Therapy gets an upgrade; holistic approach means more integrity in your relationship and more sex.
In today's world, going to couples counseling when your relationship is falling apart is like going to the Shaman or the healer in the old days when we lived in tribes, and the ancient elder held the key to lighting fires, making rain and resolving interpersonal conflicts.
Couple's therapy can be stressful. Most of the time, you show up in treatment because your relationship is falling apart or one of you is there to drop the other person off on the way out the door.
And yet, there is a new type of therapy that might be more helpful. A more holistic, integrative approach that sees you and your partner more as whole people, with the potential to become even more whole.
According to the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology, the definition of energy psychology is "a family of integrative approaches to psychotherapy, coaching and healthcare treatment that work with the mind-body connection. These methods are helping people around the world experience rapid relief from trauma, stress, limiting beliefs and more."
In other words, the space, or the energy, between us is where intimate connection can be both expansive and healing. Yet that same space can also contain our greatest wounds and our most intractable conflicts. This compression and decompression is part of the natural flow of the universe. But sometimes we are afraid to go with the flow.
Instead, we split parts of ourselves off outside of the relationship, in order to keep the space between us free of anything that what we think might be toxic or unworthy. We split off the shadow parts, or the parts we feel are dangerous to the relationship space. We get afraid that if our partner knew these parts of us, they wouldn't love us. Or we might have felt ashamed or not good enough when we have been transparent about our desires or fantasies and when our partner judged us or rejected us, we realized these parts of ourselves are not welcome.
Sometimes this happens when we share our sexual fantasies with a partner, and it doesn't go as smoothly as we hope.
Here's an example...
Sarah asked her boyfriend John if they could act out one of her erotic fantasies. She had always wanted to try a certain kind of sex toy. He was, frankly, horrified. He had never used sex toys, and he didn't understand why he wasn't "enough" for Sarah. Inside, he felt inadequate. He was locked within a story of his unworthiness. He didn't tell Sarah how he felt. Instead, he closed down, and split off and compartmentalized a part of himself. On the outside, he told her "no way!"
And then he started watching pornography, where the women in the porn were all saying to the men in the sex scenes, "Yeah, baby, you are doing it perfectly!" This turned him on, and made him feel good about his sexuality, at least for the ten minutes that he was watching the scene. Afterward, he felt ashamed and let down. This split off part outside of this relational paradigm slowly created a compartmentalized part of himself that he couldn't share with Sarah.
Sarah felt ashamed that she had even asked. She wondered if there was something wrong with her. She buried her desire, and went back to a time in her life when her father told her she was a slut for dressing too 'sexy.' She began to feel like maybe her sexuality was too much, and she should hide it. She stopped asking for sex and stopped initiating. She dis-membered (or split off) a large part of herself, in order to try and create a relationship with John that worked.
This can work temporarily. They stopped talking about it, and both pretended everything was fine. They went on having sex the way they always had in the past. And yet eventually, both Sarah and John stopped talking about the things that upset them, the things they resented, and the things they truly desired. They become so dis-membered, they resented one another. If we dis-member ourselves and become too compartmentalized, too split off, eventually we will forget who we are. And we no longer live in integrity, we are not integrating all of the parts of ourselves.
As a therapist, I help couples re-member their dis-membered parts, the parts that are split off outside of the relationship. In a relationship, underneath our desires and our fantasies are our real longings. They can be a deeper calling to integrate our parts back into the space of the relationship. They are many times a call to wholeness. And yet being whole is not easy. To expand the energy and grow the relationship in these ways may create discomfort. Re-introducing yourself to your partner as a new person, with new parts of yourself, can feel unsettling, to both of you.
Yet integration will eventually help both partners to grow and each to become more whole. In the beginning, as the relationship stretches into new space, as it expands by exploring new ideas and new fantasies, one or both partners may fight to remain homeostatic, to resist the change. They may judge the new desire as a threat. The system itself may sense danger in the desire, and may even sabotage the expansion.
Working on an integrative level means allowing the cognitive (the head) and the affective (the heart) and the intuitive (the body) to be involved in this integration.
This way of working welcomes the dis-integrated self, and the therapist works less as an advisor or judge, but more as a shaman, bringing all the parts into the room, allowing and welcoming everything into the couples therapy.
If this self is not welcomed in, it can become unhealthy, dis-eased, or even addicted, compulsive, unloved by the person who split it off in the first place.
By using the energy fields and the "stories" of all of the people in the treatment room, the integrative therapist draws on the desires, thoughts, fantasies and intuitions of the mind, heart and bodies of the couple.
With Sarah and John, I asked them to each share the story they "made up" about what their partner's sexual desires meant about themselves, about their relationship and about their partner.
John said, "What I make up about what Sarah wants is that she really thinks I am not enough of a man for her. And what I make up about what this means about me is that if I give her the sex toys she wants she will find out I am not really satisfying her and she will leave me. And the story I make up about what this means about our relationship is that she really doesn't want me, that she wants to leave me."
I then asked him what his head tells him about those stories, what does his heart tell him and what does his intuition tell him?
He says, "My head tells me she shouldn't need a toy, but my heart tells me that's crazy, its called a toy for a reason, it would probably be a lot of fun. I know Sarah is a ton of fun, that's why we are together, I bet we could really have a blast with this. It's crazy that I am even worried about this. I know she loves me and we have a great sex life. Why wouldn't she want to try something new? She loves new things and she knows I do too. My intuition tells me that this is about me, not her. Something must have gotten triggered for me, something else or something old upset me about this. And I think I need to work on it. And maybe stop watching so much porn. I know that it's fake on some of that stuff and I should stop comparing myself to those guys. Sarah seems to be satisfied with our sex life..."
Sarah was smiling in the session. She listened while he talked, and then reached across the space between them and held his hands.
Then I asked them both to explore the energy in the room and what it felt like, was it expanding or contracting?
Many times I will ask partners to close their eyes and see if, without words, they can sense and even send energy to their partner. And if their partner is hurting, to send it where their partner needs it the most.
This creates a nonverbal sense of empathy and gets them out of their thoughts or what they make up about their partner. They can sense where their partner is the most wounded, and they learn to tune in to one another.
I also ask them to go through or scan their own body, and explore what each part of their own body has to say.
For the couple in the room, reacting as they hear the stories of their partner and responding to them with their hearts and bodies, they can then begin to integrate all the parts into the treatment and into the relationship.
In this more shamanic way of working, where we call in and welcome all the parts of the self, we create more integrity in the counseling, which is a beginning of welcoming in a new identity for the story teller and for the listener — one of connection, wholeness, balance, and joy.
I will be speaking more about this type of treatment at the AACEP in May 31st in Reston, VA on Spirituality, Mindfulness, and Altered States: An Integrated Approach with Couples and Sexuality.
The workshop will focus on creating intimacy and resolving conflict. For more info on the workshop or couples therapy, please contact me at drtammynelson.com.
Tammy Nelson, PhD, is a board-certified sexologist, a licensed professional counselor, and a certified Imago Relationship therapist. She is the author of The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity and Getting the Sex You Want; Shed Your Inhibitions and Reach New Heights of Passion Together.