When we don't feel liked, we can't feel loved.
A box of tissues and a capacious wastebasket - these are essential tools of my trade, second only to my cell phone and laptop. Handing out tissues is part of my job. People cry. I encourage them. Today, however, I’d misplaced the wastebasket. So tear-soaked tissues were strewn about my office like petals dropped from the magnolia trees that are blooming just now.
People come to me in agony, feeling broken, diseased, dismissed, discarded and bereft. They remember their younger years - often with pain and embarrassment, seldom with uncomplicated pleasure - and they ache for a deep memory of something they may not have ever had. I know that ache - I’ve had it myself - and I also know that our birthright of pleasure can be reclaimed.
On the radio, I recently heard Coleman Barks reading Rumi’s poem, “What Was Said to the Rose.” The first line of the poem reminded me of so many of my clients:
“What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest.”
In my practice, you see, I want to offer the kinds of words, the kinds of reassurance, that will enable my clients to open - in their bodies, to their sensuality, like a rose.
My clients have been expectant parents, successful professionals, accomplished seducers, baffled young lovers, timid novices, or those in possession of a long life stuffed with wonderful sex - but recently something’s gone wrong. My clients have been sexually conservative or kinky or poly or monogamous or tantric or all of the above, depending on who they’re with. Some like their bodies. Some don’t. Some love sex. Others would rather hold hands. Everyone wants to know if they’re normal, if they’re feeling good enough, if they feel what other people feel, or if they’re addicted to feeling so good. They want to know why their partner is different than they are. Sometimes they want to know why the sex doesn’t feel good at all.
There are basic sexual dysfunction issues, to be sure, but for those to who come me with relationship distress, I’m beginning to realize that liking is far more important than love - at least when it comes to sex. Lots of people “know” they are loved - but they don’t feel liked. They know “deep down” that their parents loved them and their partner loves them too, but they still feel rotten and less than desirable and this causes a terrible corrosive shame which eats away at the heart and soul. And this shame eats away at the body too, and I think you can guess the rest. The complications of love are often painful, convoluted, and too often lacking in simple liking.
Love is great, of course, but I really think we’re all in dire need of “unconditional like.” As a verb, “like” conveys fondness. Fondness implies acceptance, appreciation. Some of the best sex you’ll ever have can be as simple and fond as, “I like you. Let’s play.”
I am beginning to think that many of those who “stray” outside monogamous boundaries or other relationship agreements have a need to be found likeable once again. People hook up casually because they like something about the other person and they can feel how fun it is to also be desired, sought after, appreciated - even just for an hour or two. I believe the craving for “like” might even surpass the craving for sex, at least among those who clatter through life like dry bones, without emotionally nourished flesh.
I recently read The Book of Courtesans by Susan Griffin. There’s a story about the famous Ninon de Lenclos that’s apparently been told for about three hundred years. A young man could not understand the appeal of this aging courtesan and boasted that her charms would have no effect on him. The courtesan and the young man met, and she began by taking an interest in his small affairs, asking questions, perhaps admiring his clothing or appearance. Griffin says that de Lenclos probably was well aware that “the way to charm a man is to find him charming.” In other words, likeable. And more than that, her evident interest and her words (spoken as if to a rose) encourage him to open, unfurl, expose, and bloom in her presence. Upshot of the story: he was charmed and seduced indeed.
To paraphrase an old saying from the last century, “like will get you through times of no love better than love will get you through times of no like.” I believe feeling liked is linked to feeling “seen” and appreciated. This is a feeling to savor before the greasy film of daily irritation stains yet another great romance.
Perhaps one reason “couples weekends” can salvage a relationship is that each partner gets to see the other operating in a new setting and realizes that yes indeed, he or she did in fact choose an exceptional and likeable lover. Fresh vistas, fresh eyes, new outlooks. It’s invigorating. (Of course, this is only the optimistic side of things - one can just as easily drag a partner off to a tantric workshop and realize, dear god, I really have been spending the most precious years of my life with a dud.)
Oscar Wilde said, “when men give up saying what is charming, they give up thinking what is charming.” This applies to all of us - if we do not exert ourselves in nimble and active appreciation of life and its pleasures, we devolve into grumpy dullards who simply slog through it all. Giving utterance to our ongoing appreciation keeps us aware and alert for the likeable traits in our lovers. Speaking of what is charming (those things and people we see and enjoy) is the outer practice that supports and hones our internal engagement with life. And the capacity for “engagement” - a zest for life - is not only a pleasure in its own right, but is a character trait that’s often attractive to others.
Unfortunately, maintaining a sort of sovereignty over one’s own sexuality and sensual zest is difficult in many long-term relationships. People give it over and give it up, and then wonder where it went. And then they start picking on each other, or at each other, and of course nobody likes that. And often neither one knows how to stop.
The brain insane stays mainly on the pain. Those little neural grooves of discontent go round and round and eventually turn into grand canyons of despair. Many people stay in those canyons for a long, long time. Sometimes a seductive new love leans over the edge of the abyss and throws down a rope of knotted sheets. Some have spiritual or emotional epiphanies or are propelled into action by life-changing events. Others simply work at finding what they need to lift themselves and their partners out of the trench (assuming the partner is still there). I have nothing but admiration for those who come to me, willing to work at climbing up out of the muck.
But as one client said to me recently, “I don’t want to be a problem to be fixed.” I interpreted this as a desire to be a someone who is desired, enjoyed, played with, delighted in. Juicy, vibrant, likeable lovers - who doesn’t want one of those? Who doesn’t want to be one? Doesn’t this sound like fun?
However, to have a juicy lover, or be one, still means making a diligent effort to avoid the stuff that gets in the way of joy and juice. It means knowing your buttons and ignoring what happens when they get pushed. It means refusing to slog through that nice, familiar muck of preconceived notions and expectations. And sometimes that much work can seem daunting. And so when I teach “couples communication” classes (sometimes also known as “marriage education” and “pre-marital education”), I incorporate Eros and pleasure, along with “time-outs” and “speaker-listener” techniques and the other pedagogical ladder rungs. There has to be levity and the anticipation of joy. As the wonderful sex educator, Isa Magdalena, says, “it’s serious, but not THAT serious.” Juice and zest actually depend on staying in the moment, and liking it.
So remember to renew your sexual life through the practice of mindful speech. Begin to bestow your most charming words of appreciation, and still more charming thoughts, on your beloveds, including yourself. The death of pleasure and love, the shriveling of friendship, the blighting of life, just might be avoidable. So go ahead, say something that opens a rose.
(This is a revised column originally published in Carnal Nation.)