not even a word. But if you look at what I’m trying to say, it’s a word. 

But if you look at this, one of the things that matters to me, this is something from Dr. Schnarch that he mentioned. Because you hinted at this, this is just a great story of him, that he softened over the 10-12 years I was working and going to his trainings. Somebody asked him: You used to be a prickly bear, and now you’re a lot softer, what happened? He’s like, it’s my parents. I have watched them age, and I’ve watched them sit in a room and look at each other, and each of them are faced with having the courage of being able to say: It’s okay, you can go first, I’ll take the pain. That is incredibly profound. But isn’t that meaningful, on a way to live life? Rather than we act like: Oh no, it won’t happen, I don’t want to face that. Rather than: No, we will. 

So how do I make choices? I try to make choices with my wife and my kids, and then my other small circle of people I try to live real deep with, on I am inviting more pain and I know that. But let’s do it, because that’s what I want. I’ll take the pain, let’s go for what’s on the other side. So eventually, our daughter left. She went to college, she needs to. But it was also a pain. It’s like, I see families that can’t handle launch, we were parts of that at times. Like, well, something is off. Oh yeah, she’s about to launch. Well, of course that’s why, it’s going to hurt. I don’t want to face that hurt. Well, I need to face there, because it’s going to happen anyway. So if I just look at life, and particularly marriage, I want to have the courage to be able to tell my wife all the time: You go first baby, if that’s what it takes, I’ll take the pain. I want this so deeply with you, I’ll take it, let’s go.

The risk, and I’m saying yes to turn towards this and engage. So one way that I’m hearing you, and I realize even how I frame the question is based on my thinking. But as you talk about tolerating discomfort and anxiety, it sounds like you’re saying, part of the work is recognizing the parts in us that have learned to cope, as we were just talking. Also, just notice and perhaps see if there’s a way to see the other parts that are maybe a little bit more genuine and more authentic, just to see who’s in the driver’s seat.

Right, who’s at the head of the board table in the boardroom.

Yeah, are we habitually just coping and doing what we do, and not really very conscious about it? Then you’re also saying, if I’m hearing you, Corey, that even if we have a connection with a genuine felt sense or a genuine knowing of like, I don’t know that I have the energy for this big hiking vacation, that you’re saying that’s a beginning place. That perhaps these conversations, when one can start there and just confront some of these tension points where there are differences or conflicts, what can get learned and not experienced, and maybe there is more subtleties or gray or nuances that allow for stretch goals or working together, where maybe your wife does do the trip and you don’t. There’s certain versions, and there’s no way we can iterate all of this.

Well, I love the idea that we don’t fight and have conflict about things, we have conflict about the meanings attached to said things. So through the conversation last night, an idea came to us in the afternoon, and then I was like, what do you think? She’s like, that sounds exciting! Then we kind of talked a little bit more, and then it was like: Well, hold on, there’s something bubbling up in me. I don’t really know, hold on. But that’s me, I don’t need to impose that on her or shut it down completely. 

So we started bringing it up more throughout the evening, and finally I was like: Okay, wait, what does this actually represent, what’s underneath this form? Because I think what the big thing is, is the detachment and the freedom. Like, detach from the world for a bit. We can still be involved with people. But let’s get out of the rat race for a bit and be free. Okay, we can do that in other ways. That’s not just this trip or this opportunity, there’s other things that we could find nuances that we could start doing. Because it could just be, as we’re talking right now, I’m thinking, it’s as simple as: I’m going to take you to dinner, honey, and we’re not taking phones. We’re detached from the world, and we’re free in this moment. If something comes up, we’ll figure out soon enough. Because we’re dealing with ageing parents, and we’ve got some things that could be pivotal, that we need to be aware of. But in large part, what’s underneath it is what matters. Because then I can now orient my life associated with that value, rather than it has to be this way. 

Thank you. If we bring this back to the sexual space, one way that I am imagining, and I would love to hear from you, is that we notice our habits. As we approach the sexual intimacy space with our significant other, we notice ways that we shy away or withhold, and that part of what you’re inviting is, can we identify it and take this scary risk to just stay?

Yeah. In the midst of the routine sex that you have, and when you have that thought of: I wonder what would happen if… Follow it, bring it out in the open. It could be: Hold on, honey, I just had this thought. I don’t know if I want to do it yet, and I realize I just disrupted our flow. 

Free Man Kissing Woman on Her Cheek Stock Photo

“If you think about it, sex, for the most part, is not the one continuous flow anyway. There’s disconnect and reconnect all the way through it, and part of reconnecting is what makes it so enjoyable in a lot of ways.”

So when you have that thought or that curiosity, sit with it for a minute. Don’t just be like: Oh okay, well, we just do it this way. No, hold on. Well, what happened if I flipped over and got on top? Or if we moved over to the chair, or we stood up? Or let’s head outside of the pool or whatever. Put it out there, and your spouse could very well go: No, we can’t do that. That’s okay. But you took a growth step, that’s the difference. Then you see, will they recover, and see where it goes. They may not, but you could be proud of you bringing yourself forward.

Holding on to it and not abandoning it, and from there, there’s unknown uncharted territory.

Totally, we don’t know where this might lead, which could be incredibly fun.

Excellent. Well, I know we’re winding down our time, and I want to just check in with you. Is there anything you feel is important to mention, based on what we’re talking about, that we haven’t talked about? 

No. I think the big distinction to add to this is, the way differentiation in my mind goes, it’s a psychobabble term that you’re familiar with too, and your audience probably is too, because you’ve done a lot of interviews with a lot of different people. 

Free Two Women Kissing Each Other  Stock Photo

“The idea of differentiation to me is higher-level processing, in the sense of: it’s not all thinking, it’s not all feeling. It’s both. It’s bringing both categories into the equation to where, how do I think about this, but also what do I feel about this?”

It’s the same thing with separateness and togetherness. Because I can make a decision, as soon as we finish recording, to go get my RV and just leave. Well, I’m not going to, because I have a family, and I care about them. But from the worst in me, I would blame them for why I can’t do that. Rather than, no, the best in me will step up and say, the best choice is to live with the value of family. That is a little bit heavier than freedom right now. Okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. When I can live with that, everybody can relax around me better, because I’m handling me better.

Yeah, handling you, and there might even be a space and time for you to advocate or give yourself an experience, as you mentioned, and have different versions or different levels of freedom. Any other examples around differentiation for people who are getting their mind around how this works?

I mean, I’ve always used it as the idea of growing up, just because it makes the most sense to me. If you go biblical, put away childish things, differentiate and become an adult with some wisdom and character, and how you approach life and all that life involves. 

Free Man and Woman Holding Hands Stock Photo

“We don’t live in a place where many people are for us, actually. We are the products of a lot of things, if you think about it, and so they don’t have our best in mind. So how do I bring my best in mind? That’s differentiating. That’s stepping forward, not at the expense of a relationship, but for the possibility of the relationship.”

Right, what am I thinking, feeling, taking action in, that I’m deciding with purpose and meaning, and some clarity hopefully, and consciousness? 

A lot of it is after the fact. I don’t handle something well, and I come back and be curious. I know that’s a line of phrase you use a lot of be curious about: Okay, what was that reaction, what got touched on there? Okay, all right, there we go. Now I’m a little more aware, so I can be a little more equipped, and maybe I need to go back and repair a little bit with my spouse or a kid. I’ve had to do that with both teenagers a couple times. Like, you know what? I didn’t handle that one, that was on me. We’re okay, Dad. No, this isn’t about are you and I okay yet. I want you to know, I saw me in this, and I didn’t like it.

If I were to do a do-over, I would have chosen differently. 

That’s my move, and now we’ll talk about how you and I are doing. But I want you to see me handling me first.

Yes, and talk about emotions and relationship when they’re disowned. I know you’ve talked about the difference between managing and tolerating. But one of the things with difficult emotion that gets a lot of attention is regulation, and when one can start to acknowledge and identify. I mean, this is classic neuroscience, name it to tame it. When I’m handling it, people around me, even if I look angry and I’m having all this intense emotion, if I’m like: I know I’m angry, and I’ve got a lot going on, and I’m handling it. People are like: Okay, she’s got it, I don’t need to freak out. 

Because if they ask you if you’re angry and you’re not handling it, you’re like, no!

Like, are you mad at me, what’s going on, what’s going to happen? 

All right, Corey, you’ve just given us so much here. How do people learn more about what you’re up to and what you’re teaching and offering? 

Yeah, so my world online is SMR.fm. That’s where everything is. Podcast is there, you can find it on any platform under Sexy Minutes Radio. If you Google that, it’ll come right up too. But everything I do with courses, blogs, episodes. We have a nation that we’ve put together, it’s called the SMR Nation, and it’s a private community that’s free, and then there’s paid levels in it. That is a tremendous amount of support for people that jump on and offer up what’s going on or share resources, so it’s a real cool collaborative group. But all that is at SMR.fm.

And what does SMR stand for? 

Sexy Marriage Radio. 

Okay, great. Sounds like this is the hub, and one can find lots of support and materials from free podcast, and even in your nation group to various paid support. You also offer coaching, and you probably have different ways that you offer support to people. So I will make sure to have that link on today’s show notes. Thank you so much for being with us today and all that you’ve offered.

This has been a lot of fun, thank you!

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching